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Does the digital age mean the end of the liner note on albums?

It's a bit early to pronounce the death-due-to-downloading of the liner note, but the situation is critical. So warns Rob Bowman, ethnomusicologist, professor of music at York University, and a Grammy-winning (and multiple-nominee) writer of album notes. Five or six years ago, he worked on about 20 projects a year. Last year, he was down to four.

"With the music industry falling apart the way it has been the last few years, record companies are doing less and less with their catalogue ... so there are a lot fewer liner notes actually being written," says Bowman.

Example: When he was approached about Bettye LaVette's latest project Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, he was initially just asked to write something for the press bio. He argued the project deserved liner notes. They ultimately agreed. But a few years ago, it would have been a given.

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Now with record companies pinched for cash and doing fewer re-issues (boxed sets are a natural home for enhanced liner notes), and more music being bought digitally, liner notes are in danger of being considered a frill, Bowman says, something he bemoans not just as a writer, but as a consumer.

"Liner notes that are done well will include all sorts of interesting and original new things about how this work came to be, what its meaning is, what kind of impact it's had. Liner notes, if they're done really well, will totally transform the listening experience."

Bowman writes the kind of liner notes that transcend the definition. His contribution to The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Volume 3: 1972-1975, for which he won a Grammy in 1996, was a 47,000 word monograph - about half the length of a typical book contract. "That particular set of liner notes was the equivalent of getting half a book of original researched stuff that nobody had read, nobody knew, based on, in that case, about 100 interviews. So we're now talking about something pretty serious. This is not casual fluff."

As for more scaled-down liner notes for current releases, they are sometimes available (along with other extras) on iTunes as part of an LP download - a sort of deluxe edition, sometimes offered at a higher price.

"If it happened in a physical world, we're finding homes for it in a digital capacity, just serving it up differently," says Paul Shaver, vice-president, marketing and promotion with EMI Music Canada.

Shaver says liner notes are "very important" for boxed sets today because the people buying them are hungry for information about the original recording session. "People who consume these things love hearing from the artist's perspective," he says. "So if it's an artist telling a story about how they recorded X song back in 1973, people love that stuff."

Steve Waxman, director of national publicity for Warner Music Canada, agrees. "Re-issues and boxed sets are meant to put things in historical perspective, so having those liner notes gives people the proper context."

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But Waxman says young music consumers may have a different take on liner notes than people who grew up listening to physical LPs or even CDs.

"The kid who's 12 today starts a band next year and makes an album five years from now - maybe liner notes aren't important to him because he didn't experience them when he or she was getting into music. But that could change."

He adds: "In this day and age you just can't make definitive final death calls."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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