If the LP finally dies, what will become of the studio?
This year marks (roughly) the 50th anniversary of a pair of albums that were foundational landmarks in the record-production process. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was released in May 1966. It used the recording studio as much as an integral element in the production as it did simply as a place where it occurred. Substantial parts of the record were written in the studio, something that simply wasn’t done back then. When the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper a year later, they took the notion of the studio as an instrument (in this case Abbey Road Studio 2) even further.
The relationship between the LP and recording studios would deepen over the next three and more decades. Remember that before the LP (as we came to know it) became the industry’s standard format, they were usually little more than vehicles for collections of often disparate singles after they’d had their individual runs up the charts. It was largely a singles business through much of the 1960s, and the recording studios of the era reflected that: mostly corporately owned facilities in big cities that acted as factories for the many major labels of the time, and smatterings of independent ones that catered to niches like country, jazz and race records.
The label-owned studios were simply departments within large corporations and didn’t have their own P&Ls; the indies of the day were cottage businesses that often also did local and regional jingles and other types of audio work to keep the doors open and the flanges spinning. But once those two seminal LPs of the modern rock era took off, so did the fortunes of recording studios — both in terms of the corporate facilities, whose big spaces and microphone collections, built over decades, became hot property, and of the explosive growth of independent studios, which quickly branched into multi-room facilities. It might seem odd to think of it now, but there were times that artists and producers had to wait months for the studios of their choice to finally have time become available for them. Bookings went from the typical three-hour session that was built around the musician’s union rate to months-long lockouts and invoice amounts that could put your kid through private school.
A big part of that was due to the rise of the LP. The album was now looked upon as a discrete project, an end in and of itself. Even when there was only the barest of themes to hold it together — more often than not just a clever title — the album became the currency of music, and the studios were printing money as a result. That only accelerated in the mid-1980s, as the Compact Disc gained traction. The LP’s 20 minutes or so per side expanded to the CD’s nearly 80 uninterrupted minutes, resulting in albums that had as many as 14 or more songs, some of which were out-and-out crap and some of which would go on to become deep-catalogue gems. Whatever — more time in the studio!
We can look at the technology shifts that led to the decline of those glorious days — the shift to digital, the simplification and productisation of once-complicated recording systems (I’m talking to you, PortaStudio). And all that would be accurate and valid. But we’re going through another inflection point at the moment. As streaming has become the primary mode for music distribution, it’s pushed the concept of the LP even further towards extinction. Even during the legitimate download era, in the first decade of this century, LP sales fell but the idea remained cohesive, with consumers allowed to buy a collection of songs just as the artists had put them together, with the click of a mouse. It enabled the charts, which had been music’s main metric for the better part of a century, to remain the agreed-upon yardstick, by calling the download of any 10 songs by then same artist an ‘album’ for sales’ measurement sake.
But streaming, which surpassed downloads in 2016 as music’s main moneymaker, has stretched the idea to the breaking point. Even the numbers seem a bit cartoonish — now it takes 1500 streams to equal what it took 10 downloads to do last year. Want a platinum sales award? That’ll cost you 1.5 billion streams.
This cannot help but have an effect on recording studios, which are already competing with laptop-toting producers for the projects of major artists.
There are some bright spots. Though overall album sales are down nearly 14 percent so far this year, vinyl album sales mid-year are up 20.4 percent over the same period last year, and the slide in CD album sales has slowed, back in the single digits at 3.9 percent for the first six months of 2017. More than 3.2 million vinyl LPs were sold last year, a rise of 53 percent over 2016 and the highest number since 1991 — the year Ed Sheeran was born. Vinyl is projected to sell 40 million units in 2017, with sales hitting the $1 billion benchmark for the first time, a seventh consecutive year of double-digit growth. Vinyl is still a very small slice of the pie — with music sales expected to reach approximately $15 billion this year, vinyl will account for less than six percent of that. But along with CDs, physical album sales still account for 53.4 percent of all album sales in 2017 at the midpoint.
The intrinsic value of music had been helped by the fact that you had to pay for it when it was available only in the form of a record, a cassette or a CD. The gossamer nature of a download was offset to some extent by its connection to some physical medium, whether it was a laptop or an iPod or a smartphone — you had to put it somewhere, at least until the cloud became ubiquitous. Music’s migration to a wholly intangible format, in the form of streaming, has accelerated the decline of its perceptual and actual value, because it’s just too easy to get for free — most streaming access is still via unpaid, ad-supported subscriptions — and it no longer requires even the most basic physical connection. It’s making the notion of the LP irrelevant.
I believe that the correlation between LPs and studios is a subset of the one between physical media and music. It’s a relationship that communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who famously pointed out that “the medium is the message,” might have found interesting: what becomes of the LP is at least a cautionary tale for the studios they are recorded in.