Among many other things, the ongoing stream of news about Björk’s new Biophilia project has got us thinking about the various ways in which music has been released over the years. Biophilia‘s idea of releasing song as interactive iPad applications seems to be all the rage at the moment — along with Björk, Belgian duo Soulwax have just released a series of mixes as iOS applications that are “like musical films based on the record sleeves,” which look way cool and are also free to download. It’s all a far cry from the days of going out and getting hold of your favorite artist’s new CD. But a brief look at the history of music shows, it’s often — although not always — innovators and creative trailblazers who’ve embraced new formats and the possibilities they hold. Over the next few pages, we survey these restless innovators, both musical and technological (along with those people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time).
The 33rpm LP
Recorded music had been around ever since Thomas Edison came up with the idea of inscribing a groove onto a wax cylinder, but by the early 20th century, the limitations of the 78rpm disc were pretty clear — the format mean that pieces longer than about five minutes couldn’t be released without being split across sides. The answer came in the form of the microgroove 33rpm record, first launched by Victor in 1931 with a recording of Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Unfortunately, the idea was ahead of its time, and trying to launch a new format in the middle of the Great Depression was perhaps not the greatest business decision that anyone’s ever made; despite its excellent sound quality and far greater playing time, the 33rpm LP stiffed and was pulled off the market two years later. Happily, however, it didn’t go the way of Betamax, DCCs, and other failed formats — it was relaunched in 1948 by Columbia and was a roaring success.