Friday, 3 September 2010

Record Labels

Whatever happened to the record label? I don’t mean the companies themselves but the circular paper thing that used to sit in the middle of a vinyl disc. Labels were half the enjoyment of owning a record. They were colourful, artful, recognisable, informative and well, fascinating. In the 30 odd years that vinyl ruled, record labels were an instant source of information both explicit and implicit and with the advent of CD and now downloads this source has dried up completely.

International Note: All design descriptions that follow relate to records released in the UK and yes, I know they are often different in other countries.

In the days when I was an impoverished singles buyer, the combination of record label and sleeve was part of the fun of music collecting. My first 7-inch single was on the RCA label, a black and silver affair with a stunning pinky-red and white sleeve. All RCA releases were the same and thus were instantly recognisable. Then there was the deep blue and silver of Decca, the bright orange of CBS, the cool green of Columbia and the maroon of London, each a joy to behold. In the 70s I owned a complete set of Abba singles with their mesmerizingly vivid yellow Epic labels and sleeves – such a shame when Epic changed to orange with a spiral pattern.

Once I’d graduated to buying albums, a whole new set of labels beckoned and each label ‘stable’ held a clue to its contents. The vomit-yellow and green of the Harvest label told of underground progressive bands – the ones you’d want to be seen carrying. The shocking pink and white Island label promised a touch of the exotic whilst the yellowy-orange riverboat of Reprise said ‘classic’.

Labels eventually became artier like the Apple ‘skin and core’ graphics of the Beatles’ releases and the beautiful butterfly motif on the Elektra label or the Asylum ‘barred door’ on a white background but they always had a ‘house’ design that said ‘these are my acts and if you like one you might like the others’.

These days I have not a clue which label releases what as a) there are about 32 trillion different labels which come and go at will, b) they are all owned by about three companies anyway and c) they have no graphic representation by which to identify them. A file download won’t tell you the label identity and even CD inserts fight shy of this fact. Somehow the individuality and fun has gone out of this aspect of music collecting and will probably never return. It’s like the great labels of the past like Stax and Atlantic, Parlophone and HMV never existed. But just give me a black labelled Tamla Motown single in its shit-brown sleeve and I’ll be happy.


Jayne said...

They are so faceless now, aren't they? I don't have many records to hand (most in a box waiting until I move again!) but the ones I do have show labels from EMI, RSO (with a red cow, no less), Chrysilis (bit plain), and CBS. Oh wait - you want to know the bands? Ah. Okay. Manfred Mann, the album for Saturday Night Fever, Ultravox EP of Vienna, and The Bangles EP of Walk Like An Egyptian. I didn't say my best records were to hand, did I? Phew.

music obsessive said...

Hi Jayne - I'm suspending comment on band preferences as this is a label only post - and you've got some good ones there. I've got a few Red Cow RSO (Robert Stigwood Organisation) labels myself and they are exactly the sort of thing that made records fun. Like the Mad Hatter on Charisma and oh, so many others. A sad loss to collecting.

drewzepmeister said...

Like you, I have no idea of what record labels are today. I mean there are so many small companies, that are owned by larger ones and up the ladder. It gets confusing after awhile.

When I purchase an old vinyl, I'll check the label to see if its an original copy. Believe the look on my face I pick up a Stones album from London Records.

This post has given me a blog idea. When I was in Los Angeles last summer, I did see a few record companies.

music obsessive said...

Hey Drew - just been over to your blog to read about all those classic record companies, great stuff!

Funny how an LP gains status when it has the 'right' label on it. You only have to look on eBay to know this! Record collecting has really given way to music collecting these days and it's not quite the same.

Alan said...

Good album artwork has withered and died in the age of the CD and download. The early artwork - namely the record labels themselves - have also disappeared.

music obsessive said...

Alan - Sounds like more cost cutting to me. Why bother to pay a graphic artist?

Charlie Ricci said...

The thing I miss the most about records (I'm not one who thinks vinyl is sonically superior and the clicks and pops drove me nuts) is all of the packaging. I loved watching the label spin on the turntable. The CD ruined album cover art (Would Sgt. Pepper's cover made the same impact if initially issued on CD) and now it's even tough to find anything with liner notes which to my wife's amusement I always read.

music obsessive said...

Hi Charlie - I, too, used to read liner notes, labels, everything. It's how I learned about music and the people who made it. This sort of stuff doesn't really exist for today's buyers - you have to look elsewhere, which rather dislocates the music from the information. Sad.