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I HAVE BEEN BUYING RECORDS for sixty years and collecting them for about the same length of time. As far back as I can remember, I have referred to LPs and EPs and prerecorded tapes as ‘albums.’ Since the Digital Revolution of the ’80s, I have referred to tapes, EPs, LPs, and CDs as albums
During this time, I called a seven-inch, 45 rpm record with one track per side a ‘single’ while calling a seven-inch, 45 rpm record with two or three tracks per side an ‘EP.’ Like most nascent collectors back in the 1960s, I understood that single was derived from the fact that these records had a single track per side, but I never questioned the term album. Were they called that because of their size, the number of tracks per side, or something else not obvious to a kid? 1
When Columbia Records introduced the long-playing record in 1948, they did not call it an “album” but an “LP.”
The variations in recorded formats available to American record buyers in the mid-’60s: the ten-inch LP was long gone, the reel-to-reel tape had never caught on (due mostly to the inconvenience of playing them), and the 8-track cassette tape (ugly, ungainly, prone to catching in the heads of the player, and often “edited” in a grotesque manner) was in the wings awaiting its turn on the stage.
By the time Beatlemania reached these shores in 1964, the EP had so few ardent admirers that the only Fab Four records that failed to sell millions for Capitol Records were the two EPs they issued those first two hectic years of the British Invasion: FOUR BY THE BEATLES (Capitol EAP-1-2121) and 4-BY-THE-BEATLES (Capitol R-5365).
From 1966 on, American record buyers’ only options were the 45 rpm single and the LP album (although a bazillion 8-tracks were sold for players in cars). And, as “rock music” replaced good ol’ rock & roll music, albums got more interesting and began selling like singles!
What follows below is not definitive but a nutshell view of a “history of albums.” This article is a companion to the article “What Is A Record Album And Where Did The Term Come From?” To read that article (and there is overlapping data in the two pieces), click here.
This article looks at the question, “When did the industry start referring to ten-inch and twelve-inch long-playing records in customized jackets as albums?”
Whether it’s a long-playing record, a reel-to-reel tape, or an 8-track cartridge tape, we always referred to the content as an album—here the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—because the term no longer referred to a physical format but referred to the contents of the format.
What is an album?
Originally, an album was “a book with blank pages used for making a collection as of autographs, stamps, coins, or photographs” (Merriam-Webster). Secondary definitions include (b) “a cardboard container for a phonograph record” and (c) “one or more recordings (as on tape or disc) produced as a single unit.”
Photo albums became enormously popular in the late 1850s with the arrival of calling cards, which were small, professionally produced photographs. Americans began purchasing and collecting these cards and placing them in the blank albums that they also purchased.
“The popularity of the photograph album in America was sparked by the onset of the Civil War, when photographic portraits provided a new opportunity for preserving the memory of men who left home to face peril, engendering particular meanings for a nation that was physically and socially mobile, and riven by war.
Around the same time, the photo album largely supplanted the family Bible as a record of family names and dates. Its advantages over the genealogies inscribed on flyleaves in a Bible included the ability to race physical changes in faces over time, compare one face to another, and have a visible record of hereditary connections.
In 1888, the Kodak camera made photography relatively simple, inexpensive, and available to the masses.” (Metaphors for Life Itself, p. 227) 2
As amateur photography grew in leaps and bounds with the technology of photography during the rest of the 19th century, the photo album became more important and more common. Often, the album organizer exhibited more creativity than the photographers that were being collected and arranged in the album.
This is Columbia C-112, The Voice Of Frank Sinatra, from 1946. It is a fold-open album with four ten-inch, 78 rpm records in leaves (or sleeves) inside.
The original record albums
By 1910, American companies were marketing record albums similar to photo albums. Like the photo album, a typical record album was a collection of empty paper leaves (or sleeves) bound together between cardboard end-boards, or covers. Most covers were blank but some had ‘Record Album’ printed on the front. The leaves were for holding 78 rpm discs.
More attractive, expensive albums could be found with better paper and even leather covers. These albums came in sizes for both ten- and twelve-inch discs. The covers were noticeably larger than the records so that the album could be shelved book-like, thus preventing the relatively fragile records from contact with the shelf.
By the 1930s, record companies were issuing pre-packaged collections of 78s by either music type or by artist. These albums usually had graphics and titles on the front cover and text on the back cover. These commercially released albums normally included four two-sided discs, meaning there were eight tracks per album.
Columbia CL-6001, The Voice Of Frank Sinatra, was numerically the “first” pop music LP that Columbia released in 1948 and the first ten-inch album. It contained the same eight tracks as the 78 rpm album shown above.
Columbia’s “LP” album
On June 19, 1948, Columbia Records held a gala event at the Waldorf Astoria in New York where they introduced the amazing 33⅓ rpm, long-playing microgroove “LP” record. The company’s introductory catalog listed 105 classical and popular records, including both ten- and twelve-inch records. These new “LP” records were released on June 21, 1948.
For popular music, the ten-inch records usually had four tracks per side, or eight total—just like in the old-fashioned 78 albums. The twelve-inch records usually had six tracks per side, for a total of twelve. These records were housed in sturdy, protective cardboard jackets which usually had graphics and titles on the front cover and text on the back cover.
June 26, 1948, issue of Billboard featured several articles on the new Columbia LP record: “Columbia Diskery, CBS Show Microgroove Shoe Platters To Press; Tell How It Began” (page 3), “CBS, CRA Reveal History Of Microgrooves; Philco Reproducer Vital To Wax,” “LP Disk Secret Open To Market, Columbia Says,” and “Columbia’s LP Disk Data” (page 18). Here are a few excerpts:
“The initial LP catalog includes 101 records covering 325 compositions. There are 70 classical disks which cover works running from Bach, Beethoven and Brahms thru Prokofieffand Khatchaturian. Twenty disks are included to cover the light classic and show score field.
The remaining 11 disks are in the pop field and include Frank Sinatra Sings, Harry James Favorites; For You Alone, with Buddy Clark, and Dinah Shore Sings. LP prices are set as follows: $4.85 per twelve-inch masterworks disk, $3.85 per ten-inch masterworks platter and $2.85 per ten-inch popular platter.” (page 18)
“Columbia Records’ Prexy Frank White has confirmed that the diskery will offer the manufacturing secrets governing the LP disk to any other waxworks that may wish to market the new platter. Most of Columbia’s competitors will not be able to immediately compete in the LP field, however, since the new disk requires full fidelity recording.
Columbia has been making ‘safeties’ of most of its disks via wide-range recording and thus was prepared for the current transportation into 33⅓ platters. Most other diskeries have been employing limited range technique in cutting its wax.” (page 18)
Interestingly, throughout these articles, the new 33⅓ rpm LPs are referred to as records and disks and platters, but never as albums. The word album is used once, and rather tellingly: “The attendant savings in storage space were graphically demonstrated by comparing a pile of 101 standard albums with the comparable LP catalog of 101 records.”
Columbia ML-4001, Nathan Milstein playing Mendelssohn’s Concert in E Minor was the first classical LP and the first twelve-inch album.
The July 3, 1948, issue of Billboard featured an article about a Columbia convention in Atlantic City titled “Distribs Sold on LP’s, But Big Sales Bally Lies Ahead”:
“The two-day convention of Columbia Records, Inc., this week (21-22), convinced observers here that the initial reaction of over 400 distributors and distrib personnel to Columbia’s LP microgroove’s records was ‘mildly sensational.’ Replete with dramatic skits which spared no humorous digs at competing record companies, the Columbia show ran the gamut of sales presentation that depicted a vast and expensive promotional program to back up its LP project.” (page 19)
Again, this article refers to the new Columbia discs as LPs, but not albums.
In 1956, RCA Victor released Elvis Presley’s first album in three formats: single twelve-inch LP (LPM-1254, top), single seven-inch EP (EPA-747, middle), and two-record, seven-inch EP (EPB-1254, bottom). All three were huge sellers for their formats!
RCA Victor’s “EP” album
Rather than immediately adapt Columbia’s format, the head honchos at RCA Victor were instead involved in another ‘battle of the formats.’ In 1949, they introduced the seven-inch, 45 rpm record. Like the older 78s, this format played one song per side and, like the 78s, were also referred to as singles. 3
In 1952, they followed with a 45 rpm extended play record, or EP, which they advertised as an album.
For more on this format, see “RCA Introduced the EP Album During the Battle of the Speeds.” To read this article, click here.
When compact discs arrived in the 1980s, we called them albums, too.
LPs and CDs as albums
In 1984, the shiny silver disc encoded with digitalized “bits” that were marketed as compact discs, or CDs, to the first steps in the digitalization of prerecorded music. The 4.7-inch platters stored more than seventy minutes of music on one side, the equivalent of two full LPs.
These discs were packaged in clear plastic cases with printed material on paper inserted in the top and bottom of the cases. The insert at the top of the box was the CD’s cover. We referred to these CDs as . . . albums.
A few years ago, I met a young man wearing a Bob Marley & the Wailers Uprising tee-shirt. I smiled and asked him if Uprising was his favorite Marley album. Without smiling, he responded, “What’s an album, man?”
When did LPs become albums?
So, looking back over the past eight decades of LPs and EPs and reel-to-reel tapes and 8-track tapes and cassette tapes and CDs, my question remains: When did the industry start referring to ten-inch and twelve-inch long-playing records in customized jackets as albums?
Heck, I don’t know! And I’m not about to leaf through thousands of pages of old issues of Billboard and Cash Box to find out. If you want to start your own blog and need a unique first article to make a splash, why not consider this?When Columbia Records introduced the 33⅓ rpm, long-playing, microgroove record in 1948, they did not call it an ‘album’ but an ‘LP.’ Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is of a photograph album from the second half of the 19th century. Each page has four windows for the photos to be seen with a “slot” below the windows in which to slide the photo up into the window. This album was made with wood pulp paper bound in an embossed leather cover. To see another example of a beautiful album from this era, click here.
Finally, although Columbia actually trademarked ‘LP,’ it became a universally generic term for ten-inch or twelve-inch albums from every record company.
1 Actually, twelve-inch records are approximately 11.8 inches in diameter (30 cm), while seven-inch records are approximately 6.75 inches (17 cm).
2 “In the 1860s, the carte craze struck America. Distributing one’s own photograph and accumulating other people’s for display in the parlor marked the sitter’s or collector’s place within a social network. Images conveyed more than physical features and clothing. They announced that the sitter could afford to have a picture taken and was sufficiently confident to exhibit it. The commingling of family pictures with celebrity pictures in the same album conflated two different kinds of looking—one connected to recalling family stories, the other associated with emulating heroes and producing national histories.” (Metaphors for Life Itself)
3 I turned to Wikipedia hoping for some basic factual info, and instead got the usual misinformation from idjit writers who don’t know what they are talking about: “An extended play record, often referred to as an EP, is a musical recording that contains more tracks than a single, but is usually unqualified as an album or LP.”