There’s something important about LP records that the inventors of the compact cassette, compact disc and streaming music services evidently failed to grasp. If they were to be believed, these music delivery formats had a single function – to deliver music. Sadly, this wasn’t all an LP record delivered and later formats singularly failed in these other vital functions.
The LP record was actually an art smuggler.
It brought art into suburban, middle class homes that wouldn’t and couldn’t have been there otherwise. On the basis of the music recorded on the vinyl disc, here are some other things that snuck through the doorway of your home – things that you wouldn’t have bought, were it not for the music:
1. Modern cover art – often paintings, conceptual photography or collage, of a size large enough to notice, when you entered the room. Always eye-catching and intriguing. Sometimes, the colour palette was the most immediately recognisable and memorable feature of the album.
2. Avant garde graphic design, typography and layout – compared to most other commercial printed material, which tended to be staid, utilitarian and conservative, this was fresh, distinctive, anarchic, playful, unusual and fascinating.
3. Glimpses of exotic places in album art photographs – transporting your imagination to a different place and lifestyle.
4. Fashion – the musicians were frequently pictured in the latest couture or street fashion trend.
5. Sheer bloody poetry – in the form of otherwise incomprehensible song lyrics, printed out in full.
6. Discovery, introducing you to other artists – the list of contributors often lead to discovering other bands and records that were in a related style.
7. Thematic wholeness – concept albums tied the individual songs together in a cohesive theme, conjuring an imaginary world that was far richer than a single song could evoke on its own.
8. Strange, beautiful music – extending the musical artform to bring you creative pieces that could never have achieved airplay, which you only got to hear at all because they were affixed to the same music delivery vehicle as the hit singles.
9. Insight into the artist’s process – listings of the gear that made the sounds possible, or studio photographs, all showed snatches and glimpses of how the music was made. Very inspiring to aspiring musicians.
10. Liner notes – frequently written by talented writers, they provided supplemental background information or whimsical tales that accompanied the music.
11. Immersive experiences – lifting the needle to skip tracks was an inexact science and carried the added risk of scratching and damaging the record permanently. You tended to let the music unfold and envelop you, a whole side at a time. Impatience was curtailed. Listening was more active.
12. Playful packaging – pull-out posters, panoramic gatefolds, cardboard toys, picture discs – there was often something to play with, while you listened to the music.
13. Visible signifiers that you belonged to a certain tribe – you could tell a lot about your friends from a cursory glance at their record collections. It often immediately revealed something of their hidden selves. Harder to do with playlists.
14. Admission to participation in a thriving artistic scene, by proxy, for a short while.
Somewhere along the line, the music industry asserted that we wanted compactness, convenience, robust sound quality and low cost above all else. I don’t think they were entirely correct.
We’ve more or less lost these companion aspects of art smuggling that LP records used to succeed in bringing to audiences. It was a better experience. You were more involved. There was more art in the package to delight you. It shaped your tastes far beyond your musical preferences and taught you that creativity was possible. These pieces of smuggled art helped to define you as a person.
Today, we have digital side channels like Instagram, which can deliver some of what record sleeves did, but the format is more constrained than album sleeves were and you have to search and seek for those artworks. They don’t come bundled with the digital music stream.
There were tangible artefacts placed in your hands, which persisted in your living environment for years. Today’s music is quickly consumed and forgotten, lacking context or any sort of permanence. Digital music delivery is different, but it’s not better.