Don Was on iTunes and the death of liner notes

December 14, 2010

(Photo courtesy David Goggin)

Got an e-mail the other day from my old friend, Steve Jordan – one of the greatest drummers on Earth … he’s played with everyone from Keith Richards to Sonny Rollins and produced a slew of artists like John Mayer, Solomon Burke and Buddy Guy. Steve asked, “How can NARAS [the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences] nominate an album for best engineered recording and fail to nominate the mastering engineer?” It’s a great question: Denying the Grammy to the mastering engineer is the musical equivalent of awarding a Super Bowl ring solely to the victorious quarterback while ignoring the contributions of his receivers and offensive linemen. In the football analogy, it’s more difficult to overlook the other players because we see them on TV, hear the announcers mention their names and read about them on the sports page. How many of you readers have even heard of a mastering engineer?  Don’t feel badly – it’s not your fault. These days, you have to launch a dedicated hunt to find out about these things.

Since I started making records 30-some years ago, we’ve always made a point of mentioning the recording, mixing and mastering engineers along with the musicians, arrangers, songwriters and producers who contribute to the records. When those credits were printed on a 12-inch album jacket, the letters were large enough to actually read. Fans got a real sense of both the collaborative nature of recorded music and of all the work and dedication behind every album. Subsequently, smaller CD booklets necessitated an almost illegible print size. These days, the nation’s largest retailer of music – the iTunes store – has essentially eliminated credits, liner notes and printed lyrics from their digital packaging.  I’m at a loss to explain Apple’s ambivalence about upholding the quality and value of the product that has fueled the success of their hardware. For those of us who grew up in Detroit, this kind of corporate cockiness should have a certain ring of familiarity: It’s an early symptom of  the same shortsightedness that brought down the Big Three automakers and sent the city into an economic tailspin.

In the summer of 1966, I bought an album called Freak Out! by a then-unknown group called the Mothers of Invention at Lou Salesin’s Mumford Music Store on Coolidge Highway in Oak Park. It was a double album with an amazing gatefold jacket that retailed for $4.99. Inside there were extensive liner notes written by Frank Zappa that changed my life.  In a subsequent interview, Frank said that the Freak Out! album package was designed to be “as accessible as possible to the people who wanted to take the time to make it accessible. That list of names in there, if anybody were to research it, would probably help them a great deal.” He was right: The first time I heard of Charles Ives, Willie Dixon, Captain Beefheart, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Eric Dolphy was when I read that list of 150 random notables (titled People Who Have Contributed Materially in Many Ways to Make Our Music What it Is – Please Do Not Hold it Against Them). My friend, Michael Loceff, and I took a trip to LA later that summer just to check out all the locations that Frank listed as freak out hot spots. When we finally reached the hallowed portals of Ben Franks restaurant on Sunset, we felt like we’d become part of a movement – even if it was 10 a.m., and there wasn’t a freak in sight! Years later, I got to hang out with the Mother’s drummer, Jimmy Carl Black. I was tongue-tied and awestruck to be in the presence of this cat whose mystique, for me, was based solely on his portrayal on the inside of album covers. Frank Zappa schooled us in counter-culture history, gave lost teenagers an identity along with a mythology and provided four sides of groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll for five bucks! Some 44 years later, I’m still a fan – that’s what the music business is about.

If Zappa released that same music today, we’d browse the 30-second samples on the iTunes store without the benefit of reading those mind-blowing liner notes. There’d be no context or depth to the whole experience. It’s no wonder that kids don’t wanna pay for music anymore – downloading a file of zeroes and ones for 99 cents has the same cultural allure  as ordering a Ronco Veg-O-Matic from an 800 number.

I suspect that the blame doesn’t fall solely at the feet of iTunes. For all I know, they may be willing to offer all of the digital packaging that they’re supplied with.  It wouldn’t be surprising to discover that it’s also the record labels who feel they can’t afford  the time and expense required to make this information available.  Distracted by the tsunami of horrifying financial trends, maybe nobody in the music business is seriously addressing the possibilities for digital liner notes and the improvement of digital albums.  We’re missing the point that, just like domestic automobiles, if we offer better records at a reasonable price maybe people will start buying them again!

Years ago, we felt that the iTunes store was the only hope for the future of recorded music. They were treated with kid gloves by the musicians and entrepreneurs who devoted their lives to making and selling records. Nobody, myself included, wanted to rock the boat. Now I’m starting to wonder if this laissez faire attitude towards iTunes is becoming part of the problem and contributing to the devaluation of the album experience. Ten billion downloads later, it’s time for everyone  – Apple, the record labels, artists, ASCAP, BMI, the Federation of Musicians,  SAG , the recording academy, music publishers – to ante up and show more respect for music fans  by insisting on providing them with the complete experience of recorded music.  A great, timeless album is more than just an entertainment app.

Knowing the name of the mastering engineer and honoring his work is a sign of a healthy culture – an essential component to a functioning society. Right on, Steve!

Detroit’s own Don Was (producer of artists from Bonnie Raitt to the Rolling Stones, and co-founder of Was (Not Was)) has agreed to a stint writing for MT’s Star Traction blog. Your comments are encouraged.

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  • Anonymous

    Thank you for a wonderful article!
    Yes credit is something that society has devalued over time, somehow feeling the object has more substantial power than those creating it. Our money has become plastic or worse yet gold flakes rather than gold bars. You can’t actually get anything substantial attempting to trade a dollar at a US Mint.

    Detroit has been a proud manufacturing city. Assembly lines are teams of people working together. Credit deserves a come back – because it is good moral fiber for the country. It shows we value each other as much as what we create. Giving credit should be more than a whisper too, it carries pride and we can boast about it.

  • Bananabob

    Don thank you for airing your views. Views that I have had for many years. The difference is that musicians who make the recording think of it as art. While the record companies think of it as product. And we all know who has won. Seems there maybe fans that think the same way as the musicians.

  • Pasta

    Amen !!! In Nashville to leave off the songwriter credits will get you excommunicated from the town- but try to find out who played guitar on the last Rascal Flatts album- and u may as well be searching for the Arc of the Covenent ;)

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  • David Culiner

    As a recording artist…I’ll gladly testify that it is due to every single human link in the music-making chain that makes the recording experience (and result) so magical and relevant.

    Mr. Was…this is a battle well worth fighting…and I’ll gladly get in the foxhole with you any day or night for the cause. Your hard-earned stature and Voice Of Truth And Reason will go a long way in this worthy battle.

    I am at your service should you ever need an uncelebrated street-level ally…

    David Culiner – lovethislife

  • Jer

    Agreed!!!! Great article, Don!

    Jer Gervasi

  • Jer

    Agreed!!!! Great article, Don!

    Jer Gervasi

  • Jer

    Agreed!!!! Great article, Don!

    Jer Gervasi

  • Fuzzbee

    I read that very same list inside Freak Out, Don, as a mere tyke and it changed my life! Great article and let’s have liner notes (and mastering engineers) forever)))

  • Info

    iTunes contributed to the music industry in ways the record labels refused. To blame the death of liner notes on iTunes is to behave like record labels of old. iTunes LP is Apple’s way of including liner jacket artwork and notes, like the CDs and LPs of old. Yet few artists/labels take advantage of it. So, include iTunes LP information with your releases, and your Mastering Engineer will get credit.

  • Jonh Ingham

    I was 15 in Oregon when some kid in high school hove into view carrying the cover of Freak Out. Like Don, I pored over those notes forever. I still remember the excitement when I saw Ben Franks on a visit to LA 3 years later.

    This is a fight to get behind and the first step would be every artist making sure their websites and media carried at a minimum the data on players, producers, engineers, etc.

  • Fy

    If there were any music being made today worth giving a sh#€ about who was the mastering engineer..

  • Dylan Nirvana

    Thank you Don for some badly needed perspective. What really struck me was acknowledging the collaborative aspect of making records. And this had power beyond the cardboard holding the vinyl.

    Not only is the music consumer unaware of the people involved in this collaboration, but making music today has for many people moved away from a collaborative setting altogether and into a more isolated venue: the bedroom.

    Because of Garage Band or even ProTools, a record is often the result of the work of one person. Can you imagine this trend continuing, being your own dentist, doorman, shrink?

    It’s just not that interesting. It has stopped being a culture and become the cult of the individual. Who are the losers here? Remember the Art of War: divide and conquer…

  • Peter Koepke

    Music is contextual! I think information is essential to provide a 3 dimensional experience. Long ago, someone gave me an album by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton. It led me back to Son House and Otis Rush via the writers credits, and forward into Cream, Fleetwood Mac etc via the musicians. The producer credit (Mike Vernon) led me to early David Bowie and Ten Years After among others.

  • Charlie O’Brien

    It was also cocky that Berry Gordy refused to give credit to the playing of the wonderful Funk Brothers musicians on the LP credits until Marvin Gaye did on his “What’s Going On” album.

  • Yakov

    Yes but it cuts both ways. With universal access to All Music Guide, Wikipedia, and thousands of other sites, music fans have access to information like never before. Nowadays Zappa could tweet his list of names and you could read he list research all of the names in an afternoon from your freakin’ CELL PHONE. Things aren’t as clear cut as you make them out to be.

  • Michael Louis

    SO TRUE about mastering and the mastering engineer. Can make a great mix a classic by giving it the right amount of “punch”. My latest CD “South New York” was mastered by a great East Coast cat, Don Grossinger and he knew the vibe of the recording and got the mastering right. We all know a bad mix, recording or performance CAN’T be fixed in mastering, but a bad mastering job can KILL a good record. Some mastering cats can be a bit “elitist” in their
    attitude (and price), but usually in the end it’s worth it!
    As far as liner notes: the slippery slope was coming with the invention
    of CD’s, IPOD’s, ITUNES…etc I had heard (a year or two) ago about Itunes LP
    and I don’t think i even signed up for it with my CD’s, but i should have.
    I still take pride in having a great Art Director take my vision for a CD and make it a reality. I want people hold the CD, look @ the artwork, read
    who played on it, where it was recorded, mixed, mastered and all that.
    It’s as close to an LP we can get (unless we press some vinyl).
    I love getting a well made box set of some New Orleans R&B, Blues,
    Soul or something and the liner notes are informative (even though the type
    is small). We live in a “disposable” society now and unfortunately alot
    of our culture and music is just that.
    Happy Holidays,
    Michael Louis
    Brooklyn, NY

  • Prime Time Heroes

    Great Article Don, as an artist that released 2 albums in 2010, with our same line up from the 80′s after a hiatus of decades where labels wanted gimmicks and our souls to record, I was proud to be one of the few who worked with Indie management on the liner note credits and dedications for these releases and am fortunate to work with industry professionals that hold this in high regard.Our mastering engineer also got credit on our YouTube release last month. This is a worthwhile fight, time may be a precious commodity, but information and truth still reign supreme.. Lindsey Spight-Prime Time Heroes

  • george orwell

    Don, you can’t stop progress and the old guard who complains about the demise of the industry is getting old.. The commenter who mentioned that all of this info can placed on your wikipedia, your website, etc is correct.. I can learn more about an artist in seconds on the interwebs.. the solution is make sure you post what you want on your website.. make it available for download if you want it printed out

  • Todd Everett

    I take this as a sign that Don is going to press for liner notes on all of the albums he’s involved with — a policy that those of us in the business of writing them endorse with the greatest enthusiasm, thanks, and open wallets.

  • Vicki Arkoff

    What Todd said. Having served on the Grammys’ liner notes committee, we saw the start of the decline ages ago, when single-fold CD cover inserts became the norm. Recently, in credits (no notes) for a current alternative hit CD I couldn’t even find the names of the band members. Album art directors have it bad too, having seen 12″x12″ cover art possibilities — gate-folds, inserts, etc. — reduced to thumbnail size. It’s the new reality, but it’s not progress.

  • FM

    Both you and the commenter who talked about being like the “record companies of old” are missing the point and just having the knee-jerk, “old vs. new” response.

    What Was is really alluding to is the need to make the product better. Whether it’s digital or physical, liner notes, mastering quality, songwriting, whatever… the way to sell more records and get people more enthusiastic about music and the surrounding culture is by making Better Music.

    By the way – who do you think gives iTunes the rights to sell the songs? It’s the “record companies of old.”

  • Joe Shiver

    Dylan this is an extremely narrow sided view. So you are saying(and I know many mastering engineers) that no music has been made in say the last 5 years that doesn’t warrant a mastering engineer deserving credit? Do you even know how important a mastering engineer is or what they do? It baffles me that you would lump all music being made today as not being important who the mastering engineer is. Robert Plant & Allison Krauss, Daft Punk, The Black Crowes? All that too?

  • Jack

    I wonder if there was an outcry by lovers of grain feed bag artwork, when the automobile took hold over the horse?

  • Bill Dahl

    Odd–just about all I do is write liner notes for a living (a declining living, I’ll sadly grant you), and the reissue trend I see is towards “coffee table boxed sets” (for lack of a better term) where I write maybe 50,000 words covering each and every song in-depth, or a biography that’s nearly book-length. Bottom line: consumers who still buy physical CDs (we’re still out here, and I’m one of ‘em) want more than the basic single disc greatest hits packages that have been out there forever with the single fold booklet. We want an object that’s a joy to own, with discographical info, extensive notes, tons of photos (like the Buddy Holly, Wilson Pickett, Syl Johnson, Motown Singles, and several Bear Family packages that I’ve had the pleasure to work on lately). I used to be on one of those NARAS liner notes committees that Vicki mentions before I quit the entire organization in disgust, and I have a feeling that if the massive packages that I’ve been involved in annotating lately aren’t submitted for consideration, that’s the record labels’ decision, not the decline of the medium itself. Great CD reissues are still being released all the time for we folks who avoid downloading like the plague!!

  • Jack’s Conscience

    And this is comparable to acknowledging/crediting creative contributions to a song or album how, exactly?

  • Dillon O’Brian

    Hey Don,
    Try finding Songwriter information on any of the gazillion Lyric websites who post our words illegally, in violation of all copyright law, while the copyright owning mega-publishers do NOTHING to access our royalties generated through ad income on those sites!

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  • David Gans

    Great piece, Don. I keep thinking my next release should be on a DVD, with high-res audio, a CD image, properly mastered MP3s, and an HTML (or other format) interactive package of liner notes, credits, session photos and clips, etc.

  • Minstrel613

    Don, thanks for bringing to light something that has been overlooked for so long. Like most fans of art, I always want to know the contributors. Heck, I even spend the time to read the credits at the end of a movie because it’s fascinating to understand that every single person played a role in that creation. As a songwriter and former artist, I can appreciate you championing the cause and I fully support it. Like you, I can also remember the days of exploring and reading liner notes and ANY word on the back of an album just to feel connected to the artist. The delight I found in reading Jethro Tull’s “Thick As A Brick” faux newspaper over and over again was just amazing and then to find out years later that the band wrote all of that “news” just enhanced the joy. Keep up the good fight. I believe that Apple will get the picture and do the right thing so long as we all let them know how important it is. Thanks for starting the fire!

  • nancy in chicago

    I love those booklets that come with box sets (although I tend to get classical recordings, not blues) And, I’ve bought 2 CD’s via iTunes — but found, even when they’re VERY skimpy (and some CD’s have very skimpy liner notes) I prefer to buy a CD & rip to my iTouch & have the liner notes! Found some artists, like Doc Watson, that way.

  • Texas Jake

    A really great article …and so true!

  • Gerardo Diwa

    hey Don, great article. I reckon all sound engineers, mixers and mastering guys especially should release the materials prior to putting their magic on it. Now that would be something. :-D

  • Bootz

    Thats because they want people to think that the guy in the band plays the guitar….it is done on purpose…

  • Chriswlanger

    Frank once said that downloading of music would never take off because fans would regret the loss of the “fondling material.” Unfortunately, he was wrong. Remember Zeppelin II? The problem is not really iTunes, but the fact that today you can download so much music for free that it has ceased to be a commodity. Once something is offered for free it is very hard to get someone to pay for it or to respect it. I was in the business for 20 years, I am Grammy nominated, and I couldn’t give away time in my studio for $100 a day. People have ceased to care about music as an art form. It is now just background noise while they are doing something else.

  • Bogframe

    What we’ve been seeing over the last few years is the de-evolution of recorded misic. When cylinder machines came out in the 1890s, you got a cylinder with one song on it in a cardboard tube with the artist’s name and the name of the song on it. When the Gramophone took over in the 1910s, you got two songs per record, a little more info on the inside label andthat was it. Later, in the late 20s through the 40s,you got Albums in the true sense of the word; three or more 78s in a book with cover art and the first liner notes. The introduction of the 33 RPM LP in the mid 50s gave us the birth of high fidelity and Stereo, even better liner notes and cover art. That lasted less time than most of us realize. CDs and the shrunken cover art and diminished liner notes started cropping up around 1982 and now in the 2010s, they’re even going the way of the LP.
    I think, as far as musicality, fidelity and the recording process as Art, we peaked out around 1973 and it’s been a steady downhill run since. Pity. I have always found the playing of an LP a religious experience in every sense of the word. The playing of an LP is a ritual. You slide the album from the liner, making sure not to desecrate the grooves with your fingers, place it lovingly on the platter and wipe it down with your velvet record sweeper, gently drop the cart and stylus onto the record and then sit back and adore the cover art and delve into the liner notes. How can going through your iTunes playlist compare?

  • Caseymoo

    As an admirer, listener of music, musician and producer, I’ve always enjoyed the mastering work of the Lord-Alge brothers , to the point of many many deep discussions with colleagues and young musicians. Other than students in music school, would anybody know their names in today’s world since the demise of liner notes? SADLY,not likely.

  • TomBrzezina

    I can remember poring over the liner notes for early Rolling Stones and Animals albums, looking for clues to the sources of their music. These notes turned me on to John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Charlie Parker, Muddy Waters, and Howling Wolf. Everyone knows these names now, but for a 14-year old white kid in 1964, their music was a revelation. This was before rock journalism. Back then, album notes served as my treasure maps to musical gold.

  • bogdonv

    yep, cool.

  • AlstonDavid

    The way records have been sounding lately, go ahead and leave off the mastering engineer. They just level the album out to no dynamics and squash it.

  • Jcoulter

    Don – this is right on.

  • Tom callahan

    Right on Don. I too have discovered MANY artists over the years by looking at liner notes and discovering who the background players on certain albums were. From Arnold McCuller with James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt to Maceo Parker with james Brown…I discovered I loved the production work of Gary Katz with Steely Dan!

  • Anonymous

    As an artist/label you can either send iTunes an “LP” format, tough to do if you’re an indie but still do-able I understand. Or you can include a .pdf that gets automatically downloaded (and, in turn, routinely ignored) when the album is bought on iTunes. But if you buy the download from amazon or any other retailer, you’re S.O.L.

    I have chosen to include the pdf with releases I’m involved in, but it’s not the same.

    I would devote my time and resources to a solution if anyone out there knows anyone who knows anyone, I would love to help make liner notes ubiquitous again. When you “flip over” the song you’re listening to on an iOS device you should be able to see rich-formatted liner notes with links. Imagine album art on an iPad? It would be glorious. Art and sound fidelity, in that order, are the two reasons I collect vinyl still.

  • Anonymous Writer

    What a great article! I’m new to the music biz and if there is anything I’ve learned more it is how many talented individuals it takes achieve a good recording period. And I always read the liner notes as a music buyer over my 40 years of purchacing records. That really is missing now and shouldn’t be.
    I just started writing a few years ago and got lucky with one song and the singer always says my name before he sings it. At first I was shy about it, but after he said it on TV… well I really can’t describe how validated I felt. He also mentions the musicians and everyone else he can think of… and they all deserve to be known.
    But like the article says… go on I-tunes and there is nothing but the record companies name aside from the artist… too bad, more for the others than for me, they made it happen.

  • scorcher14

    Totally agree. I spent a lot of time studying liner notes as well as a kid. In digital domain we have not only the ability to continue this but to improve it!

  • rlb5575

    I’m on both sides of the business, both in clearance for television and also as a consumer. Of course, liner notes are not always correct, but even incorrect information is often helpful in leading to the right contacts for permission to use songs in shows. If we can’t track down a contact, we can’t use the song. I can’t imagine what my predecessors did before internet! On the consumer side, I like to have the liner notes on my desk while listening to an album so I can possibly grasp the songwriter’s message from the lyrics, separate from the director’s message in a corresponding video. If the general public is only exposed to a video, they get the message of the song through the director’s filter and budget, not necessarily the songwriter’s. Also, if the artist has creative say in the album artwork, the consumer can absorb a lot of his or her personality through cover art, thank yous and, if included, personal notes regarding song origin. Personally, I connect better with an artist and song when I know what they were thinking when they wrote it (if the artist is also the songwriter).

    Yay for liner notes!

  • Timtom

    A popular misconception! Artists approve final mastered albums – if they don”t like the “no dynamics and squash” the mastering engineer will change it, or he/she will be out of a job. Artist anxiety about their product not competing with other releases is the real reason for over loud cd’s.

  • Jjpl2001

    … I´m still in shock with frank´s words, how many others with a great mind have been unseen, great article!.

  • Gjakub

    I had a similar liner notes experience, but the album was Buffalo Springfield Again (mono) found in the bargain bin at Arlans for $2.99 in 1968. I agree with the key points made so far, that digital formats encourage us to treat music as a disposable commodity instead of a rich, robust artform that inspires emotion, creativity and the desire to explore and understand more about music. Too few people still value music this way.

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  • randydollar

    not only that, those LPs were great as rolling trays–

  • Terryd1

    many new albums come with excellent digital liner notes – Peter Gabriels latest are superb, and Feist even has good ones. the issue is you have to buy the album through itunes, not just the song. 45′s didn’t have liner notes way back then, and only rarely did CD singles. I just bought duran duran’s latest (it’s actually really good!) and their liner notes are outstanding.

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