Liner notes may be practically extinct, a victim of technology and changing formats, but they’re not completely gone, says PATRICK HINELY whose notes for such artists as Oregon and Mike Nock have been decorating records since the late-1970s
On the back of an LP, whether read while browsing the bins in an authentic bricks-and-mortar record shop, or while giving the vinyl a spin in that shop’s listening booth, liner notes were, at their best, an amalgam of history, personality-revealing anecdote and advocacy journalism for the music, particularly the objet d’musique in hand, but not necessarily limited to only that.
I remember reading entire discographies – well, if not complete, at least complete for whatever label on which the recording-in-hand was made – along with tantalising listings of related recordings by others, not unlike how Amazon tempts us now, lower down on the screen from the main event when we’re exploring possible acquisitions thereon.
But back in the day, you didn’t have to buy anything to read the notes – one of their purposes was to inspire you to buy.
You just had to browse, an activity I still sorely miss, as I do the shops themselves.
In full disclosure, I must confess that I also still mourn the transition from LP to CD. What I miss the most are the big pictures, but then, when it comes to taking recordings into the studio and producing a radio programme, I much prefer CDs, which are far less perishable than LPs under normal handling circumstances.
Nowadays, you usually do have to buy something before you can get into the booklet wherein the notes, if any, are to be found. Some companies post liner notes online – Gertrude Stein would appreciate this likeness of language – which, in a way, continues the tradition of liner notes as promotional in nature, just via a newer, different avenue.
Only the truly clueless Luddite firms don’t let you at the notes unless or until you have actually forked over some money, making of them lagniappe [a small gift] for a purchase already made, but that sort of defeats one of the prose form’s original purposes.
In many ways liner notes are one of my favourite forms of writing, but also one of the most challenging, because if the musicians and their music are worth writing about, they’re worth writing more about than there is space to publish it, no matter how much space one is given, and that’s where online versions can come in handy, posting longer editions as long as we writers are willing to work for what turns out to be even less per word.
Something a major magazine chain exec recently told me seemed counter-intuitive, but he’s got the data to back it up, which is that for most of today’s consumers the online editions of pieces from his firm’s periodicals tend to be shorter than the ones in print, since most readers are using their phones or other smaller-screen devices to read. Go figure. I would posit this is related to that same societal ADHD and cultural dumbing down which has given us Brexit and Trump, and I loathe it.
I'll cast my lot with those magazines whose online editions offer longer versions of their print pieces, and, often, whole stories not even found in the print editions, with weekly new content augmenting a monthly print edition, and even links to other publications. The better record companies among the survivors-to-date are doing this too, and at least we can rejoice in that.