In June 1948, a small group of reporters and music industry insiders gathered at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to hear about Columbia Records’ latest invention: the vinyl long-player.
Thanks to newly developed micro-groove techniques, this new disc — which spun at 33 and 1/3 revolutions per minute — could hold up to 25 minutes of music on one side, compared to the three to five minutes per side on the 78 rpm shellac discs that were in use at the time.
This was a quantum leap in music recording and playback technology, an area that hadn’t seen much change at all since the 78 rpm disc became the standard in the late 1920s.
At the press conference, Columbia Records president Edward Wallerstein demonstrated this new innovation in a uniquely visual fashion.
On one side of him, there stood a stack of 325 tracks of music issued as 78 rpm records. On the other, he had the same 325 tracks embedded in the new-fangled vinyl LP. One tower stood nearly 8 ft high. The other? Just over 15 inches.
Even before the reporters got to hear the new format (and its superior sound quality), they knew they were witnessing a turning point in music history.
But nobody, not even Wallerstein, could have predicted just how transformative the long-playing record, or LP, would be. It changed how we create, consume, even think about music. The increased playing time led to the birth of the album. The idea of the album, a cohesive collection of songs, would challenge and eventually replace the pop single as the dominant music format. It remains the dominant format today.
The LP revolutionised how jazz, pop and classical music were recorded, consumed and composed (more on this in a bit). It midwifed the idea of the rock “concept album”, by encouraging the creation of longer, more cohesive musical works. It helped define the modern canon of popular music.
Today, 75 years after its introduction, and long after digital streaming became the dominant main way we consume our favourite tunes, the vinyl LP continues to cast an oversized shadow. It’s even making a comeback, with artists ranging from Billie Eilish and Kendrick Lamar to Prabh Deep and Arjun Vagale releasing new music on collectible vinyl LPs.
No other format — not the CD, not the much-maligned MP3 player, and certainly not the app — has so captured the imagination. As classical pianist Glenn Gould prophetically declared in an article in High Fidelity magazine in 1966: “The long-playing record has come to embody the very reality of music.”
So, how did it all begin?
Soon after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, artistic ambition began to rub up against the two-minute time limit imposed by early phonograph cylinders and discs.
By 1903, a shellac disc could hold three to four minutes of music on one side. But it turned out that the four-minute barrier just couldn’t be breached, at least not in a commercially viable format.
Record companies tried over and over. In 1904, the UK company Neophone launched a 20-inch disc for longer recordings of opera music, but it was so large and unwieldy that one needed special equipment to play it. It flopped.
Edison tried too, creating a 12-inch 80 rpm record in 1926 that could hold 20 minutes of audio per side. Bad sound quality and an expensive production process scuttled that attempt.
RCA Records (then RCA Victor) launched their first commercial LP, spinning at 33 1/3 rpm, in November 1931. These 10- and 12-inch discs were also among the first to abandon shellac for vinyl, or more specifically a proprietary vinyl compound called Victrolac.
But the timing was unfortunate. Between sound quality issues and the need for expensive playback equipment amid the Great Depression, Wallerstein, then a general manager at RCA, was forced to pull the plug on the project in 1933.
He didn’t give up on the idea, though. When he moved to Columbia Records in 1939, Wallerstein sanctioned yet another attempt. For the next eight years, a team of researchers led by engineer Peter Goldmark (who is also credited with inventing the colour TV), toiled to create an LP that could work as advertised.
Their eventual success was a result of clever engineering, the discoveries of earlier pioneers, and quirks of history and geography.
The most fundamental factor that dictates the playing time of an acoustic disc is the number of grooves that can fit into a given area. Sound vibrations are inscribed into these grooves, picked up by a record player’s stylus, relayed to a reader that converts them into electrical signals; the signals are then sent to an amplifier that turns them into sound.
The problem with fitting more sound onto a disc with shellac was that the material didn’t allow for grooves to be cut too close together. The material, essentially a resin, was too brittle.
Vinyl, a synthetic polymer, allowed for much finer groove-spacing.
The problem was that vinyl was much more expensive than shellac. And it would remain so until 1939, and World War 2. The world’s primary source of shellac was the female lac beetle found in the Malay Peninsula (parts of modern-day Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar) and French Indochina (present-day Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam). With both regions occupied by the Japanese, the Allied countries were cut off. Suddenly, vinyl looked like a much more economically viable material.
Vinylite, the compound used for the Columbia LPs in 1948, allowed up to 300 grooves to be cut per inch. That, combined with the slower spin speed, meant the new records could hold up to 50 minutes of audio.
The new material could reproduce a wider range of frequencies accurately too, and recorded audio with greater clarity.
Two shrewd business decisions helped immensely at the launch. First, the Columbia team created an adapter that allowed older phonograph machines to play their new LPs, and sold them at cost price. Second, they refrained from patenting their new technology, encouraging other companies to adopt the format.
Combined, this made for widespread adoption by consumers and record companies. RCA Victor was the only major company to hold out, continuing with its own 7-inch 45 rpm format for about two years, until commercial realities forced it to switch in 1950.
The LP was a resounding success. Everything about its timing helped too, including the post-World War 2 consumption boom in Europe and the US.
In the first six months, Columbia sold 1.25 million records, making it the undisputed industry leader. By the time of the LP’s heyday in the early 1970s, just one UK pressing plant, EMI’s facility at Hayes, was pressing 250,000 records a day.
For half a century, the 78 rpm disc had defined the parameters of popular music. Blues, R&B, country and rock-‘n’-roll artists limited themselves by default to three- to five-minute singles. Classical music, on the other hand, had derived its format from the live concert. It was for its extended play that the LP was created.
The first composition Columbia pressed on its new format was the New York Philharmonic playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.
But it didn’t take long for musicians to realise the creative potential of a 50-minute sonic canvas. Jazz, for instance, had retained its core identity as improvisational music best heard live; jazz artists and fans had chafed against the four-minute limit. Now, they could finally toss it aside.
Duke Ellington’s 1952 album Hi-Fi Ellington Uptown, which featured the 13-minute-long Tone Parallel to Harlem, led the way. Soon, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie were using the freedom of the long-player to experiment with modality, tape-editing and free-improvisation, pushing the genre’s envelope into exciting new territory.
In India, Hindustani classical musicians, who had long been wary of the 78 rpm record because of how one had to butcher traditional compositions to fit the format, took to the LP as well.
Sarod master Ali Akbar Khan’s 1955 album, Music of India (Morning and Evening Ragas), marked the first time that ragas were recorded for an LP. Its success, and the success of records released around the same time by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, led more classical musicians to turn to the format.
This sowed the seeds for jazz-fusion, and for the hippie generation’s fascination with India.
The genre that would help define the legacy of the LP, however, was pop music.
Early pop LPs were simply collections of an artist’s previous hits. That changed with Elvis Presley. His first two albums, both self-titled and released in 1956, were among the first LPs to feature previously unreleased material written exclusively for the format.
Around the same time, Frank Sinatra, drawing from how he curated his live shows, began organising his LPs by mood and sound, an idea that was soon picked up by others such as Cliff Richard, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
The impact of the technology is part of the reason that the 1960s Beatles fans were so entranced by Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album used every tool that the LP afforded: new studio techniques (such as artificial double-tracking, and extensive pitch control), narrative unity, the use of reprises to link the two sides thematically and sonically. And there was its innovative sleeve — a pop-art explosion that represented ancient cultures, contemporary thinkers, actors, goddesses, soldiers and singers.
Sgt Pepper’s elevated the LP from a container of songs to an artistic object in its own right. Its producer George Martin would later call the LP “sculpture in music”.
The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who and plenty of other acts would push the limits of this new medium, innovating as they went along (see the story alongside, on iconic sleeve art, for more on this). In 1980, innovation reached a kind of peak when Stiff Records sold 40,000 copies of an LP titled The Wit And Wisdom Of Ronald Reagan, made up of 40 minutes of silence.
When the oil crisis in 1973 sent the cost of vinyl soaring, it accelerated the industry’s efforts to find a replacement. The compact disc or CD was eventually launched commercially in 1982, with arguably superior sound quality and greater durability. By the early 1990s, it had dethroned the LP. But nothing would or could ever replace the long-playing record.
As musicologist Richard Osborne puts it in his 2012 book Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record: “Our idea of what constitutes a classic long-form recording remains tied to the aesthetics of the 12″ vinyl disc.”
Lately, in a strange, spectral version of its initial success, the LP has been making a comeback.
In 2022, for the first time in 35 years, the LP outsold the CD (by units) in the US, according to data from the Recording Industry Association of America, making it the second-highest-selling format in the US (an admittedly distant second to streaming revenue). It’s been 75 years since the LP began to change the world; perhaps it’ll change it all over again.