Wednesday, February 4, 2015

TMFW 74 - R.E.M. Rocks the Vote on Spare Cardboard


When CDs were introduced in the 1982, they were presented as a huge leap forward for the music industry.  In this delightfully weird ten-minute ad for compact disc technology made by CD co-developer Philips, Alan Parsons gripes that "for too many years, we've had to work in the dark, knowing that nobody would be able to hear the music as we made it in the studio," and then promises that "with the coming of compact disc, this is no longer a problem."  News stories from 1984 and 1985 - when CD players dropped from $1000 to around $300 (that was considered cheap, but it's over $650 in 2014 dollars!) and the format actually started to take off -  breathlessly explain that the discs are "made by computers" and "played by lasers," and that they sound better than anything out there.
But as great as the technology was for audiophiles and for the record industry, retailers were not happy with the new format.  First, record stores were full of display stands custom-built to hold 12 inch by 12 inch vinyl records.  But CDs were 5 inches by 5 inches, which looked small and weird on the racks.  Buying all new display equipment and rearranging layouts for an unproven format was a nonstarter for record stores.  Second, CDs were just small enough that enterprising shoplifters could fit them in pockets and down pants without much trouble. Anti-theft measures like plastic cages or electronic sensors would cost money and be a hassle to implement.  Because retailers were, obviously, critical to record sales, the industry placated them with a packaging solution: the "CD Longbox." (Remember those?)
Longboxes were basically just extra cardboard built around the CD case so that the package grew from 5 inches by 5 inches to 6 inches by 12 inches.  Two longboxes next to each other would fit in the exact space that one vinyl record took up, so the transition from vinyl to CDs would be simple.  And the bigger package was also harder to steal.  As a result of those two thing, retailers loved them.  For their part, record companies did too.  Longboxes added between 25 and 50 cents to the manufacturing cost, but added up to $1 to the retail price of a disc.  Essentially, the record company built an expensive an unnecessary package around their CDs, purely to benefit cheap record store owners, and then everyone down the line marked up their cost and made a profit selling the cardboard to consumers.  
As you might guess, longboxes were not very popular with the record-buying public.  The boxes were almost always simply ripped in half to get to the actual product, and then thrown away - sometimes right at the register.  That waste became hard to ignore, and as CD sales grew exponentially in the late 1980s and early 1990s longboxes were increasingly criticized for their environmental impact.  This 1990 Entertainment Weekly article notes that 200 million longboxes were trashed in 1989, which created 18.5 million pounds of waste. By mid-1990, every other country but the US had done away with the packaging; despite the environmental pressure the record companies and record stores weren't ready to give in.
All of that history is interesting (well, to me it is), and sets the scene for today's TMFW.  In 1991, REM released its record Out of Time.  REM at that time was at the height of its powers; Green had featured their biggest single yet ("Stand," which reached number 6 and which complemented "Pop Song 89" and "Orange Crush" on the record), and college rock was breaking out into the mainstream.  REM, who were a environmentally-conscious group, were concerned about having their record marketed with a longbox in the US, and initially refused to allow it.  But their label Warner Brothers knew that their sales would be hurt if they insisted on going without the longbox, and so they had to find a way to convince the group that the environmental impact was worth it.  
Warner Brothers came up with a genius solution: use the extra packaging for a political movement.  REM's lead singer Michael Stipe was outspoken politically, and was keenly interested in the "Rock the Vote" campaign that was founded in 1990.  Rock the Vote came partially in response to Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center, which pushed for censorship of music that they deemed inappropriate.  The PMRC freaked out the record labels and infuriated artists, who rightfully felt that having a panel of middle-aged, right-wing, upper- upper-class politicians' wives judging the content of their music was totally inappropriate and would lead to horrific results.  So Rock The Vote was born, with a stated aim of engaging young people in the political process so that the value of free expression would be well-represented at the polls.
This is where the Out of Time longbox comes in. This excellent episode of the "99% invisible" podcast tells the story well: Warner Brothers convinced REM to use the longbox by promising to put a postcard on the back that record buyers could fill out and send in to their senators (c/o Rock the Vote.)   The postcard urged the senators to support the "Motor Voter Act," which made registering to vote much easier by allowing people to register when they applied for drivers' licenses at their state DMVs.   
Out of Time was a breakout record for REM; behind "Losing My Religion," "Shiny Happy People," and "Radio Song," it hit number 1, won three Grammy Awards, and sold 4 million copies.  And the postcard gambit worked well, too: during Senate hearings on the Moter Voter Act, supporters brought in a shopping cart filled with 10,000 signed cards to demonstrate public support for the bill.  Ultimately, Motor Voter passed Congress in 1992.  Despite efforts from Michael Stipe and Rock the Vote to urge signing, President George H.W. Bush vetoed the bill during the 1992 campaign season.  His rival Bill Clinton seized on that veto and promised to support the bill if he was elected; in May, 1993 - just four months into his first term - Clinton kept his promise and signed the Act.  
As the 99% invisible entry suggests, Out of Time is likely the most politically significant record of all time.  And it's all due to some wasted cardboard.  
BONUS FACT: Longboxes didn't last very long after Out of Time.  In 1992, David Byrne put a sticker on each copy of his album Uh-Oh that read "This is garbage. This box, that is.  The American record business insists on it, though.  If you agree that it's wasteful, let your store management know how you feel."  By the end of 1993, CDs were by far the most dominant format, vinyl was dead, and longboxes became effectively extinct.  Ever the dinosaurs, record stores mourned the loss.
BONUS FACT 2:  Frank Zappa, who was an interesting enough dude to merit about a dozen TMFWs, was a leader in the resistance against Tipper Gore's PMRC music censorship campaign.  His testimony before a Congressional subcommittee 1985 was one of his great all-time performances.  You can read a transcript here and an appreciation of his anti-censorship efforts here.
BONUS FACT 3:  One of PMRC's "filthy fifteen" - the 15 most objectionable songs that PMRC targeted for censorship - was Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop," for lyrics about sex and masturbation.  I had no idea what I was listening to as a kid.

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