Of Digital Audio and Lettuce Leaves

The year was 1948. As a six-year-old, I haunted record stores with my Uncle Stan. A quiet bank teller from Manchester, England, childless himself and quite overpowered by my Aunt Emily, Uncle Stan shared with me his love of music and movies.

Thanks to Uncle Stan, I remember well the introduction of the long-playing record, in the fall of 1948. Every Saturday, we would visit the C.F. Wing Company, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and look at the week's new arrivals of LPs. Uncle Stan couldn't stand waiting—but he waited. Good thing, too. In January 1949, RCA introduced the 45rpm record. And for Christmas 1949, Aunt Emily finally gave Uncle Stan permission to purchase a new three-speed phonograph.

Meanwhile, I could play only 78s on my dinky RCA turntable, which was part of the family's floorstanding Philco radio console. Even so, I took delight as 78s took flight from the bins of C.F. Wing—including children's records at 10 and 25 cents on the dollar. My first vinyl pig-out was shellac.

My point is this: The success of the LP was software-driven. By the end of 1949, there were so many LPs in stores that record buffs had to buy into the new format. Even RCA surrendered and began issuing LPs.

Fast-forward half a century.

It's been more than a year since Sony brought its first SACD player to market. Meanwhile, Sony Music, the record label, successor to Columbia, has so far failed to follow through with much in the way of SACD software. What are they waiting for? Multichannel?

By early December 2000, my local Tower Records, in Stamford, Connecticut, had just two miserable bins of SACDs: one classical, one jazz. Most of the two dozen or so titles were from Sony/Columbia's back catalog—stuff I already have on LP and/or CD and that Sony would now like me to buy again, this time for an eye-popping $24.99 each. Gee, thanks.

Too bad the folks who introduced the LP back in 1948 aren't still around to give Sony a few lessons:

Before Columbia (then part of CBS) brought the LP to market, they made damned sure their pressing plant in Terre Haute, Indiana could produce enough of them.

Columbia introduced the LP at a press conference at the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, in New York, in June 1948. (No, I wasn't there. I was six years old, remember?) They did it with a big bang—tons of back-catalog material. There were no new recordings, because a musicians' strike was on. By September 1948, in time for Christmas, record stores from coast to coast were stocked with LPs, as I well remember.

Dr. Peter Goldmark, inventor of the LP, posed for a memorable ad photo in which he stood next to a towering pile of 78 albums, and a much smaller pile of LPs containing the same recorded music. One of the LP's big selling points was convenience.

And economy. When you took into account the playing time per disc, LPs were cheaper than 78s. The typical recording of a symphony on LP cost about half what it had on 78s. Customers paid less and got more.

No wonder the LP was one of the most successful product launches in history. And just think: there probably wasn't a single MBA involved.

The other day I went to my local Tower to purchase two new recordings on Sony Classical: Arcadi Volodos's performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 3, with James Levine conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (SK 64384); and Murray Perahia's recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations (SK 89243). Superb performances, by the way. These were not obscure titles, but two of Sony Classical's major fall 2000 releases. Why weren't they simultaneously issued on SACD?

True, I wouldn't have forked over $24.99 each for them, even if they had been back-compatible with my CD player—but their presence on SACD would have sent a signal that maybe I should reconsider my ho-hum attitude. And my pal Lars would have bought them!

Sony, this is baloney.

Well, at least SACD isn't evil. It seems Sony will not watermark their SACD discs—although other labels might choose to piss on their SACDs. Not that other labels have rushed to release SACDs in any event. So much is unclear at the moment.