How do you get from beetles to The Beatles? The answer is PVC. Before the 1950s most records were made from compounds of shellac and wood flour. Shellac, a natural polymer, is a resin secreted from the female Kerria lacca insect.
Records made from shellac were brittle and prone to breakage. They were also abrasive, leading to a harsh, scratchy sound. The material required a wide groove – played at 78 rpm, the discs could only hold five minutes of music per side.
In 1931 RCA Victor introduced a narrower-grooved 33 rpm disc in two variants: a 10 inch disc pressed from shellac for popular and light classical music and a 12 inch disc, holding up to 15 minutes per side, pressed from Victrolac (a vinyl-based compound) for “serious” classical music. But, with the depression in full swing, consumers couldn't afford the new two-speed turntables and the format died out.
Rival manufacturer Columbia wanted 20 minutes per side and put its R&D department, CBS Laboratories, into action. The research was delayed by America's involvement in World War II but, in 1948, 65 years ago, the LP as we know it today was introduced.
PVC allowed for a narrower “microgroove” and smoother playback. This revolutionised the music industry – affecting the speed and scale of manufacture, and changing the market from one driven by individual songs, to one driven by albums.
Like any industry reliant on oil, the music industry was hit by the crisis of 1973. Todd Rundgren's 1973 LP “A Wizard, A True Star”, now acclaimed by critics as an all-time great, was intended as a double album. In an example of how crisis can fuel creativity, the sudden leap in the cost of raw materials forced Rundgren to condense his sprawling ideas into a single disc of PVC.
LP sales peaked in the 1980s, when 35 million copies of Michael Jackson's “Thriller” were pressed at CBS's pressing plant in Haarlem, the Netherlands. But sales would decline sharply with the introduction of the Compact Disc.
In recent years, LP sales have been on the increase, as nostalgic consumers eschew iPod culture for the “warmth” of vinyl, buying heavier “audiophile” LPs which contain 180g – 200g of PVC, compared with the 130 that was once standard.