Love me some Durium

In March, just before “the big hiatus,” my last featured record was Hit of the Week #1088, with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra directed by Hymie Wolfson playing Walter Donaldson’s foxtrot “Little White Lies.”

As you may recall, HOTW was a Depression-era label that pressed their albums on a paper-like product called Durium instead of on the standard shellac. The result was a very inexpensive and easy to transport record (albeit one-sided).

I was just sent this fun blog that is maintained by a fellow collector who has chosen to specialize in HOTW records. As with so many other collectibles, there are niche collectors who seek out records by specific artists, in specific genres, or, in this case, from a specific label.

In 2005 Archeophone Records released a four-volume set of 8 CDs with every HOTW master. The point being the music – the exact same music – is available in modern, convenient, and cleaned-up form. So why the Durium Project? Because to some the medium is as important as the content. The medium in itself has value as a historical, aesthetic, and even scientific object.

The notion of a paper recording medium is as close to the ephemeral nature of today’s digital music, that exists in microchips and in the “cloud,” as the great era of 78s ever came.

Ironically in attempting to make a media that delivered the music in as cheap and easily replaceable a format as possible, Hit of the Week created a unique historical artifact in its own right. It is one that captures a moment in American history and, through its constitution alone, illustrates the economic conditions of the nation.

Developer of LP records passes away

Howard H. Scott, at right, with Aaron Copland (1974).

The New York Times has the full obit of Howard H. Scott. Scott, a piano student at Julliard, was drafted into the Army during World War II. When he returned in 1946, Scott was hired by Columbia Masterworks to work with a team of engineers on a secret project: the creation of a vinyl long-playing record that could replace the fragile shellac 78 r.p.m.

Where 78 r.p.m. discs could hold only about 4 minutes of music per side, the new, more durable LPs, spinning at 33-1/3 r.p.m., could hold around 22 minutes per side, increasing the amount of music per record by an incredible 550%. Scott’s musical training was essential to the project’s success.

In the days before magnetic tape came into wide use, the process of transferring music to the new discs (soon to be known as LPs) was complex. Long pieces of music, split among multiple 78 r.p.m. records, needed to be stitched together on the new discs without interruption. To do that, Mr. Scott and his colleagues lined up overlapping segments of music on 78s, and — with Mr. Scott snapping his finger in coordination — switched the audio signal at just the right moment from one turntable to the other.

Ironically, Scott was central to another revolution in recorded sound medium later in his career. From 1986 to 1993, when he retired, Scott was the producer at Columbia’s corporate descendent – Sony – in charge of the transition of the company’s recordings from LP to CD. Scott passed away on September 22nd in Reading, Pennsylvania; he was 92.

Bowling me over

A vendor in my local Farmers Market sells these bowls, made by warming LPs and folding them over a mold or crimping them by hand.

Scanning the records I thankfully didn’t notice anything that jumped out at me as being terribly valuable, but then again 33-1/3RPM discs are not my forte, so I might have missed one. Regardless of the value of the records, though, it reminded me of some repurposed books that I’ve seen manufactured into pieces of furniture.

I have mixed feelings about these. Friend-of-the-blog Tarquin Tar has often written about the value of the book as an important and worthwhile object in itself – the book is more than the story on its pages. It has a story its own, and an intrinsic value beyond whatever the words within are about. It has provenance, ownership history, and even artistic qualities of its own (binding, jacket illustrations, etc).

Is the same true of records? With rare exception they are simply black shellac discs. Some may have illustrative elements – picture records, decorative labels, sleeves, and so forth. The content contained can exist on any other media and still be the primary artistry of the album. Consider those 78s in my collection that I have featured here (and many I have not yet) that do not exist digitally on the web or on any CDs. Their value is in their scarcity first and their musical quality second, in most cases. Rarely do the two meet: truly great tracks are hardly ever scarce. But that has little to nothing to do with the media.

But the media is scarce, too. These LPs will never again be made. Something about that fact saddens me, even though I know can find these exact tracks as MP3 or on CD very easily.

So, I put it to you. Record bowls: heart breaking destruction of someone else’s art or acceptable/creative work of art of their own? Or both? Or something else entirely?

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