A couple times a month, I find myself returning to a book that never manages to leave my bedside. Bill Brewster and Frank Boughton’s “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” is one of many paperbacks I’ve been reading continually over the last four years. It’s an engaging and broad introduction to the history of DJs and dance music that’s cleanly written and comprehensive. I haven’t “finished” it because I find myself constantly re-reading specific sections and whole chapters of it — picking out storied tracks to listen to and DJs to research. I take it on bus rides and trips to the bathroom and I leave it jostling around my backpack for whole semesters.
As a fan of disco music, it’s a handy general reference for the genre’s genesis and demise. I’ve supplemented that history with more specific books, such as Peter Shapiro’s immensely readable “Turn the Beat Around” (which I finished in a day), Alice Echol’s “Hot Stuff” and the biblical “Disco Files” by Vince Aletti. But I constantly return to one particular segment of “Last Night” that is more relevant today than ever. The particular segment details the history of the 12-inch single.
“To date the 12-inch is the only format of recorded music introduced as a result of consumer demand rather than record company marketing guile,” Brewster and Boughton write, concluding their account of the format’s conception. It’s a progressive innovation that, as they note, “happened quite by accident.”
Tom Moulton (whose edits are almost universally divine), looking to press an instrumental mix of Moment of Truth’s “So Much For Love,” found his engineer had run out of 7-inch metal blanks. In response, he spread the groove over a 12-inch vinyl and recalled, upon first listen, “When I heard it, I almost died.”
The 12-inch record went on to become one of disco’s many subversive contributions to popular music. After a preliminary phase of derision and disbelief, labels latched on and the format birthed some of the greatest and most dynamic disco songs of all time. It gave the most popular DJs an unprecedented flexibility and control over the music, giving them more space to re-edit popular songs and artists. It kept their crowds dancing through the night and, inevitably, driving them straight to the nearest record store — hungry for that must-have record the morning after.
But all the profit for the 12-inch was being made by a series of small labels in Manhattan with the DJs serving as unofficial promoters. The record execs didn’t know how to adapt to the interplay, enforcing unreasonable limitations and regulations for DJs looking to receive and promote the music.
In response, Manhattan’s best DJs convened with the record execs and formed the Record Pool in 1975, giving the DJs easy access to labels’ new material for a subscription fee. It set up an innovative exchange of records for the DJs’ critical feedback — establishing a direct interaction between the audience and the labels. In “Last Night,” legendary DJ David Mancuso said of the brief alliance, “The music that came out when we had the record pool in existence was the best. Most of the classics are right there.”
Once disco became a $4 billion industry at the end of the ’70s, big business coughed up more supply than demand. The Record Pool crumbled, the market saturated, and disco died its inevitable death.
Now, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), together with the MPAA, is bringing its inevitably regressive legislative and lobbyist hammer down on the Internet with SOPA and PIPA, because it subverts their economic model. SOPA and PIPA — based on phony stats, demonizing characterizations of content sharing and a tenacious inability to adapt to a vastly different market — are not the answer to the movie and music industry’s declining profits.
Embracing the Internet’s speed, interactivity and ease of access will drive consumers to spend money. It’s an ideal platform for consumer-manufacturer interaction. Online piracy is a hydra. Giving customers what they want with flexibility, haste and reciprocity is simply good business. The RIAA would do well to study Bill Brewster and Frank Boughton’s book, disco and the decline of 1975’s Record Pool. It’s worth more than just a “good read.”
I’m planning on flying to New York City for spring break, and finally — frighteningly — finishing “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.” I’m confident I’ll keep coming back to it, year after year. I’m also hopeful that this cycle of the music industry’s ignorance and indolence will last, like the best 12-inches — just long enough.