Friday, November 9, 2007

Music Format Evolution: 101

Newer may not be better when it comes to music formats

When was the last time you heard someone say, "Man, you've got to hear that song on cassette tape"? Chances are better that someone has come up to you in a music store and talked up the wonder that is vinyl sound quality, even though vinyl predated cassettes by several decades.

Recorded music started out with bulky 78 recordings back in the early 1900s and progressed through LPs, 8-tracks, CDs and finally digital music. Some of these audio media became collectibles, while others faded away. But what ensures one format a longer shelf life than another?

Here's a breakdown of audio formats that provides some clues as to why some have stood the test of time while others ended up in the media graveyard.

What they are: The 78 was one of the first methods people had of listening to recorded music in the early 1900s. The heavy records played at 78 rpm and could hold one song each.

Why they were so great: The 78 was the dawn of the age of recorded music. People could listen to their favorite musicians without attending a live performance.
Why they tanked: The 78s were very heavy and fragile. Also, each record could only hold one song per side. However, 78s introduced the world to recordings by jazz and blues artists that are now considered classics. Some of these originals are highly collectible. A recent visit to eBay had individual 78s selling for 99 cents to $150.

What they are: The long-playing record is what most people think of when they hear the word "album." The 10-inch vinyl discs were introduced in the late 1940s.

Why they were so great: LPs could hold a dozen songs and were less fragile than 78s. Listeners also purchased records as much for the packaging as for the music. The Rolling Stones used 3-D art for the cover of "Their Satanic Majesty's Request," and the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" LP included a special multi-book insert about the album.

Why they hung on: Vinyl is back, according to Chris Leibrandt, owner of GrassRoots Music & Books in Ocean City. Leibrandt attributes vinyl's survival to the sound quality (which some audiophiles claim is warmer and richer than that found on a CD), the collectible album inserts and cover art and the "tactile" or touchable nature of vinyl. Artists such as Amy Winehouse and Bruce Springsteen continue to release new albums on vinyl, and record enthusiasts can still purchase turntables at Best Buy or record stores. Want to know how valuable some people think LPs are? "The Captain and Tennille's Greatest Hits" was recently seen on eBay with an asking price of $40.

What they are: The 8-track was popular from the 1960s to the 1980s. The plastic cartridges could play eight songs at a time on an endless reel-to-reel loop.

Why they were so great: The 8-track was much more convenient than vinyl records. Tape players were smaller than record turntables. "Boom boxes" and tape decks in cars allowed listeners to take their music with them.

Why they tanked: The 8-track never really took off as a collectible due to convenience. The tapes were bulky and couldn't be rewound. Leibrandt recalled having to shove matchbooks into his 8-track player to keep it from eating the tape.

What they are: Compact cassettes were smaller, more portable versions of 8-track tapes used between the 1960s and early 2000s.

Why they were so great: Compact cassettes had rewinding capabilities so listeners could hear a song over again. They also were one of the first methods used to "steal" music from albums or the radio. Who hasn't made or received a mix tape at some point in their lives?

Why they tanked: Cassettes were more about convenience than quality. The sound quality on cassettes was poor compared with records and CDs. Listeners had to constantly rewind and fast forward the tape to get to a particular song.

Compact discs
What they are: CDs have been available since 1982. Digital data (in this case, music) is stored on thin, record-shaped discs usually about 43/4 inches in diameter.

Why they are so great: CDs are much easier to work with than cassettes and can hold more songs. There's no rewinding, fast forwarding or rethreading tape when it gets stuck in the player. Just hit the track number and go. CDs can be copied with no loss to sound quality.

Why they may hang on: CDs are teetering on the edge, as sales have plummeted in recent years. The discs tend to scratch and skip if overused, and in some cases, listeners have found that some burned CDs lose their information over time as the disc's protective coating wears down. Some companies have tried to renew interest with special packages, such as the entire Led Zeppelin catalog on CD with inserts.

Digital music (MP3s)
What it is: Digital music, the latest incarnation of listening technology, makes music available on computers, minuscule iPods and cell phones.

Why it's so great: MP3s cut out the middleman. Rather than spending $15 on a CD full of digital music, listeners can download whatever song they want from the computer straight to an MP3 player. Digital music also is cheaper thanks to free-music Web sites and file sharing.

Why it may hang on: Digital music may be the final frontier when it comes to listening to music. In addition to coming out with new MP3s, music lovers are converting their old media (records, 8-tracks, etc.) to MP3s to preserve them. The only roadblock to digital success is that the music tends to lose its sound quality when compressed into an MP3. Also, anyone who has ever suffered a hard drive crash knows that making something digital doesn't necessarily mean it is permanent.

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