Sunday, 11 May 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 5 - 1991 to 1995

To recap. By the end of the eighties, there were three basic formats all battling it out for supremacy. Vinyl, the Cassette Tape, and the Compact Disc. Each of them had their supporters - vinyl was big enough to allow for some intricate artwork to be created for the record cover, the Cassette had had a second lease of life thanks to the Walkman, and the CD was seen as a space age invention from the future, able to jump from song to song at the press of a button whilst all the time not suffering from tape hiss or crackles where the stylus hit a scratch.

Now - as I mentioned a few months back, and it might just be the cynic in me, but there did seem to be an industry led attempt to marginalise anything other than the CD as the decade progressed. CD’s were the most expensive format to buy, and if the labels could get you to upgrade from LP’s and MC’s to the super duper CD format, then they would be quids in. I remember albums being about a fiver in the mid 80s, whereas CD’s were quite safely selling for a minimum of double figures. So, a 100% profit was on the cards if they could win you over.

Let’s take the album concept first of all. In reality, the Cassette should have been the clear winner here. You could, without too much hassle, create a 90 minute album on this format without fear of tape stretching or reduced sound - trying to make a 60 minute album squeeze onto the vinyl LP format always put you in danger of destroying the ’dynamic range’. The CD, when first launched, was limited to a 74 minute running time - sometimes not long enough to include several double LP’s that were knocking about when it came to reissue them on CD (see the “short” version of Elton’s “Blue Moves” which was first issued on CD in the 80s).

But the sound quality of the CD, in general, was impressive. It was the closest you could get to how the music had originally sounded on the master tapes, and whilst it can always be dangerous to tip your hat to a format that seemed to have “yuppy” written all over it, let’s face it, it was a damn clever invention. And the labels knew this. And so, whilst Cassette albums began to feature an extra song not on the vinyl edition, easily achievable because of the ease with which you could do this on tape, the CD editions often went one stage further, and offered two tracks. This concept of adding "CD only" bonus tracks started to become so commonplace, the consumer soon found they would have no choice but to upgrade to the format to avoid missing out on these bonuses. The film industry pulled the same stunt in the noughties when DVD killed the VHS, courtesy of - amongst other things - the “bonus featurettes“.

The Shergolds upgraded to CD in about 1990. Not all albums, we found, went down the bonus tracks route - at one point I ended up, somehow, with LP and CD editions of “Queen At The Beeb” which featured the same eight songs whichever format you bought, so no idea how I landed up with the same basic album twice. But vinyl was starting to frustrate me - singles and albums would often jump despite not having a scratch on them, it was down to either a poor pressing, a stylus that was the “wrong weight” or there would be some dust stuck in the grooves only identifiable via microscope. CD’s, simply, were generally less hassle. I once spent about 4 hours trying to get a 55 minute long Madonna US 12” promo to play from start to finish. I was sweating by the time I got to the end.

The prices of the Compact Disc didn’t really go down once Joe Public switched allegiance. You just gritted your teeth as you shelled out £12.99 for a bonus track less version of Lou Reed’s “Magic And Loss”. This was just the way it was - the CD was starting to stamp it’s authority all over the album market, and soon enough, there was no real difference between what was surfacing on the CD editions when compared to their vinyl and cassette cousins - because by now, large numbers of people had upgraded, and EMI and their ilk were rolling in profits without the need to stick “CD only” bonuses on the new releases. You were paying, really, for the “quality” of the product.

Also running alongside, and in many ways, the single most important event in allowing future managing directors of major labels to access a ready made cash cow, was the “CD Reissue“. When the CD had first hovered into view in the eighties, a lot of old albums were simply transferred onto CD and looked, and sounded, just like they did on vinyl. Rarely was an attempt made to use the extra space on the 74 minute long disc to shoehorn on new material. “Ziggy” still ended with “Rock N Roll Suicide”. But from the late 80s onwards, a number of concerted reissue campaigns were conducted whereby the consumer would be rewarded in buying an album they already had, by the inclusion of some “previously unreleased” material being shoved onto the end of these records. Yes, sometimes, the decision to do this meant that an album that had previously ended ‘properly’ now ended with some haphazard demos, but occasionally, some of this new “old” material was quite thrilling - the “early” live version of Costello’s “Everyday I Write The Book”, which sounds like a different song entirely to the studio mix, Bowie’s near psychotic early 70s outtake “Bombers” - and so it was difficult to complain. The bonuses were often quite selective, not always did a revamped CD of an old album now have a 70 minute long running time, but the idea worked well - if somebody was going to rebuy on CD something they already had on LP or Tape, then why not say “thanks” to them by giving them some new songs, or some B-sides they might have missed? The timing of the Bowie and Costello reissues had coincided with the Shergold household getting it’s CD player, and so everyone was happy. Not only now did we have a copy of “Diamond Dogs” that didn’t jump on “Future Legend”, but there was a couple of new tunes on the end. Nice.

Trouble was, the idea of reissuing old records became commonplace, and once the Bowie and Costello events were over, there was somebody else getting in on the act. As the mid 90s approached, there did seem to be quite a bit of product appearing on the shelves - you’d have a new Elton John album appearing at the same time as a reissue of an old one, and you seemed to need to have a bigger income than you had done five years previously in order to keep up. I reacted to this, circa 1994, by reverting my purchasing to the world of the Cassette Album. Some acts, simply, had never gone down the “bonus tracks on my new studio album” route, and so it seemed a bit silly to pay £11.99 for “Bedtime Stories” when the - identical sounding - tape was £7.99. I had also found out, by this point, that CD’s were not quite as indestructible as they supposedly were - enough scratches on the playing surface would be enough for them to get stuck, whilst some simply skipped for no real reason. And let’s not forget those ones that later “bronzed” themselves into a permanent coma.

It wasn’t so easy to do this in the world of the single though. The invention of the double CD single set (see last month) often made other formats less desirable, or in some cases, defunct and pointless, and even the indie kids found themselves often having no choice but to buy upper class formats like the CD, as opposed to the “keeping it real” cool format that was the 7” - because the other formats were offering nothing rare. By the spring of 1991, the chart regulators had placed a restriction on the number of formats per single so that no more than five would be eligible for the chart - and this, eventually, would help the CD rise to the top.

As the months progressed, the powers that be remained concerned at the tricks being pulled by the labels in the singles charts. There was still a consensus that allowing multiple formats could allow the big labels a chance to “rig” themselves a nifty chart position for their acts, and so in 1992, the formats allowed dropped from five to four. This was a major turning point in the future of the 45. Two of those formats, usually, would be the two halves of the “double CD set”, and then it was just a case of working out what else might still have a chance of selling. So, it might be a 7” and a 12”, or a 7” and a Tape, or a Tape and a 12” - different labels, different artists, it worked differently for most.

I know I often refer to Ms Ciccone on this site, but I have so many of her records that, again, it makes sense to look at Madonna to see just how this manoeuvre started the long, slow, and painful death of the single. The double CD single approach was becoming so much an industry standard, that her label figured she needed to get on board. Trouble was, Madonna didn’t really “do” flipsides. So, “Take A Bow” appeared on two CD’s in late 94, with the exact same track listing on each version, but with one in a different sleeve and with some free postcards inside. The vinyl lobbyists would probably have preferred a 12” edition instead, but this was the future. But even more worrying was that her previous 45, “Secret”, became her first UK single to not be issued on a black vinyl 7” at all - it appeared as a picture disc only - which was a big event, because the black vinyl 7” had been a regular outlet for Madonna material since 82. “Take A Bow” is, at the time of writing, the last Madonna single to have been issued on any form of UK 7” at all - issued as an attractive picture disc, every 45 since has been on tape, 12” or CD only. The end was in sight.

The situation worsened in 1995, when the chart rules changed again, cutting the numbers allowed from four to three. If Frankie had still been going, this would have been a good thing for anybody who loved them but had no money - but the fear was that other formats, especially vinyl, would lose out as a result. The British Association of Record Dealers voiced their concerns, but the decision was made. What we now had was a double CD single release for most singles, and then, well, whatever was left for format number three. Just as Madonna ditched the 7” in the UK when this happened, so did - briefly - acts who had previously been quite pro-vinyl, such as Blur and Pulp. Seemingly overnight, the freedom of choice that had been offered to the consumer had gone - most albums and singles being released were now appearing on CD with something "exclusive" contained within, and whilst some reissue campaigns dabbled with vinyl and tape, the most high profile ones too were CD only - see the second wave of Elton reissues from the nineties, and Castle’s repressingss of the old Pye era Kinks albums. I was still in the middle of my “I hate vinyl and I hate CD’s” phase, so I was surviving on Cassette albums, occasional Cassette singles, and any new records bought on anything else were usually for collectors purposes only, being shoved straight into a box without being played minutes after arriving home from HMV.

Vinyl and Cassette, of course, weren’t dead - just resting. But they had suddenly been pushed into the shade by the hyping of the CD by the labels, and the format restrictions in place in the singles charts. With sales of vinyl starting to decline, some shops stopped stocking vinyl records altogether - Woolworths abandoned them in 1994 if my memory serves me correctly. The CD hadn’t quite taken over entirely just yet. But there was another sneaky trick up the record companies sleeves that they were about to unleash on the album charts to really hit home the "usefulness" of the Compact Disc.

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