Sales of vinyl records began plummeting in the last decades of the 20th century, and by 2004, they were virtually considered a dead medium. That’s the year David Barker began to publish a series of miniature books under the name 33 1/3.
A Brit with a doctorate working for an academic press, Barker named his project after the speed of an LP and created a model for a writer to extract meaning from a single album per book by any means necessary — reporting, criticism, fiction, memoir.
Vinyl’s looming obsolescence made it the perfect fetish object as the last generation of record collectors — roughly those who came of age during the punk and post-punk years of the late ‘70s through the mid-'80s — became nostalgic for the music of their youth, a demographic that includes Barker, who “grew up in the 1980s on a hard-core diet of the NME and Melody Maker.”
To those people, 33 1/3 — which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in September with its 100th title (Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” by Susan Fast) — offered everything Barker thought was missing from music in the digital era: affirmation of the belief that an album is not a collection of music tracks but a painstakingly sequenced narrative that rewards careful, repeated listening. It was also a category of objects that could be owned, curated and displayed.
A decade later, vinyl records have become the only musical medium to sharply increase in sales, driven largely by reissues of many of the bands covered by 33 1/3 as well as a freshly discovered love of the medium from a new generation of artists.
“I would love to say that the 33 1/3 series is solely responsible for the resurgence of vinyl,” says Ally Jane Grossan, who has edited the series since Barker left in January 2013.
But she admits the truth is probably just that the books appeal to the same audience: obsessive, rabid collectors. “The same person who will want to display their hundred favorite records in their living room will want to display their 33 1/3 collection right alongside them.” Slim, with elegant, minimalist covers, they are as portable as an iPod and much cooler for those who wish to advertise their musical tastes.
Barker had stumbled upon a built-in audience: Commercial trade publishers were interested only in publishing music biographies of superstars like Nirvana and U2. But the same fans who support artists on indie labels like Sub Pop, Merge and Creation could support a small academic press like Continuum, who, as Grossan points out, considered 10,000 copies a decent print run and 20,000 copies a blockbuster.
Music critics found the series an essential outlet for long-form writing and creative experimentation, says Maura Johnston, former music editor of the Village Voice and current editor of Maura magazine. “I love how some authors have run with it,” she says, citing Franklin Bruno’s take on Elvis Costello’s “Armed Forces” (No. 21, 2005), which presents each topic glossary-style, in alphabetical order, and Carl Wilson’s “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste” (No. 52, 2007), which begins with Wilson’s attempt to explain why he so despises the music of Celine Dion and ends up as a meditation on taste.
Johnston does, however, see a “definite bent towards ‘canon’ artists and bands.” She started a conversation on social media this year about the series’ lack of coverage of female writers and artists and says she would also love to see more R&B. “There are so many stories in music waiting to be told, and quite a few of them live at the fringes,” she said.
Grossan, 26, who launched her career as the editor of the book “The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History,” agrees with the need to bring in more women. Last spring, she published Gina Arnold’s volume on Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville” (No. 96, 2014); upcoming release lists include Jenn Pelly on female post-punk band the Raincoats and Rebecca Wallwork on contemporary R&B superstars New Kids on the Block.
Musicians wrote some of the most interesting books in the series: Colin Meloy (the Decemberists) discovered the Replacements’ “Let It Be” via a cool uncle in a story that also served as a memoir of his Montana childhood; John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats used a classic trope of ‘80s childhood — a kid locked in a psych ward without his music, in this case Black Sabbath’s “Master of Reality.”
Although the series has covered plenty of classics (the Beatles, the Stones, the Band), its sweet spot can be seen in two of its most classic titles: Kim Cooper on Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (No. 29, 2005) and Mike McGonigal on My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” (No. 36, 2006). Both were considered landmark albums of their genre (psych-folk; shoegaze) and both featured irresistible plots, with geniuses bandleaders (Jeff Mangum and Kevin Shields) who recorded their masterpieces then promptly disappeared from public view for a decade and a half. The 33 1/3 books offered the first new information fans had on either artist in years.
Barker admits the series has become less experimental over the years. “As the series aged, I started to see it more as a chance to document lots of fascinating stories that might not otherwise be captured in book form, rather than a way to push the boundaries of music writing.”
Throughout its history, each round of submissions was rumored to be the last. In 2011, when Continuum was bought by the London-based Bloomsbury, the final entry in the series was scheduled: Novelist Jonathan Lethem writing on Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music” (No. 86, 2012), which admittedly would have sent the imprint out with a bang. But the editors cajoled the new owners into allowing one last round of submissions in spring 2012, out of which Barker and Grossan (then assistant editor) chose 18 proposals. Now, Grossan says, she has the institutional support to keep the series going indefinitely.
This past spring, the open call resulted in 410 submissions. Grossan winnowed them to 106, all of which she would have been happy to have in the series. At Bloomsbury’s urging, she ultimately chose 14, including classic albums (Grateful Dead), hip-hop (the Geto Boys), critical favorites (the Jesus and Mary Chain; Sleater-Kinney), and a new landmark for the series: the soundtrack to the “Super Mario Bros.” video game.
“That proposal immediately blew me away,” says Grossan. “It perfectly embodies what the series is about: a specific piece of music and its impact.”
Benfer is a writer who lives in New York.