The use of the record as an analogue music holding device has been around since the early 20th century. Indeed, the 1920s and 1930s saw and uptick in the use of records for recording music and record players for playing that music back, and though the technology was really quite remarkable at the time, there are of course always advancements to be made to make a process and a concept better for the world. This is what vinyl did for the record business: it made the entire production and sound processes easier, more efficient, and frankly just better. The improvement that the industry witnessed with the advent of the vinyl album cannot be understated, and it is important to grasp the history of the record before vinyl came into play in order to understand just how big an accomplishment this alteration was.
Early disc recording speeds were all dictated by the materials that the records were made out of. Indeed, because the materials dictated the recording speeds, the music that was created for the album was in turn dictated. This meant that the songs you heard were a direct result of the format’s advantages and disadvantages, as musicians knew that the songs they wrote would have to fit on one side of a record. The earliest records to become popular were the 78 rpm records, which were made from a variety of materials, though the primary material was a hard rubber. In the late 1890s a shellac-based compound was first introduced into the production process and soon became the material of choice. While there are certainly differences in the base materials used and other components, the combination was usually a third shellac, two thirds “mineral filler”, some fibers to add strength, carbon for the black coloring, and a little bit of lubricant to keep the album running. While “flexible” or “unbreakable” albums were introduced around 1904, the issue with these 78 rpm records was still that they could play no more than three minutes per side of recorded music. This was a significant drawback to the material, though at the time it was the only thing available so folks hardly knew what they were missing out on. The 78 was 12 inches in diameter, so when artists and symphonies recorded their music, they were usually sold in sets in order to accommodate the length of the music as well as the capacity of the record.
The big changes came with the availability of new materials to make the LP records we know and love today. Indeed, it is sometimes referred to as the microgroove era, but there were two things that changed the way records were released and paved the way for the record album to come into existence. First, records could be made out of vinyl rather than shellac. This made it easier to cut smaller grooves in the material, thus giving more space and more time for music per side. These two interacting features truly changed the arc of the record business, and vinyl albums changed the way popular artists made music.