I Speak for the Liner Notes!

"Hear Me Howling!: Blues, Ballads & Beyond as Recorded by the San Francisco Bay by Chris Strachwitz in the 1960s" - Authored by Adam Machado, 2012 Winner of the Grammy Award for Best Album Notes

If he were actually real, he’d probably be less than happy to have his name evoked in an effort to preserve the future of an item that’s made of paper and could potentially lead to the destruction of more trees, but I’m channeling my inner Lorax today by paying homage to the under appreciated art form that is music’s liner note. 

Not familiar with this object? Here’s some help from Merriam-Webster and Wikipedia.

Liner Notes (plural, noun): (1) The text printed on a paper insert issued as part of the packaging of a compact disc, cassette, or on the sleeve of a phonograph record. (2) Exploratory notes about a music record, like credits for individual(s) involved in the recording, information about the record label releasing the record, copyright information, and sometimes, song lyrics.

Yes, the colorfully decorated, heavily worded and photo laden booklet that comes with every compact disc has an official name, and they outline every detail of an album’s creation: who wrote the lyrics; whether a song is a remake; what songs were sampled; the names of the guitarists, bass players, keyboardists, etc.; the background vocalists; and so on. One could say that liner notes are an intricate tool of music education.

I was inspired to write this post after attending an event a few days which featured the super talented musicians and artists of B-Fly Entertainment. The musical performance – see a video promo below – was not only a well produced mash up of how jazz and soul music have influenced and heavily contributed to the early and current streams of hip-hop music, but also a tribute to a slip of paper whose prevalence has floundered over the years with the advent of the MP3.

Performers read the poetic liner note dedications and expressions from great albums such as A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders”, Ahmad Jamal’s “Jamal Plays Jamal” and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”And, although iTunes offers a digital booklet version of liners notes with some album purchases, their availability is in very, very limited supply.

So, why do I think this issue is important?

When publications like The Rolling Stone or The Los Angeles Times give an unfavorable review of an artist’s newest LP, the singer, musician or band usually has little recourse – albeit Twitter – to defend themselves, the creative vision that inspired their music, the team of people that helped create it, or the lyrics they wrote as an expression of their lives and the world around them.

While I speak for the liner notes in this post, liner notes have always had a way of speaking for the artist and the artist’s work. 

In Corinne Bailey Rae’s  2010 “The Sea”, she ends her liner notes with “This album, like everything I do, is made to try and impress Jason Bailey Rae.” Those  unfamiliar with Rae’s work or life, could read her lyrics, read her dedications and realize that this album and its poignant words are an expression of the pain Rae felt following the tragic, substance-related death of her husband, Jason, two years prior.

The significance of liner notes also have an industry stamp of approval.

Since 1964, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has given a Grammy Award for Best Album Notes to the authors of the best written liner notes, not the album artists or performers unless they also authored the notes. Past winners  include Johnny Cash, James Brown and even famed crime novelist, Walter Mosley, for writing liner notes to the comedic album “Richard Pryor…And It’s Deep Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992)”. This year’s Grammy recipient – the album note cover at least – is pictured above.

And in a time when the Academy has been very eager to trim the so-called low-hanging fruit of Grammy Awards, an annual honoring of the liner note has managed to survive.

Liner Notes – they (1) educate, (2) promote the artist’s vision and (3) have the support of music’s holy grail. So as I typically do, here are a few bullets of what you can do to reinvigorate your love for an item that’s both, artistic and educational:

  • Tweak Your Instant Music Gratification: It’s the feeling you get when buying a song seconds after it becomes available on iTunes and immediately downloading it to your iPod. You can still get this same feeling the day an album is released by pre-ordering the CD via Amazon.com or Target.com and having it delivered to your doorstep. The added benefit? Reading and appreciating a slick, glossy version of the liner note’s photos, art, credits and dedications.
  • There’s Always, Always, Always Vinyl: There are many who feel that MP3s decrease the sound and playback quality of music and prefer compact discs. There are some who go even further and feel vinyl records are the only way to have a truly sublime listening experience, and for the optically challenged, they come with a large text version of the album’s liner note. If you’re wondering where does one find vinyl in an age of digital, Best Buy and the disappearing local music store, there’s (yes, again) Amazon.com and UrbanOutfitters.com. Both sites offer not only a great selection of vinyl records, but also record players that range from the cute, compact and pastel-colored to the high-end, ultra-complex and nostalgic. If that doesn’t work for you, there’s always the flea market. Here’s a photo of four vinyl records I picked up last year for a dollar each.
  • Buy Albums at Concerts: If you frequent concerts at smaller venues for artists that are still considered indie or underground, there will more than likely be an opportunity to purchase a CD version of their albums. The bonus? If you happen to bump into them in the VIP area, they’ll autograph your purchase. It happened to me in Chicago. The artist was Eric Roberson and the day happened to be December 31, 2009. Peep the photo. Liner notes included.

If you’re still not convinced and live in the Washington, DC area, you should check out B-Fly Entertainment’s series of Liner Notes performances in late April at The Dunes. I’ll be there, along with my friend, @MsAliTee, who not only introduced me the group, but is also my oracle on all things hip, cool and undiscovered in the arts, music and dance world.

We can grab food afterwards, and I don’t know, perhaps trade liner notes. 😉