Notes on Liner Notes

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Well before I ever started writing liner notes, I was a big fan of them. And by liner notes I mean all of the printed matter that came with an LP or a CD – production credits, lyrics, and occasionally some sort of explanatory or laudatory prose. I always felt a bit cheated when a favorite album didn’t come with lyrics; and I would often pick up new records based on a familiar name in the credits. (I got the first album by the Roches because it was produced by and featured a guitar solo by Robert Fripp.) Best of all were the little essays (as little as a paragraph or two) that explained a bit about the music. In classical music, this is considered common practice, but in popular music it’s always been the exception. I loved having Brian Eno’s explanation for the soundscapes on his ambient music record “On Land,” for example.

Having written liner notes for over a hundred records by now, I am perhaps no longer an impartial observer, but I still feel that liner notes serve a purpose. I’ve done a fair number of extensive CD booklets for releases of Armenian, Cambodian, Turkish, and other “foreign” musics, and my focus was not on experts in ethnomusicology but on curious listeners who might’ve stumbled across these recordings and were looking for some touchstones to help guide them through. Ditto for classical records. Even someone as well-known as Bobby McFerrin (the jazz singer best known for his pop moment with “Don’t Worry Be Happy”), when he released his first album as a classical conductor, needed a bit of explaining. His album was called “Paper Music,” an odd title until you learn that “paper music” is how many African musicians refer to the Western practice of writing music down on paper as opposed to actually going out and playing it.

Granted, most pop records don’t require much more than a list of personnel and lyrics for you to find your way through them. I do notice though that reissues of important rock classics and box sets are often full of liner notes, by the artists themselves and/or by close observers. Of course, those are for Luddites and hermits who insist on buying physical stuff instead of just storing bits of data on their hard drives the way god apparently meant us to. For those who download music, whatever the genre, getting the most basic info – and the occasional essay – with your online purchase is a bit of a hassle.

Tell us: What do you think? How important are liner notes to you? If you download music, have you found sources for that info that’s reliable and convenient?