The History and Decline of Album Liner Notes

A young man holding a vinyl LP in a retro record store

Nick David / Getty Images

Liner notes, the written accounts accompanying a record, cassette or CD, have been an important element in the presentation of commercial music. Changes in the way music is delivered to listeners, however, have changed the function and utility of liner notes, which have also been affected by social and political trends.

Record Industry Background

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which certifies gold and platinum album sales, has been keeping records of annual album sales only since 1973. Using the available 1970s and 1980s data, we can look back a few years with some accuracy and see that beginning in the early 1950s with the introduction of long-playing vinyl records (LPs), something very significant happened. The LP turned a relatively small segment of the entertainment industry in 1950 into what was, by 1973, a behemoth with a little under half-billion units sold.

The growth trend continued through the 1970s, peaking in 1999 with total sales of about 1 billion units. But something else happened during the seventies, which was that sales of the LP, the dominant delivery medium in 1971, consistently declined through the following two decades until by 1990 it was basically a niche product, replaced by cassettes and, increasingly, CDs.

The Heyday of Liner Notes in the 1970s

This matters, because the LP came in a 12-inch square package, providing a minimum of 144 square inches of editorial space on the back cover alone for whatever the artist and record company agreed belonged there. As often as not, editorial narratives continued on the album's liner—the protective cover that slipped inside the LP cover.

Eventually, the practice adopted as liner notes grew longer so that eventually most of the written comments appeared not on the back cover but on the album's liner, hence "liner notes." These notes contain information about the record—credits for everyone involved in the recording, information about the record label putting out the record, copyright information, and sometimes, song lyrics—as well as growing editorial content peripherally related to the music.

Social and Political Influences on Content

This expansion of the liner note's function coincided with another trend that increased its importance. The 1960s social revolution transformed music from a relatively innocuous vehicle for romantic yearnings in 1950 into a potent socio-political force by the late 1960s.

The biggest artists of the late sixties and early seventies were, as much of their audience, convinced that part of their mission was to change the world. Huge hits like "Come On People, All Together Now," recorded by The YoungBloods, typified pop record content of the era. Most of Bob Dylan's biggest hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s were, along with with being artistically important, stringent social messages, as were many of Motown's biggest hits.

During this era of political and social discontent, social critics and music critics alike found the liner notes to be a great place to sound off. Fantasy Records' Ralph Gleason typified the trend. Gleason, who combined the roles of social critic, music critic, and record industry exec, wrote acute, well-written liner notes not only to express his opinion about the album's music but also to ruminate on its social and political significance.

The Demise

For reasons directly related to the circumstances that brought liner notes to prominence, they have declined in importance and use throughout the 1980s and continue that decline in the 21st century, where liner notes, including not just notes on the liner but in any other place, have become increasingly terse and are often absent altogether.

By 1980, the era of the LP was substantially over. Vinyl records exist today but as a niche product. In 1980, the dominant vehicles for delivering music to buyers were the new smaller cassettes (not the larger, original "8-track" product) and CDs.

Both of these are much smaller objects. Even the larger CD has only about 25 sq. inches of available space for narrative comments, comfortable for a sonnet. Although extensive commentaries occasionally continue in "CD booklets," put inside the CD package, the era of the socio-politically important liner note was essentially over

Decreased space wasn't the only reason. By the 1980s, the recording industry had become an integrated part of the trillion-dollar entertainment industry. None of the dominant companies—among them EMI, the Warners Group, Sony, and BMG—were run, no surprise, by social/political radicals with an interest in political comment. Artists, too, followed the depoliticizing trend. Rappers continued to be politically involved more than other musicians, but their comments were there for all to hear in the raps of NWA and countless others. They didn't need liner notes.

Although some musicians' websites continue to offer digital downloads of commentary on their music, in general, the significance of liner notes diminished even further a little later in the 21st century as the industry shifted more and more toward digital downloads and streaming.