For the record

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

A FRIEND went to her local music store and asked where she could find Bonnie Raitt's latest record. The 20-something sales clerk smirked as if the customer had asked where she might purchase a floppy disk. He sniffed that the store had not sold records for more than a decade. "What about tapes?" she asked. The associate rolled his eyes, informing her that pre-recorded cassettes, too, had gone the way of thermal fax paper. Exasperated, she sighed, "Whatever you call those things they put music on these days."

Finally, the clerk pointed her to the CDs, which is what he should have done in the first place. If he had had any doubts, he might have gone outside and looked at the name of the store: Tower Records.

Since the fadeout of vinyl, most major record stores have adopted generic names like Music Land or For Your Entertainment. But Tower has clung steadfastly to "Records" because the word still accurately describes its wares: recorded music. It does not matter what kind of medium the music is recorded onto, be it a vinyl 45 r.p.m. single or a 33 1/3 LP, a shellac 78 r.p.m. platter, an eight-track tape or a plastic CD. Those formats all fit Webster's definition of record: "Something on which sound or visual images have been recorded."

Much of the music industry continues to use "record" to refer to recordings, no matter the medium. The businesses that sign, develop and promote musical artists are still known as record companies (or record labels, a holdover from the era when the company name was on the label in the middle of the disc), although most record labels are now subsidiaries of conglomerates with the word "media" or "entertainment" in their corporate names.

When an album sells half-million copies, the Recording Industry Association of America calls it a Gold Record. But these days, the framed award that hangs on the producer's wall is a gold-tinted CD, not the gold-painted LP of years past.

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences does not care about the size of the disc when awarding the Grammy for Record of the Year. "No matter how it is packaged or distributed, from our standpoint, it is all a recorded piece," says Ron Roecker, the academy's Vice President for communications.

Ken Schlager, co-executive editor at Billboard, said the magazine's definition of "record" encompasses both singles and albums. "Our specific style rules dictate that `record' is an overarching term for any recording."

Leave it to lawyers to create an expansive contractual meaning of "record" that includes formats that do not even exist yet. Donald Passman, a music attorney and the author of "All You Need to Know About the Music Business", says that the language varies slightly by company but that his definition is "every form of reproduction, transmission or communication (whether now known or unknown), embodying sound alone, or sound accompanied by visual images, manufactured, distributed, transmitted or communicated, directly or indirectly, for home use, business use, school use, personal use, jukebox use or use in means of transportation."

While "record" has remained popular within the industry, even as its form has morphed from 78 to 45 to LP to cassette to CD, much of the general public thinks records went out with record players (turntables). As Rickey Henderson told Sports Illustrated in 2003: "Rickey does not have albums. Rickey has CDs."

"The reality is that all the formats - CDs, eight-tracks, LPs, 45s, 78s, even DVDs - they are all records, because `record' is short for `recording'," says Jim Donio, President of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, the trade group for music retailers. "But the perception is that a record is an LP or maybe a 45. Although the 45 would probably confuse some young people, they'd think it was a black CD on steroids, and they'd wonder why the hole is so big."

Witness a recent MasterCard advertisement picturing two 45s, which ends with the tag line, "Explaining to your grandkids what a record is: priceless."

Schlager says that he considers the slow death of the record "a generational thing". Young people who do not know what a broken record sounds like and whose only vinyl purchases have been clothing prefer the technology-specific CD. But their parents were also quick to go off the record. In the 1980s, it was the height of conspicuous consumption to boast of acquiring a new CD, the way you might brag now of the latest cellphone. Meanwhile, "record" sounded as up to date as "Victrola."

A quarter century later, the CD is the standard format, but digital downloads, which require no plastic discs of any kind, are gaining fast. To an even-younger generation, the term "CD" has all the cachet of a dial-up modem. What this generation will call recordings - tracks? files? downloads? - is anybody's guess.

Brian Eno, the musician, producer and self-described musical theorist, says that he "wouldn't be surprised if people started calling them records again. It will sound retro hip. That's one of the funny things about pop culture. Things get recycled."

Eno says that he still uses "record" because it "belongs to a long history of language dating back to stone tablets and cave paintings, both of which were records of some kind." Besides, he said, "CD is such an ugly word, and `download' sounds so Microsoft."

I, too, hope for a return to "record," and not merely because I am old enough to remember buying "Philadelphia Freedom" on a 45. Retaining a format-neutral word for all recorded music saves having to invent new terms when the technology shifts yet again. A one-size-fits-all term might even help bridge musical generation gaps.

There is another reason for record keeping. "Record" can also mean the capturing of a moment in time so that it may be referenced for eternity. In the way a court reporter types down the record of a trial, the artist, producer, mixer and engineer create a record of a musical performance. Even if the recording that emerges is not anything that can ever be performed live, using the word "record" to describe it reminds us that humans created this music and saved it for other people to hear.

That's something the soulless CD, MP3 or whatever the next format can never render obsolete.

John Rosenthal is a senior editor of The New York Times Almanac. William Safire is on vacation.

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