by Kathy Wolfe

Turn up the volume as Tidbits releases these facts on records, from 78s to LPs, 45s, CDs, and digital music.

A vinyl record take its name from its composition of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Most of PVC, 57%, consists of chlorine, with the other 43% derived from crude oil.

• Beginning in the late 1890s, records were made of shellac, a rather heavy, brittle material. These 10-inch (25 cm) records were called “78s,” due to the number of rotations per minute. Recording duration per side was three to five minutes. During World War II, the War Production Board called for a 70% cut in production of phonograph records. Why? Because shellac wasn’t used just in record production, but was also needed for the manufacture of explosives. The shortage of shellac paved the way for vinyl records.

    RCA had already been experimenting with 12-inch (30 cm) vinyl records, having released the first long-playing record in 1931, a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Its rotational speed was 33 1/3, able to hold more than 20 minutes of music per side. These larger records became known as LP’s, for “Long-playing.”

Zinn Music Shop

Improvements were made to vinyl over the next several years, and in 1948, Columbia Record Company introduced the first 12-inch microgroove record album. With 23 minutes of music on each side, it was a recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor performed by New York’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

    RCA’s 1949 innovation was a 7-inch (17.7 cm) record with a bigger hole in the center. It played a single song at 45 rpm’s, and was the preferred format for jukeboxes. The 45s had a better sound than the LPs, because they rotated at a faster speed. This made for more waveform definitions and grooves on the record’s surface, creating better audio quality.

The first 45 rpm record, a green vinyl recording of Eddy Arnold’s “Texarkana Baby,” went on sale on March 31, 1949. The most valuable 45, a 1965 recording of “Do I Love You, Indeed I Do” by Motown artist Frank Wilson, sold for $37,000 in 2009. If you have a copy of the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” 45 record, it can be worth up to $20,000.

•      In 1970, a vinyl record could be purchased for around $5.00 (about $33 in today’s dollars). The price of a 45 rpm was 95 cents.

    The popularity of vinyl led to the end of production of shellac records in the late 1950s. Yet, vinyl’s popularity was coming to an end as well. Philips debuted the cassette tape in America in 1964, with music recorded on magnetic film. This innovation gave listeners the ability to record their own tracks of audio, giving rise to the mixtape. Within five years, cassettes outsold records. In 1979, Sony’s Walkman cassette tape player provided the convenience of on-the-go music.

More new technology put vinyl and cassettes at risk in 1982 when Sony created the first compact disc, a 4.75-inch (12 cm) disc with a capacity of 80 minutes of audio. The disc’s tracks are scanned by an infrared laser, with RPMs between 210 and 480. CDs were small, portable, and convenient, played on a device that could go anywhere.

    The success of CDs wound down when the first version of the MP3 format was introduced in 1993. This format launched the downloading of digital music, and the capability of listening on a computer.

    Apple revolutionized listening to music with the introduction of the iPod in 2001, a small, convenient device advertised as giving music lovers “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Because the iTunes store wasn’t launched until 2003, listeners added music to the iPod from CDs or other online sources like Napster. By March, 2002, the updated iPod could hold 2,000 songs, and four months later, that number was up to 4,000. In September, the upgrade increased the total to 10,000 songs, and the 80 GB iPod of 2005 brought the total to 20,000. Apple discontinued the iPod product line in 2022.

    Yet all of the new innovations haven’t marked the end of vinyl records. Since 2007, there has been a renewed interest in vinyl records. The comeback was small at first, but by 2010, growth was quickly picking up. By 2020, the increase was 29.2%, surpassing sales of CDs for the first time in over 30 years. In 2021, 41.72 million vinyl records were sold in the U.S. For the first half of 2023, sales exceeded 23 million, with Taylor Swift leading the pack. These days, nearly every major artist is releasing their newest records on vinyl.

What’s created this resurgence of vinyl records? Part of it is a sense of nostalgia, as listeners enjoy adding a new record to their collection and displaying them creatively. They like the imaginative cover art and the bonus items, such as posters, included in albums not present with CDs.      Some say that the sound of vinyl is “warmer” and “more authentic,” a unique sound different from digital music.   

Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which was released in 1982, is the biggest-selling album of all time. It sold 32 million copies its first year, with an estimated 70 million number of sales to date.    The honor of best-selling single of all time worldwide belongs to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” recorded in 1942. Conservative estimates place the total at 50 million copies. “Rock Around the Clock” is the biggest-selling rock and roll single of all time. It was originally released on a vinyl 45 and a shellac 78 in 1954. Its sales are estimated at 25 million.

    We usually associate the hit “I Will Always Love You” with songstress Whitney Houston, featured in the 1992 film “The Bodyguard.” But it was a hit long before by its composer Dolly Parton, who wrote it in a day in 1974. Actor Kevin Costner contacted Parton for permission to use it in the film. Parton never heard another word about it, until she was driving her car down the road after the movie’s release and heard Houston singing it on the radio. Houston’s version is the best-selling single by a female artist of all time. The song was played at her 2012 funeral.     

    Songs that were slammed by broadcasters, critics, and listeners as the “worst ever” include “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus, the Baha Men’s recording of “Who Let the Dogs Out?,” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.