Don Was on Liner Notes

posted by Tom Moon on January 06, 2011 at 6:54 pm
in , , ,

I just caught up to a blogpost about a subject near and dear to my heart: The demise of liner notes and recording information in the digital realm.

When music obsessives of a certain age gather, you can usually count on a few things: There will be a debate about analog versus digital audio quality, a groan or two about how what’s current on the radio is dismally inferior to the songs of top 40 radio in the early ‘70s, and yet another lament about the demise of liner notes in the digital realm.

The producer Don Was has taken that last concern public, in this short essay first published by the Metro Times of Detroit.

Of course he’s right. The generation now ascending is missing a vital part of the music exploration experience, the part that begins with questions like “who is playing that demonic guitar?” and “what were the conditions under which this recording was made?” The credits aren’t just credits – they’re portals into under-known realms. The notes aren’t just some sort of “bonus” material – they offer perspective and context, a window into the creative process.

When somebody downloads an album from most places on the Internet, what they get is a file containing fairly decent digital representation of the music and a tiny image of the front cover. For those who come to music to expand their horitons, it’s essentially a dead-end. More than that, the absence of information sends a signal: The folks who were involved in the creation of this work are relatively meaningless, just a shade more important to the end-user than the factory worker who bolted the player together. We’re basically training this generation to think of musicians and recording and mastering engineers as interchangeable parts, anonymous and easily replaced. The comments responding to Was’ post say all the usual things about how easy it is to search for this stuff; I’d argue we shouldn’t have to search, especially for personnel information. It should just be there, all the time, to spark curiosity and inspire a new quest. The fate of the guitar player who tears up some Dixie Chicks tune doesn’t matter to Apple, but it should matter to the listener. Maybe that guitar player has a project of his own, and is of course counting on his Dixie Chicks connection to spread the word about it. Maybe it’s a masterpiece. The way things are now, lots of us will never know. Oh well.

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Comments:

#1 from Christina, Miami - 01/08/2011 4:32

Finding this post tonight feels like a cosmic alignment of musical geek thought, lol ... just yesterday afternoon I was driving home from work listening to Natalie Merchant’s latest album Leave Your Sleep, which I had downloaded from Amazon.  It’s a beautiful collection of poems set to music. As I was listening, I started feeling like I really needed those liner notes, and posted this to my facebook status:
“love getting my music digitally ... miss liner notes though; who r the amazing musicians on the latest Natalie Merchant album? who’s arrangements r these? now I have to google it when I get home” ... but even googling to try and research the info is not as informative as the liner notes are.  There is still a lot to be said for buying music the old fashioned way.

#2 from dhg, London, England - 01/11/2011 1:55

However Wikipedia supplies all such info and more for many albums, new and old. It’s a far easier and more effective way of following up on a new discovery e.g. seeking the back catalogue, influences on said performer, kinship artists - than mooching around record shops. Hey, that’s why such stores are dying - they’re irrelevant now.

The future is now, baby, embrace it!

#3 from Michael K. Denny, Minneapolis, MN - 01/14/2011 6:53

The diminishment of liner notes follows the mass merchandising patterns of modern music.  I cannot recall any 7in 45 rpm singles with liner notes.  8 track packaging was not conducive to pamphlets or brochures, and even less so cassette tapes.  The miniaturization of music delivery to the virtual atom level ironically affords an infinity of page space.

Listeners of a certain age recall a time when an album was not only 33 1/3 rpm 12” two-sided vinyl record, but the album covers that protected the grooves of music were the format for the liner notes.  Roughly a 12 by 12” page.  Calendar art, suitable for framing.  Who remembers Cyndi Lauper’s A Night to Remember album cover won a design award in 1989?  It had liner notes.  Some album covers were all the liner notes you got, the picture was all she wrote.

The CD that digitized sound shrunk the graphic packaging.  The reduction of album cover art into a smaller frame expanded instead into music videos, a medium extraneous to the album that replaced the still shot with a movie that was still germane to the album.  If not a relevant medium for new cover art work any longer, the CD format did not squeeze out a proper venue for liner notes, but proved rather adaptable.  Shakira, for example, prints lyrics, attributions, gibberish with her CDs.  Neko Case prints lyrics, credits and drawings.  There are artists who bother to include liner notes with their CDs as a diary of the recording process.  So who collects CDs?

In 1971 Norton Stillman published Trust Me with Your Heart Again, a picture book collection of sheet music art to recognize an era when radio songs were marketed as sheet music you could play at home on your own piano with your friends and family to sing along the printed lyrics.  Not six years later, in 1977, Hipgnosis and Dean Hamilton published the first Album Cover Album recognizing the era of the 12 x 12” canvas was immortal so far as a collectors item.

Today on iTunes you get a postage stamp sized icon of Abraxas.  Oye como va.

Music delivery in the modern age continues to evolve with technology that in sum reproduces audio sounds, and all the rest of the inside history of its audio creative process has to support itself apart from the audio.  If hard copy gets demised by digital audio reproduction, then the musical works themselves exist in sheer aural quality alone, naked without dressing.

What form liner notes takes when freed from packaging a pack of songs will be as subversive as the cyberdigital music jukebox of tomorrow’s podberry.  We be mooching the internet record shops.  Maybe it is just as well we have to sweat a little to google and wiki the research in this paradise of information to know who that killer guitarist is.  These are the liner notes now, the blogs and commentary pages.  No more hard copy audio means liner notes liberated beyond the package of the album or confined to the artist or studio control of product.

MKD

#4 from Michael K. Denny, Minneapolis, MN - 01/18/2011 6:17

The diminishment of liner notes follows the mass merchandising patterns of modern music.  I cannot recall any 7in 45 rpm singles with liner notes.  8 track packaging was not conducive to pamphlets or brochures, and even less so cassette tapes.  The miniaturization of music delivery to the virtual atom level ironically affords an infinity of page space.

Listeners of a certain age recall a time when an album was not only 33 1/3 rpm 12” two-sided vinyl record, but the album covers that protected the grooves of music were the format for the liner notes.  Roughly a 12 by 12” page.  Calendar art, suitable for framing.  Who remembers Cyndi Lauper’s A Night to Remember album cover won a design award in 1989?  It had liner notes.  Some album covers were all the liner notes you got, the picture was all she wrote.

The CD that digitized sound shrunk the graphic packaging.  The reduction of album cover art into a smaller frame expanded instead into music videos, a medium extraneous to the album that replaced the still shot with a movie that was still germane to the album.  If not a relevant medium for new cover art work any longer, the CD format did not squeeze out a proper venue for liner notes, but proved rather adaptable.  Shakira, for example, prints lyrics, attributions, gibberish with her CDs.  Neko Case prints lyrics, credits and drawings.  There are artists who bother to include liner notes with their CDs as a diary of the recording process.  So who collects CDs?

In 1971 Norton Stillman published Trust Me with Your Heart Again, a picture book collection of sheet music art to recognize an era when radio songs were marketed as sheet music you could play at home on your own piano with your friends and family to sing along the printed lyrics.  Not six years later, in 1977, Hipgnosis and Dean Hamilton published the first Album Cover Album recognizing the era of the 12 x 12” canvas was immortal so far as a collectors item.

Today on iTunes you get a postage stamp sized icon of Abraxas.  Oye como va.

Music delivery in the modern age continues to evolve with technology that in sum reproduces audio sounds, and all the rest of the inside history of its audio creative process has to support itself apart from the audio.  If hard copy gets demised by digital audio reproduction, then the musical works themselves exist in sheer aural quality alone, naked without dressing.

What form liner notes takes when freed from packaging a pack of songs will be as subversive as the cyberdigital music jukebox of tomorrow’s podberry.  We be mooching the internet record shops.  Maybe it is just as well we have to sweat a little to google and wiki the research in this paradise of information to find the identity of that wildass guitarist.  These are the liner notes now, the blogs and commentary pages.  No more hard copy audio means liner notes liberated beyond the package of the album or confined to the artist or studio control of product.

MKD

#5 from Harry - 01/18/2011 2:25

Yes , wikipedia provides us with such info , and there are so many other places for getting the CD covers , inner , front , back cover , and all.

The point is here , I think, whether we care or we just pick a song or albume from internet and forget about the band and it’s members, I for one gather all the info I can , specially when I am not buying the CD’s .

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