The Label.

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If you ever collected music (in other words, if you not only enjoyed recorded music but felt a need to possess it), you’ll find The Label, a history of Columbia Records by Gary Marmorstein, a great read. It reminds us that once there was a time when record companies had individual identities.

But maybe the most profound statement the book has to make is one that it makes before you even open it. The title of the book, and the cover design, make you realize—it’s kind of a head-slapping, “duh” moment—that one reason record companies had identities was that they literally had labels. You know, the round, paper pieces of signage glued to the centers of recordings. We took that for granted. But in this day of downloaded music, there is no physical object to own, and therefore no label. We used to, and still do, refer to record companies as “record labels,” but in a world in which there are no labels in the literal sense of the word—no pieces of graphical signage to distinguish one piece of music from another—it can’t be long before record labels, in the sense of record companies, cease to exist as well.

People who bought any appreciable number of LPs or CDs in a year, or derived pleasure from browsing in record stores, knew—even if they could not define why—that a Columbia issue was different, somehow, from a Capitol or from a Warner/Reprise, and vice versa. Partly it had to do with engineering and manufacturing choices; partly it had to do with artist & repertoire choices; partly it had to do with graphic design choices. Each company had its own culture, and the people who came to work for that company both defined and were absorbed within that culture. And these differences from one record label to another were crucial to their branding efforts. Why Columbia was a big label had a lot to do with the fact that consumers saw physical, visual evidence of Columbia branding over and over, and began to associate that physical evidence with a level of technical and musical excellence.

The erosion of record company identity began in the CD era, when smaller packaging, and the fact that nothing was glued onto a CD (merely imprinted on it), meant that a consumer could no longer see much of anything to distinguish a Columbia from a Capitol from a Warner/Reprise. In the download era, that erosion is complete. Which is why I predict that the download era will bring, eventually, the end of the meaningful place recorded music once had in people’s lives. (It maintains a place in people’s lives now only because the consumers who are alive now still carry vestiges in their brains of the record-label era.)

I don’t know if Marmorstein deals with this issue (I’m about halfway through the book), but everytime I look at the book to begin reading it again, that cover makes me realize just how important labels, literally and figuratively, were. And how one could only exist because the other did.

Thanks to Bill Reed for tipping me off to the book’s existence. I think it would have flown right under my radar otherwise.

6/5/07 P.S.: Bill informs me that Thunder’s Mouth Press, the book’s publisher, has gone under. (And this item from the L.A. Times confirms it.) I don’t know whether the book will see circulation under another imprint, but if you’re interested, I’d advise you to acquire the book now. Amazon still has copies, priced attractively at 34% off. Bill also recommends another book by Marmorstein, Hollywood Rhapsody: Movie Music and Its Makers 1900-1975, and that’s enough to make me want to check it out.

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