POP MUSIC : Look Again at That CD--You May Be Seeing Double

Whatever happened to the double album?

For years the two-in-one packages embodied the promise and ambition of rock, as artists pushed beyond the limits of conventional singles and albums.

Who can forget classics like:

* Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” (71 minutes, 31 seconds).

* The Beatles’ “White Album” (93:40).

* The Who’s “Tommy” (74:49).

* The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” (66:37).

* The Clash’s “London Calling” (66:00).

And the l-o-n-g beat goes on: Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” . . . Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” . . . Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” . . . Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.”

So what happened?

They’re baaaack --though in the age of the compact disc, no one calls them double albums anymore.

The reason double albums existed in the days of vinyl was that you could get only about 25 minutes of music on one side before the sound quality started to suffer. The length of the average album during that period was about 40 minutes. A single CD, though, can accommodate more than 75 minutes.

So all of these bestselling single CDs are the double albums of today (indeed, all except the Prince collection have been issued in limited-production, double-vinyl packages):


* Guns N’ Roses’ “Use Your Illusion I” (76:06 minutes).

* Guns N’ Roses’ “Use Your Illusion II” (75:59).

* Metallica’s “Metallica” (62:39).

* Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” (73:15).

* Prince’s “Diamonds & Pearls” (65:48).

“The day of the 35-minute release is history,” says Pete Howard, editor of ICE--the International CD Exchange newsletter. “The average length of albums has probably gone up 10 minutes since the advent of the CD.”

So the artists must be getting rich off the royalties from all those additional songs on their albums, right?

Not necessarily. While writers’ royalties are paid on all songs, record company contracts still limit the “mechanical” royalties--the performance payments paid to the artists based on sales and airplay--to standards derived from vinyl LP norms.

In the case of Tesla’s 1990 “Five Man Acoustical Jam” album, a collection featuring many songs by other artists, the extra length actually hurt the band financially. According to manager Cliff Burnstein, the group had to pay royalties to the writers but couldn’t collect additional performance royalties on the “extra” songs.

So why bother with long albums?

“You’ve got Parkinson’s Law: The amount of music expands to fill the space available,” Burnstein says. “And the price of a CD is about 50% higher than other formats, so it seems right to have 50% more music. If you go to 60 minutes, that justifies the CD price, as long as it’s all quality.”

Says Hale Milgrim, president of Capitol Records: “The point is not just having more, but for artists to give you as much as they can, all of the upper-crust quality.”

Milgrim was faced with that issue when Hammer turned in his new “Too Legit to Quit,” which contained more music than one CD would hold. Deciding that it was all high quality but that breaking it into a two-CD set would raise the price too much, Capitol trimmed three songs from the CD, making them available only on cassette and the limited-production double-album vinyl sets.

ICE Editor Howard believes music fans come out big winners in terms of pure value. But he’s not convinced that the trend to longer albums is a good thing.

“I finally got to the end of the Guns N’ Roses albums,” he says. “It was like painting the Golden Gate Bridge--by the time you get to one end, it’s time to start again at the other.”