At the Margins of Music: The Early LPs of Prestige Records

Viewed from the present, the LP era began in June 1948 when Columbia Records introduced their long-playing microgroove technology. The reality for listeners in the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, was much more uncertain. As vinyl LPs came to replace the shellac discs of the previous recording era, record consumers faced numerous options in terms of format. 1 Spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute (rpm), there were 12-, 10-, and 7-inch LPs. At 45 rpm, there were 7-inch singles and extended play (EP) discs. Additionally, many record companies continued to produce 12- and 10-inch 78-rpm discs well into the decade. By the late 1950s, the industry standardized so that most labels released music on either 12-inch 33 1/3-rpm albums or 7-inch 45-rpm singles. During this decade of transition (1948–1958), both major and independent record labels had to adjust their infrastructures for recording, producing, and manufacturing based on a rapidly changing and uncertain market.

Many of the 1950s recording formats listed above never achieved widespread popularity and, in this sense, their presence marks a particular moment of commercial failure. Still, the brief production run of such formats also reveals certain mechanisms of experimentation as labels attempted to successfully adapt to new technologies and emerging consumer demands. Put another way, the failed formats from 1948 to 1958 offer a prehistory of the industry’s standardization to the 12-inch LP. This matters not only because it helps contextualize the now-ubiquitous 12-inch, 33 1/3 rpm LP. It also points to an alternative history of vinyl records that accounts for the dynamic nature of customers, manufacturers, and producers of records in the mid-century United States. As I explore below, this can especially be seen through the changes in visual design that accompanied the many experimentations surrounding format. 2

Media in Transition and Prestige Records 

Several significant changes in the visual, physical, and sonic design occurred during the first decade of the LP. Nowhere was this more apparent than at Prestige Records, a small independent jazz label that catered to connoisseur listeners and featured up-and-coming stars such as Miles Davis, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. Founded in 1949 by Bob Weinstock, Prestige’s growth into a leading independent jazz label coincided with the industry-wide transition to the LP. The label’s experimentation with variations of the LP format offers a glimpse into the creative and experimental business practices that characterized the 1950s record industry.

Prestige adopted the LP in 1952, initially offering only the 10-inch variety. Employing the strategy used by George Avakian during Columbia’s initial run of LPs in 1948, Weinstock filled his first discs in the label’s PRLP 100 series with reissued material from Prestige’s back catalog. 3 These discs had three or four tracks per side, with each track lasting two-and-a-half to three minutes each (the standard length for recordings in the 78-rpm era). This strategy of hedging between formats enabled Prestige to offer music on both new and old technologies without having to invest in costly recording sessions that would not necessarily guarantee sales.

By 1953, Weinstock offered listeners several other options for purchasing and consuming Prestige records. The label continued to issue the same content across a variety of formats that differed in both size and rotation speed. One example was the 7-inch extended play (EP) disc, a variation on the standard 45 single. Due to narrower grooves compared to the regular 45, EPs held nearly twice the music per side (around seven-and-half minutes) although at the expense of sound quality. The EP, after its introduction by RCA Victor in 1952, gained some commercial traction with independent jazz labels, including Clef, Savoy, Contemporary, Mercury, Debut, and Prestige. 4 The major labels—Columbia, MGM, Decca and Capitol—released pop and crossover EPs but did not use the format for jazz specifically besides the occasional discs featuring crossover stars such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. 5

Prestige began issuing EPs in 1953 and eventually released a total of seventy-four records in their PREP 1300 series. 6 Like their first LPs, Prestige used EPs to repackage and reissue recordings already in their catalog, 7 but with one key difference: each EP displayed “Prestige Extended Play Documentary Series” somewhere on the front cover (usually on the top right corner) and the tag line “Each Album represents an individual record session” on the back. The first discs had a short paragraph on the back jacket that explained the purpose of the series:

PRESTIGE presents jazz for the modern collector on extended play. This series represents the best in modern music from 1949 up to today. Each album is an individual record session in itself, with actual dates of the recordings inscribed on the cover. This series will be invaluable to all students and fans of jazz as it will give them an accurate, documented, chronological picture of both the jazz scene as a whole and the important musicians as individuals, beginning with 1949 and continuing on as each new year brings new developments in jazz. 8

At the time, it was not standard practice for record companies to name specific session dates on the record. 9 This “documentary series” claimed to give listeners access to the most modern music while simultaneously allowing them to track the trajectory of the music. With the phrase “actual dates inscribed on the cover,” Prestige marked the record jacket as the future location for such documentation while also emphasizing the need to preserve and chronicle the music’s development.

In the changing landscape of the early 1950s jazz industry, formats like the 7-inch EP and 10-inch LP had a relatively short lifespan. With the EP Documentary Series, Prestige explored how new formats could meet new demands for jazz on record, specifically by using the record jacket to document the details of the record session, a practice that would become standard by the end of the decade. Seemingly small elements of marginalia—such as including the recording date—point to much larger changes in the relationship between music making and recording technology that the transition into the LP era facilitated.

Design Changes in the Margins   

The adoption and standardization of long-playing technology made recording labels rethink their overall presentation in other ways as well. Cover art became increasingly sophisticated, detailed, and creative. Record jackets began to feature liner notes that educated consumers about the music and new technologies or detailed the label’s own history. Even the record sleeves, once simply a blank piece of paper, became an alternative place for advertising. 10 The increased emphasis on the visual design accompanied a rethinking of production processes meant to take advantage of the “long-playing” aspect of the new technology. Such changes made records into audio-visual objects that accounted for the physical, visual, and aural elements in tandem.

This transition did not happen overnight. Prestige treated their early LPs much like 78-rpm records, which were generally sold in blank paper sleeves and had only simple lettering on the label itself that indicated artist, song title, record company, and issue number. Prestige’s first LPs included only the leader’s name in block letters, a list of tracks, and issue number. Consider the unadorned cover of James Moody Favorites Volume One, which displays the album and track names in dark blue, block lettering with the Prestige logo beneath. The top left and right corners, respectively, included the issue number, “PRLP 110,” and the phrase “Long Playing Micro Groove Non-Breakable Record,” a marketing slogan developed by Columbia in 1948. The back jacket was dark brown and blank, much like the typical sleeve of a 78-rpm disc. 11 This approach was partly pragmatic since the costs of printing ornate graphics would increase the price of discs that were already more expensive than their 78-rpm counterparts.

Soon, Prestige began to place a simple, two-toned image of the band leader on their record covers. Employee Ira Gitler recalled Weinstock’s preference for such design: “I can still visualize the front cover [of Swingin’ With Zoot Sims (1951)], a photograph of Zoot blowing his tenor saxophone printed in blue on yellow paper. That was Prestige’s version of a two-color job but Weinstock’s attitude was: ‘They don’t buy it for the cover, man. If they dig the music…’“ 12 By the mid-1950s, Weinstock’s stripped-down approach—his feeling that listeners “don’t buy it for the cover”—began to change. More complicated graphics began appearing on the covers after 1956 when Prestige hired designers Don Martin, Tom Hannan, Gil Mellé, Reid Miles, and pop-artist Andy Wharhol. The photos and often-abstract artwork of Esmond Edwards and Don Schlitten regularly appeared on record jackets after Prestige adopted the 12-inch LP as their standard format in 1957. 13 Notable examples include Sonny Rollins’s Saxophone Colossus and Tenor Madness, Miles Davis’s Walkin’ and Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, and John Coltrane’s debut album, Coltrane.

Prestige’s change in visual approach coincided with the rapid growth of the record industry as a whole. By the mid-1950s, record companies were selling more discs and making greater profits than at any time in their history. According to the New York Times, from 1947 to 1957 industry-wide sales increased from $203 to $360 million and units sales of LPs from 1954 to 1956 rose from 11.1 to 33.5 million. This resulted in a significant increase in percentage of industry sales for the LP: from 30% in 1953 to 61% in 1957. In contrast, sales of 78s had all but disappeared and by 1958, the predominant format of the previous era accounted for only 1.2% of the industry’s total sales. 14

The new focus on visual design brought Prestige closer to another leading independent label, Blue Note Records. Similar to Weinstock’s approach at Prestige, Blue Note co-owner Alfred Lion felt that jazz should not be, as he said in a 1956 interview, produced “like ball point pens” and that the music was “not the kind of commodity you can market in every candy store.” 15 Unlike Prestige’s gradually increasing concern for visual design, Blue Note emphasized the appearance of their LPs from the beginning. Under the direction of photographer and co-owner Francis Wolff, Blue Note became one of the first labels to use photos and artwork on their records, despite the accompanying financial burden. 16 Even their first LPs, issued in 1951, featured elaborate graphics on their covers. Compare Prestige’s James Moody Favorites Volume One cited above to James Moody And His Modernists released by Blue Note in 1951. Blue Note’s LPs includes detailed artwork, intricate design, and various fonts that puts this album cover in sharp contest to Prestige’s text-only approach.

By 1955, both Prestige and Blue Note began using 12-inch LPs as their standard format, breaking away from the genre conventions of the previous recording era. When Columbia introduced the LP in 1948, the label anticipated continuing the same format practices used with 78s: 10-inch for pop, blues, and jazz, 12-inch discs for classical and opera. Most jazz in the early 1950s did in fact circulate on 10-inch LP, including those discs issued by Prestige. Yet by the end of the decade, production of 10-inch LPs—along with EPs, and most 78s—had all but stopped, replaced by the 12-inch LP and 7-inch 45 single. Still, Prestige’s experiments reveal an industry in transition, where the 12-inch LP was simply one format among many.

Conclusion

The modern-day image of a vinyl record is, by default, that of a 12-inch black disc, spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. Though these discs—along with the 45 single—dominated the industry for the several decades, there were several other variations of LPs that came and went. In the context of such shifting modes of representation, small independent record companies such as Prestige experimented with disc size, rotation speed, cover design, and liner notes. Like the rest of the industry, Prestige eventually settled on the 12-inch LP. Yet this outcome was not determined from the beginning, but the result of an interrelated web of cultural forces, business practices, and consumer habits.

In the recording industry, more technologies fail than succeed. These failures allow scholars to examine this history in a way that accounts for the experimental business practices needed to succeed in the highly competitive record industry. With a market in flux, record labels strived to balance their production and manufacturing costs with customer preferences. Such negotiations influenced the future of records. Failed formats, in other words, have the potential to reveal the dynamic nature of how customers, manufactures, and producers adopted and found new uses for emerging technologies of sound.

Notes:

  1. By format I mean both the means of transferring sound onto a specific medium (e.g., LP, CD), the physical properties of that medium (e.g., material, dimensions), and the visual contents of its container. See: Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 7.
  2. Here I draw from studies of failed technologies in media studies, notably Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work about the hard drive and Jentery Sayers’s recent work on the telegraphone. See: Matthew Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge: MIT Press., 2008), 32; Jentery Sayers, “Making the Perfect Record,” American Literature 85:4 (2013): para. 8, accessed April 9, 2014, doi 10.1215/00029831-2370230. Kirschenbaum examines antiquated technologies in order to understand the affordances and contemporary uses of computer storage devices. Sayers takes a similar approach, arguing that cultural discourses surrounding the now-forgotten telegraphone reveals much about the current usage of electromagnetic recording devices.
  3. For example, Prestige’s first 10-inch LP (PRLP 101) included six tracks recorded by Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz in 1949 at the label’s first record session. For a full list of records see: The Jazz Discography Project, accessed April 10, 2014, http://www.jazzdisco.org/prestige-records/catalog-100-200-series/.
  4. Noting the growth of industry wide profits in 1953, Billboard Magazine writer Bob Rolontz cited EPs as important part of the growth of jazz sales. Bob Rolontz, “Jazz LP’s and EP’s Become Disk Industry’s Solid Staple,” Billboard, June 5, 1954, 15.
  5. No author, “EP’s move into jazz, classic, polka fields,” Billboard, September 5, 1953, 13. Other jazz labels such as Atlantic and Blue Note eventually released a few EPs, though not until the late 1950s when the EP gained traction with R&B audiences. See: Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, 45 The History, Heroes, and Villains of a Pop Music Revolution (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003), 49.
  6. My date, 1953, is an educated guess since release dates were not widely publicized. Prestige’s first thirty EPs were all recorded in the first half of 1953 or before. The first disc in the series—by vocalist Annie Ross—was recorded on October 9, 1952 and released on 78 in January 1953, according to the January 24, 1953 issue of Billboard.
  7. For example, Lennie Tristano Quintet Featuring Lee Konitz (PREP1308) duplicates Prestige’s first 10-inch LP from 1951 (PRLP 101).
  8. For one example see: Bennie Green, Bennie Green with Strings, Prestige PREP1304, EP, 1953. Later records in the series replaced this text with a shorter version: “Prestige Extended Play: Each Album represents an individual record session.”
  9. Collectors, however, had been documenting such information for years. See: Bruce Epperson, More Important than the Music: A History of Jazz Discography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  10. For a detailed account of Blue Note Record Sleeves see: ”The Blue Note Inner Sleeves,” London Jazz Collector, accessed April 16, 2014, http://londonjazzcollector.wordpress.com/record-labels-guide/labelography-2/the-blue-note-inner-sleeves/
  11. James Moody, James Moody Favorites Volume One, Prestige PR110, LP, 1951.
  12. Ellipsis in original. Ira Gitler, liner notes to Zoot Sims, Zootcase, Prestige PR 24061, LP, 1976.
  13. Schlitten had done some design work that appeared on 10-inch and EP discs in the early 1950s. See: “Prestige Records,” The Birka Jazz Archive, accessed April 15, 2014, http://www.birkajazz.com/archive/prestige.htm
  14. Robert Shelton, “Happy Tunes on Cash Restigsters,” New York Times, March 16, 1958, XX14.
  15. Nat Hentoff, “No Mass Production for Blue Note,” Downbeat, June 27, 1956, 12.
  16. Blue Note records sold for $1.50 per disk, a high price at the time. Since the record were geared towards collectors and other specialty listeners, Lion strategized that that such people would pay a premium price for a premium record.

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