why do we refer to LPs and CDs as “albums”?

Es­ti­mated reading time is 10 min­utes.

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?”

 

LPs and CDs: cover of the Beatles' SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND mono LP from 1967.

LPs and CDs: cover of the Beatles' SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND stereo 8-track tapefrom 1967.

LPs and CDs: cover of the Beatles' SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND stereo reel tape from 1967.

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.

 

LPs and CDs: cover of Frank Sinatra's THE VOICE album of 78 rpm singles from 1946.

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.

 

LPs and CDs: cover of Frank Sinatra's THE VOICE ten-inch LP album from 1948.

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 33 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.”

 

LPs and CDs: cover of Columbia ML-4001, Nathan Milstein playing Mendelssohn's Concert in E Minor, the first twelve-inch LP album from 1948.

Co­lumbia ML-4001, Nathan Mil­stein playing Mendelssohn’s Con­cert in E Minor was the first clas­sical LP and the first twelve-inch album.

Columbia convention

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.

 

LPs and CDs: cover of Elvis Presley's first twelve-inch LP album ELVIS PRESLEY from 1956.

LPs and CDs: cover of Elvis Presley's first seven-inch EP album ELVIS PRESLEY from 1956.

LPs and CDs: cover of Elvis Presley's first seven-inch, two-record EP album ELVIS PRESLEY from 1956.

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.

 

LPs and CDs: cover of the Beatles' SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND stereo CD from 1987.

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.

 

LPs and CDs: cover of Bob Marley & the Wailers' UPRISING vinyl album from 1980.

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

LPs and CDs: photo of a 19th century photo album.

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.

 

____________

 

FOOTNOTES:

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.”

 


 

All comments held for moderation

Subscribe
Notify of
Rate this article:
Please rate this article with your comment.
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments