Remember liner notes? Probably not. In today’s world, liner notes are found in descriptions on Apple Music or Spotify. They are more of a summary of what the album is all about, and much less of a true liner note experience. When music was something everyone could physically hold, liner notes were part of the listening experience. Reading through the album jacket to study the lyrics while lying on the floor and listening to every song top to bottom is a deep listening experience that I believe gets lost in today's world of playlists, singles, and constant content.
Of course, all the streaming services now integrate lyrics into their experience, but it’s not the same as holding them in your hand—and beyond that, lyrics are only one piece of liner notes. Physical albums also let the listener know who was playing on, writing, engineering, mastering, and producing every song. Then they go a step deeper and tell the listener where and how the experience was captured, meaning whether it was recorded live or not, in studio or on stage, and exactly where and when the recording(s) took place.
Both TuneCore and Sonicbids have written excellent articles on the importance of liner notes in the digital age. All of this information gives the listener a lens or framing for the listening experience. It helps set expectations, but it also deepens the understanding of how the music they are listening to was created, which gives more meaning to the music.
The Lost Art of Album Liner Notes
When I was about 11, I became obsessed with buying CDs. Every week I would go to the record store on Tuesday when new music came out and buy something, then go home and listen to it while reading every piece of information in the liner notes. Though all of those CDs are useless now (and worthless), the seeds they planted continue to grow.
To illustrate the power of liner notes, I’d like to share a brief, but true example. In 8th grade, my Mother let me sign up for a CD catalog, which was very popular at the time. I was able to pick a number of CDs from a list, and they were sent to the house. I picked every album simply by the cover artwork, not knowing any of the bands. One of those albums was called Live at the Roxy by Social Distortion, which is now considered a classic album. This one album struck me like a bolt of lightning. I memorized every single line of stage banter between songs and read every word of the liner notes over and over again. There was an energy about the live experience, the rawness of it, the mistakes, the attitude. It was something different than a recorded song. It was alive, vibrant, and somewhat dangerous. I was addicted.
Daydreams Do Come True
Right there in the album sleeve, it said that The Roxy was in Hollywood, CA, and that the performances happened over three days, April 7-9 of 1998. That information taught me a lot. It taught me that they took the best performances from each of the three nights. That the band never played any “perfect” sets. What I was listening to was a mix of the best moments from each night. It also taught me that the fans were likely some of the same people—and some different people—but that somehow, even though there were all these variables, the energy and experience maintained a level of consistency that gave the listener a summarized feeling of being right there with them.
Having never heard of The Roxy before, I started to daydream about this magical place. Ten years later, I moved to Los Angeles, holding a special reverence for “The Roxy Theatre.” On September 10, 2010, Social Distortion was scheduled to play at the Palladium in Hollywood, a show which I of course had tickets to see.
Two weeks prior to the show, I got the call from the manager of my own band, Los Einstein. “You guys just got booked to open for a national touring act.”
Me: “Where are we playing?”
The answer: “The Roxy, on September 10.”
Now, I don’t buy so much into the stars aligning, but this was one of those moments. I sold my tickets to see Social Distortion and instead played with my own band to a sold-out audience at the same club I daydreamed about so many years ago. Sitting backstage, looking at the walls of signatures from all the artists, decade after decade, I felt so grateful. Giving the music meaning by learning everything I could about it gave that moment meaning.
An Opportunity to Record Live
On June 12, 2020, SoundLife will premiere our Virtual Showcase Volume III. For this concert, we gave our bands, who had not been able to play together for over a year and a half due to the pandemic, the opportunity to record live performances for the show. These performances were done at a professional rehearsal facility, and we gave them all the treatment a band would get when recording a live album. We mic’d all the instruments, gave them multiple takes, and shot each performance with five cameras.
We’re very excited to share the final result, for which I will be giving all of the liner notes right on screen. Just like Social Distortion’s “Live at the Roxy,” these performances aren’t perfect. They are raw, energetic, and have that same element of danger. This is, of course, what live music is all about. It’s witnessing music created right before your eyes, with no take backs, no apologies, and no excuses. When it comes to live albums, live performing, and live recording...Remember that they aren’t meant to be perfect. If they were, they wouldn’t have a purpose. They’re meant to be honest.
Today’s true liner notes can be found on Wikipedia and on All Music. It’s not the same, but I encourage anyone reading this to find a song or album you love and dive deep into it. Find out who played on it, who recorded it, where it was recorded, and then listen again and again. In doing this, we appreciate all of the unsung heroes of music-making. But we are also gaining a deeper understanding of music, which over time unlocks our own passions.
*The title for this article was taken from the podcast “Broken Record: Liner Notes for the Digital Age” hosted by Malcom Gladwell and Rick Rubin
Hey there! I'm Chris Vazquez, Program Director and Co-Founder of SoundLife. I've committed my life to sharing the joy of music through performance and education. As the curator of and lead contributor to this blog, I take great care to share inspiring, helpful, and eye-opening stories. It is my hope that each article helps both music students and parents of music students all over the world. As a veteran professional musician with over 15 years of touring experience and 20 years of teaching experience, I can say without doubt that dreams do come true, anything is possible, and music education is a life-altering gift.