Let’s Ask Again: What Do We Do About Liner Notes in the Digital Age?

Had it not been for old-school liner notes, you wouldn’t be reading this. Here’s why.

In early 1980, a bunch of friends crossed the road from high school to my place so we could listen to the new Rush album, Permanent Waves. I cracked open the shrinkwrap, put the thing on the stereo and we heard “Spirit of Radio” (side one, track one) for the first time as we munched on baloney and cheese sandwiches. As we listened, we handed the album jacket and the inner sleeve back and forth so we could read the liner notes.

There at the bottom of the lyrics for “Spirit of Radio” was this note: “Dedicated to the Spirit of Radio, alive and well and living in Brampton so far.” (I think I got that right.)

Since I was a hardcore Rush fan, I had to find out what that meant. It turned out that there was a weird little radio station in Brampton called CFNY-FM which played decidedly non-mainstream rock. The station’s slogan at the time was “The Spirit of Radio.”

At that point in my life–Grade 12–I was leaning towards a career in radio. I remember thinking “Wouldn’t it be cool to work at that station one day? I mean, Rush wrote a song about it?”

As of today, I’ve spent almost 26 years doing something with that station. Had Neil Peart not written this song–and had there not been that addendum to the liner notes–who knows where I might have ended up.

My point is to illustrate the power of liner notes, something that has slipped drastically since we all went digital. Musically takes a look at the situation.

This week, Spotify rolled out a long-awaited new feature: its Discover Weekly playlists. These gems of exploration are now nicely slotted into every user’s library on the service, and are truly an excellent addition. So take a bow, Team Spotify!

I hope we’ll see all other services follow suit. And despite Spotify telling Music Ally that seeding tracks won’t be part of these playlists, I sincerely hope that these new avenues for discovery and connection can be used properly with listening-habits data to help fans find new songs from artists they actively listen to, whether they follow them or not.

(Something Spotify’s WIll Hope and I debated on a panel at this year’s The Great Escape conference.)

Make no mistake: discovery is the key to success for music old and new on streaming services, be that via listening-habit recommendations, curated playlists, seeding, or search. And it’s search that I’d like to have a little look at today.

Last week, I noticed several friends and colleagues sharing a petition link on social networks, calling for Apple Music to show the album credits when songs were being played, rather than just the headline artist and track title.

First, this is a question for more services than just Apple Music, but second, while I’m sure we all agree that creators are absolutely in need of profile, I was dismayed at the short-sighted nature of this petition’s request.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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