Wednesday, 12 March 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 3 - The 1980s

With the 12” now established as the cousin to the 7” single, the Eighties saw the rise of the Cassette and the invention of the Compact Disc. Not only did these formats give the vinyl LP a run for their money, but the single had also started to appear on these formats. By the end of the 80s, it had become commonplace for any album, or any “45”, to have appeared on these three ‘standard’ formats.

Although the Cassette had existed in the 60s and 70s, it had always seemed to be like the ugly duckling when compared to the swan like qualities of the vinyl album. The packaging was too small to allow for any sort of fancy inlay designs, you were lucky to get any lyrics printed inside, and tapes were prone to hissing. But when Sony’s Walkman allowed people to listen to music on the move, Cassettes seemed to get a second lease of life. Instead of buying something on album, then copying it onto a blank C90, a lot of people simply cut out the middle man and bought the latest album by their favourite artist on tape.

The Compact Disc was designed more as a high tech format - yes, the standard CD had a running time approaching 75 minutes in length, longer than the general LP, but the main selling point about the format was that it was - supposedly - indestructible, it did not “hiss” like a tape, nor were there any pops or scratches as you might find on vinyl. For the most part, CD’s did or did not play, and when they did, the sound quality was perfect. Yes, in later years, people started moaning about “compression” and “the loudness war” but, be honest, most CD’s you listen to on a stereo system do actually sound quite good.

In terms of using these new formats within the world of the single, well, it was a strange one. Whilst a 7” single simply played for less time than a 12” because of it’s size, Cassette Singles or CD Singles could be as long or as short as you wanted them to be. To be honest, not many appeared in the UK during most of the 1980s, and when they did, different approaches seemed to be taken for each release, possibly because nobody knew what the standard approach should be. When Frankie issued “Warriors Of The Wasteland” as a CD Single in 1986, it was issued as a bizarre one track 24 minute long mega mix consisting of other remixes of the song. Bowie’s 1981 single “Scary Monsters” appeared on Cassette, mirroring the 2 track 7” that was far more commonly available, but he then spent most of the rest of the decade not issuing anything on the format at all.

But over in the world of the album, these two formats were starting to knock the popularity of the vinyl record about a bit. Vinyl albums, generally, were restricted - on single disc releases - to a running time between 40-60 minutes, but you could usually get twice this amount on a cassette. A number of acts began to use the format to shoehorn on “bonus tracks”, such as the bonus dub mixes on Madonna’s “You Can Dance” in 1987, or the entire second half of exclusive live tracks that surfaced on The Cure’s 1984 “Concert” release, a trick they repeated on two other albums in the same decade.

Another 1980s style piece of quirkyness was to use the extra playing time offered by the MC or CD to feature longer versions of the tracks on the format, when compared to the vinyl pressing. Examples of this included Bowie’s much maligned 1987 effort “Never Let Me Down”, where the agony of the LP version was prolonged even further thanks to the inclusion of “extended” mixes of several songs.

Whilst the use of “longer” mixes on non vinyl copies of albums was, in the main, actually usually quite rare, it became increasingly common, especially into the early part of the 90s, to add bonus tracks to the CD editions, this making the other formats somewhat defunct. Whilst the bonus dub mixes on the cassette edition of “You Can Dance” differed in part to those on the CD edition, suggesting it was all done so as to be pitched at the collectors market, the idea of sticking on extra “non vinyl” tracks became more and more regular on CD, to the point that it almost made the consumer feel as though they were being cheated out of buying records on LP and Cassette, as the likes of Bowie’s “Black Tie White Noise” and The Stones’ “Voodoo Lounge” both offered expanded track listings on the CD pressings. One argument was that, because they cost more to buy, CD purchasers should thus be rewarded with something extra, but the more cynical might argue it was a record company ruse to try and kill of the LP and the Cassette, and thus “force” the public to buy the higher priced CD releases.

It was a slightly different story where the single was concerned though, as the Cassette and CD found themselves starting to occupy a specific space within the world of the 45 fanatic. Both formats really started to be pressed on a more regular basis towards the end of the 80s, and by the early part of the following decade, it was nigh on impossible to find a major release that was NOT being issued on both formats - along with the vinyl releases. Cassettes continued to have something of an identity crisis, as nobody knew how short or long they should be. In the US, a lot of releases appeared as both standard 2 track singles, mirroring the accompanying 7” release (and seemed to be more popular), but also as EP style “maxi singles”, priced more expensively, naturally. But in the UK, it was usually one or the other. Although some releases as late as 1995 were turning up as 4 track Cassingles (see Sheryl Crow’s “Can’t Cry Anymore”), the industry standard was for the Cassette to replicate the 7” releases, and were thus usually quite cheap. One theory was that the floating voter was moving away from vinyl, and most stereos had a tape deck as standard, so people began to gravitate towards the format as vinyl started to get marginalised within the industry. By the early noughties, the Cassette had something of a second lease of life, as pop acts like Atomic Kitten used the format to include exclusive mixes as B-sides (thus giving something “unique” to fans who couldn’t afford CD’s, whilst also meaning the completists had to shell out for an extra format, thus increasing revenue and a potentially better chart placing), and even the odd indie band dipped their toe in the water, with The Divine Comedy issuing “The Certainty Of Chance” on the format with the unavailable-anywhere-else “Maryland Electric Rainstorm” as the extra track on the tape format.

At first, nobody quite knew how to market the CD Single either. How could you make something capable of lasting 75 minutes short enough to be considered a single? One option was to make it smaller, and thus the 3” CD was born. Hugely popular in Japan, where they were issued in awkward-to-store “snap-packs”, 3 inches wide, but some 7 inches in length, doing this automatically restricted the playing time down to something approaching 20 minutes. But logistically, the 3” wasn’t a great format. Many stereo systems had front loading CD decks, which simply couldn’t play them, so you needed an adapter to fit around the disc to make it 5 inches in diameter. Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” appeared as a 3”, but with a free adapter inside and was thus housed in a standard sized CD case, so that more or less defeated the object. The first three singles from Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” album all appeared as 3” CD Singles, in 3” square sleeves - which were then housed inside a plastic 5” square carrying case, thus defeating the object yet again. By 1990, the 5” format was adopted as a UK industry standard, although some late 90s releases by REM and Catatonia were done as 3” releases in snap-packs purely for “collectible” purposes.

In order to try and identify, from a visual aspect, a CD Album from a CD Single, the singles usually came in thinner jewel cases, with thus slightly “simpler” packaging, or in simple card sleeves. The idea being, therefore, that the “width” of the spine would tell you if it was an album or a single. Of course, plenty of people then issued singles in thick jewel cases, which consistently confused charity shops, who insisted on marking up old Stereolab CD Singles at £3 a pop, more than what they had cost when first released!

And so, to clarify, where did this put the industry as the nineties hovered into view? Well, albums were being issued on LP, Cassette and CD, sometimes with identical track listings on each, sometimes not. Even as late as 1995, some reissue campaigns in the UK were being carried out on both CD and Cassette (the Abcko reissues of the old Stones albums), whilst other reissue campaigns became CD only (the UK reissues of the later RCA Bowie LP’s). The single was invariably being issued on 7”, 12”, Cassette and CD, with vinyl pressings often being done as limited editions in fold out sleeves, or with free posters, pressed on coloured vinyl or as picture discs. It was not unknown for some acts to see their latest 45 issued on some seven or eight formats (Madonna’s “Vogue” or The Stones’ “Rock And A Hard Place”), where black vinyl pressings doubled up with “collectible” versions but in many instances, the actual TRACKLISTING was mirrored from one format to another. Fancied getting the Inspiral Carpets single “Two Worlds Collide” with all the new material on when it surfaced in 1992? Well both the 12” or the CD would do the job, nothing more, nothing less. Just because a single was due to come out on six different editions, it didn’t mean you were being EXPECTED to buy all six. You paid your money, and took your choice. In truth, some labels indulged in this madness, and others didn’t. Frankie were still trying all sorts of tricks even as they breathed their last breath.

So what could potentially have been a record collecting minefield, was not quite as bad as you might have imagined. In some respects, the problems really started when the chart regulators began to think that allowing too many formats had the aura of potential “chart rigging” to it, and they began to hit the Frankie’s of this world by beginning a restriction on the number of formats allowed per single. But strangely, this seemed to cause more problems than it was supposed to solve. Tune in next month where we shall look at the greatest industry fiddle in the UK that was ever seen.

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