Collecting and Listening

As a member of Kostis Kourelis’ book club, we were encouraged to read Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price (2014). The book describes the remarkable world of 78 rpm record collectors. 78 rpm records were produced largely before the war (although they were made until the 1960s) and usually contained pop music, “race music” (including blues and jazz that were marketed largely to an African American audience), and “ethnic music” that was not widely played on the radio. The discs themselves measured 10 inches across and were usually made of  a hodgepodge of unreliable materials that allowed for the fledgling recording business able to produce and circulate music quickly. Most of the masters for these cheap records are lost and in many cases the only recordings that we have of prewar pop music exist on the handful of poorly manufactured discs held dear by collectors.

In fact, Petrusich argued that collectors of prewar 78s attracted the attention of folk and blues artists starting in the 1960s (and Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music was often their introduction to music recorded originally on 78 rpm discs) and spurred the popular revival of these genres. This connection to 78s  has continued to attract the attention of Jack White and a handful of other oldey timey music fans. 

I won’t review this wonderful book, but I do want to use it to make a few little observations about how we listen to music (and some of my comments relate to my interest in recent trends among audiophiles).

1. Authentic Sound. One of the most remarkable things about the survival of 78 rpm records is the incredibly poor quality of many of the prewar discs. First off, the record labels made these discs of schellac which was a rather fragile and inconsistent material that did not lend itself to consistent pressings. Compounding matters is that up until 1924 or so, recordings were made by the “acoustical” method. That is, the performers played into a horn that amplified the sound enough to move a cutting stylus across a master cylinder of wax. These recordings could not capture the same sonic range as later electrical recordings made into microphones, but are more coveted by collectors. The inconsistent character of shellac discs, however, continued to compromise quality at playback as did the tendency to press records that did not play at precisely 78rpm and used various frequency response curves idiosyncratic to particular labels.

As a result, the sound from 78rpm discs might be described as inconsistent, but to some extent the sound we hear from them defines an era of recorded music. There is an undeniable authenticity that audiophiles, in their relentless pursuit of perfect sound, tend to overlook. Recent debates about the LP revival, for example, tend to focus on the idea that LPs sound BETTER than the compressed sound of mp3 recordings so popular with “the kids these days.”

At the same time, it is hard to deny that our compressed-to-distortion mp3s are the authentic sound of  music for this generation just as the crackling, warped, and distorted sound of relatively inexpensive 78s was the sound of recorded music prior to the war. I’ll admit that I’m not a LP guy and, in fact, I find the sound of digitized 78s difficult to enjoy. At the same time, I’m not as mortified by the sound of MP3s, as say, Neil Young or other audiophiles. While I still prefer a CD or even a high-resolution download, reading Petrusich’s book has reminded me that there is something undeniably authentic about both 78s and mp3s.

2. The Song. One of the great tropes in the audiophile press is how the kids these days don’t have the patience for long-playing records or even albums. They just want the poppy singles, loaded onto mediocre sounding portable mp3 players (so called “iPods”), and lasting no more than 3 minutes. In fact, some argue that they simply don’t have the attention span for a LP.  This, of course, is crazy as these same young music consumers can watch movies, the NFL, and go out to concerts in healthy numbers and all of these things last for longer than a single song. 

More than that, the LP era was an aberration in how we listen to recorded music. The 78 era, lasting from the late teens to the World War II, was all about 3 minute singles. And the average listener couldn’t afford to sit still for too long because once the song was done, they have to get up and flip over the 78! Perhaps our short attention span for recorded music is the norm, and the LP generation was, in fact, a group not only too lazy to get up and flip over an album, but also dulled their music senses by subjecting them to endless, pointless, mediocre b-sides on long-playing records.

3. Rituals of Listening. One of the great aspects of Petrusich’s book is how she describes these 78 collectors listening to their prized possessions. None of these guys (and, yeah, they’re almost all men) hesitated at all to PLAY their records for the author. More than that, almost all of them clearly enjoyed hearing the music. They tapped their feet, squirmed in their chairs, fell into trances, gestured in the air, and generally reveled in the listening experience. They felt the intensity of these authentic listening experiences.

More than that, once they began to listen to 78s, they listened to more and more. The records flew off their shelves and onto their turn table. More than once the author had to extract herself from an emotionally draining listening session before her host was done spinning records. 

I found her descriptions of these events to be among the most compelling parts of the book. The way these seasoned collectors still found something invigorating in these poorly produced singles reminded me of enduring power of simple rituals.

It also made me want to go and put a CD in my ole CD player (a 1992 vintage Nakamichi CD4), warm up the tube amp (a very recent Audio Research VSi60), and listen to my big Zu Omen Defs with their old school full-range drivers. 

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