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A Brief History of Recorded Music

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The age of music spans as long as humans have existed, at least. The history of recorded music, however, is much more recent. Before music was available in medium, the only way to consume it was to listen to a live concert, or make it yourself. This changed in 1887 when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. It consisted of a mechanical device using a grooved cylinder to produce music and a large horn to project it. It was capable of recording and playing audio. Early samples were pretty pitiful in performance and improved with wax cylinders. Later, the disc was found to perform better with the competing gramophone (patented by Emile Berliner). Discs were made of hard rubber or occasionally celluloid but a shellac version proved to be superior. Vinyl records that we are familiar with didn’t appear until after World War 2. These records could only contain up to 20 minutes of music per side. Phonograph technology was incredibly limited and spotty; audio had to filter through a horn (as microphones had not been invented) which restricted the available recording space to immediately before the opening. Louder instruments became the norm in order to record properly but either way, the sound quality was pretty pathetic.

Phonograph

Among all this invention of recording technology was the emergence of radio. Invented by Gugliemo Marconi in 1895, radio became the de facto method of consuming live news, music, and entertainment. By the 30’s, most houses had one. In fact, the radio was considered a piece of furniture, stored in a handsome wooden cabinet—often accompanied by a phonograph (later called a record player). The induction of broadcast radio formed the entirety of broadcast entertainment consisting of dramas, news, comedy shows, and of course, music. Later, in 1954, the first pocket sized transistor radio came to the market, letting people carry radio access with them. With the advent of radio came increasingly better performance and projection technology, allowing for the “crooner” type musicians to take off and start an era of old time nostalgia.

Woman listening to record player

Enter the time of the LP, or “long play” which exclusively refers to vinyl records and began in 1948 with 12-inch vinyl. Vinyl was a preferred medium for albums because it was more durable and had less surface noise than shellac, the previously preferred material. Shellac was also in short supply during WWII and so vinyl was substituted. Vinyl was also better because it was inexpensive and provided reliable playback. In post-war America, vinyls boomed with the skyrocketing economy and plethora of musical artists joining the budding music scene. Albums could have colorful and vibrant covers and came in both 10 and 12 inch variations. EPs (Extended Play, from a single song to a couple songs long, not enough for a whole album) were also popular choices, and had different sizing options available. Record players also became more compact and less costly so it was more affordable to have one in the home.

tape to tape recorder/player

Germany brought in the magnetic era of audio recording with magnetic tape recording in the 1930s. The rest of the world did not gain access to it until World War 2 with the Allied victory. Magnetic recording is far superior to previous models, being almost indistinct from live broadcasts. Tape recording was also superior to records in that it could be transported easily. This technology allowed for great freedom in editing and sound manipulation, leading to an explosion of musical styles, sophistication, and innovation. Reel to reel audio originally was unnamed as it referred to all tape recordings but with the influx of different housing like cartridges and cassettes a name was needed to differentiate it from the rest. Originally, reel to reel audio utilized steel tape. In 1949, prerecorded reel to reel tapes were released to the USA. They did not have any popular artists and had less than 10 titles. Reel to reel was most popular in the mid 60s but other formats (with much more portability and less cost) often won over consumers instead. It remained, however, a favorite among audiophiles who would contend with the larger equipment and time consuming threading. Eventually the gap between reel to reel and cassette tapes became indistinguishable in terms of audio quality. Some audiophiles preferred them over any other format. You can see one in Uma Thurman’s character’s home in Pulp Fiction.

portable red 8 track player

The notorious 8-track tape was popular from 1964 to 1988.It was made popular due to its presence in car audio. It was convenient and very portable and the demand for car audio led the way for domestic 8 track players to become available for consumer’s homes. Now consumers could listen in the car, remove the tape, and bring it into the house to continue listening. The compact cassette was introduced in 1962, could hold up to 60 minutes of music, and was much smaller and easier to handle than 8-track. It very quickly replaced its predecessor once their quality was improved beyond the 8 track’s capabilities. Its popularity was facilitated by Sony’s Walkman, released in 1979. For the first time, you could listen to your music without bothering others in public as you went on your morning jog, did chores, or commuted on the bus. Even more exciting was the ability to create a mixed tape using the radio’s freely offered music. People could copy broadcasted music onto blank cassette tapes and create personalized audio experiences. Many would agree that the difficulty in ensuring a “clean” copy made it something of an art form. The “mixed tape” era had begun. Vinyl records and cassette tapes continued to uphold the personal audio market until the invention of another major game changer, the compact disc.

Sony's walkman

This was further facilitated by Sony’s Walkman, released in 1979. For the first time, you could listen to your music without bothering others in public as you went on your morning jog, did chores, or commuted on the bus. Even more exciting was the ability to create a mixed tape using the radio’s freely offered music. People could copy broadcasted music onto blank cassette tapes and create personalized audio experiences. Many would agree that the difficulty in ensuring a “clean” copy made it something of an art form. The “mixed tape” era had begun. Vinyl records and cassette tapes continued to uphold the personal audio market until the invention of another major game changer, the compact disc.

Cassette tapes

Developed by both Phillips and Sony in 1982, the compact disc (CD) evolved from LaserDisc technology that uses lasers to allow for the high data density necessary for superior digital audio signals. CDs were a big deal because they were the beginning of both the digital and recordable disc era. Earlier tech used captured analogue of sound; digital recording grabbed audio through dense and fast sound samples which combined together to form a continuous sound. This became the go-to method of recorded music, starting with Ry Cooder’s “Bop ‘Til You Drop” in 1979. 

CDs in a multi disc player

The recordable disc era was a long lasting market and user trend that endured as long as the CDs reign over the music industry. The introduction of rewritable CDs, (CD-R and CD-RW) in 1990, which could be written and re-written, allowed consumers to create mix audio CDs (the mixed tapes of its day). CD-R/RW discs could be bought retail by either business or individual consumer. Songs could be ripped from a legitimately purchased album and copied to multiple writable discs at home. These songs could be distributed among family or friends but also could be shared on digital file sharing platforms like Limewire or Napster that sprang up in the late 90s and early 2000s.

CD-R

Discs can record between 70-80 minutes of music, depending on the disc and your CD recorder. They also had, and still have, excellent audio quality and performance, more so than digital formats. They have high fidelity, portability, durability, and elicit a complete sound spectrum with no distortion and perfect clarity. They also were fairly easy to burn and write, leading to “mix tape” style CDs. Many musicians got their start by burning their music onto their discs at home and then distributing locally, or hiring a printing house to print large batches. Though susceptible to scratching, discs also offered more printable space for additional materials like lyrics and other exclusive content due to their size and packaging options, like the iconic jewel case.

For about 30 years, the CD was the undisputed king of audio distribution and consumption. It spawned a number of industries and formed the backbone of data and media transfer, distribution, and consumption. It is responsible for putting data storage and manipulation readily into consumer’s hands on a massive scale previously unheard of. However, CDs began to fall off in the 2000’s, especially after 2010, with the increasing popularity of the mp3 format used in digital music players (often called mp3 players). CD’s have become a niche product used and loved by those who still remember its value. You can learn more about who’s still using CDs from our previous blog.

Apple ipod mp3 player.

The mp3 format, created in 1993, didn’t really take off until the late 90s with the popularity of Napster, a peer to peer file sharing website that allowed users to share audio files without purchasing them. This led to wide spread music piracy that troubled the music and movie industry and prompted several imitators like Limewire and Pirate Bay. Digital music is a versatile format, allowing the easy manipulation, sharing, downloading, and sharing of music with very little storage space or cost. This makes it easy to distribute and share, and the magnitude of available data and users who were downloading it made it difficult to control. Burning discs without paying for the songs it contained was rampant and common place. Record labels—lords, leaders, movement makers—were cohesively opposed to this new music outlet that let consumers avoid paying steep prices for discs and instead download exactly which songs and albums they wanted.

Man looking at the napster application.

Napster was not without its critics, namely from musicians and record labels who were miffed at the lost royalties and copyright infringement. Almost immediately Napster was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in late 1999 and several artists (Metallica, et al. v. Napster, Inc) in 2000. The record companies were concerned that the obvious and inevitable leap to piracy would cut into their profits; they also felt that Napster contributed to copyright infringement and ignored copyrights. Musicians and bands were also concerned because of the potential loss of revenue from royalties and control over their work. Metallica and Madonna both had music “released” to the public prematurely that spread throughout the internet and even was broadcasted on radio. Napster lost the suit as well as the appeal. They also failed to follow guidelines set up after the suit, and so had to shut down service in mid 2001 and declare bankruptcy and sell off its assets in 2002. This did not stop people from engaging in “file sharing” in the least as Napster’s shut down drove users to flock to other file sharing options that had popped up to fill its place.

Download iTunes.

Record labels eventually became wise to the potential gold mine that Napster had perhaps unearthed. Instead of merely suing those companies, they bought into the idea and made it into a legitimate business. In 2003, Apple released iTunes for Windows operating systems. It initially was announced in 2001 and was the only online digital media store around at the time. This timed nicely with the iPod, an mp3 player released in 2001 but not really taking off until a year after iTunes' release in 2004. The iPod originally had 5GB of storage space for songs, but a 10GB version was released later. In comparison, 700MB is typical for CDs. Sales for the iPod were slow going initially due to their compatibility only with Mac computers. Sales took off when Apple made them compatible with PCs. 

Other competitors never seemed to reach its popularity. It is not exactly a digital streaming service—rather it’s a precursor to them—but it offered a place for customers to obtain music legally. It charged per song, album, show, or movie. At the time it provided a direct opposition for services like Napster and Limewire with offered pirated media at no cost (except perhaps a gigantic computer virus, if you weren’t careful). As of 2015, iTunes also has a streaming service, Apple Music, which also features live radio called Beats 1 that broadcasts globally.

Spotify app. Pandora app.

True digital streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are now an increasingly majority way to consume music, which is also recorded digitally. For a small monthly subscription fee, you will have access to thousands of albums and songs at a time—no charge per song or album.

There are two types of digital streaming: interactive and non-interactive. Non-interactive functions like a satellite radio, broadcasting groups or genres of songs that you choose. Pandora is a good example, or Sirius XM. Interactive streaming is more like Spotify where you have access to songs without radio format. You can keep a sizeable cache of songs in “offline” mode where you can access them without using your mobile data. There are quite a few streaming options on the market now and its popularity and use is only increasing.

This medium is not without its criticisms however. The pros and cons of digital streaming are a whole complete topic unto themselves, but to be brief they boil down to sustainability, availability, and market practice issues. It is not possible to make everything available for streaming due to space constraints; digital streaming companies are only interested in content that’s going to be streamed again and again, leaving only the most popular and newest content available. Even for music streaming, which doesn’t have the space issue of video and movie services, platforms show preference for the most listened to and searched songs which shoves less popular or new/up-in-coming artists aside. Royalties and compensation to artists is also notoriously low, leading many artists to forgo signing their name on Spotify’s contract like Taylor Swift. The whole financial side of digital streaming is a mess and many theorize it is not a stable venture; streaming services aren’t raking it in like you’d expect. The subscription model of payment seems to barely cover the bills for streaming services, which must provide constant access and usability for their platform to their customers.

Digital streaming has a lot of benefits that are difficult to ignore, and despite its issues it’s unlikely that we’ll go back to a more physical medium for our entertainment. It’s extremely portable and flexible. You only need your phone to access an entire library of possible music choices. It’s customizable to your own tastes so you’re not forced to sift through genres that don’t interest you. It’s low cost, too, which is much more attractive than shelling out $20 per CD that only comprises of one artist and only up to 70 minutes of music, or $1.99 per song on iTunes. Consumers want easy, low cost, and convenient access to whatever media strikes their fancy and digital streaming may be the answer to that desire.

So, does this mean that physical media is at death’s door? With the use of CDs falling and vinyl records remaining a small market niche, it seems likely. The logical progression of recorded sound from purely physical components like magnetic tape and vinyl plates to digitally storable and deliverable methods inevitably leaves discs and records in the dust of history.

But maybe not, at least not for awhile. While CD sales are not rising, they are higher than expected despite the decade long degradation of the market. Also, vinyls are steadily raising in popularity again, probably due to nostalgia, an urge to return to physical platforms, and perhaps love of the idea of “quality.” Vinyl records can last a very long time if taken care of properly and they stand for a significant portion of recorded music’s history. Some believe the future holds a dual platform market comprising of consumers who utilize digital streaming and retain a small personal library of vinyl records or perhaps CDs for favorite artists and albums. Digital streaming currently has its issues that make it perhaps a necessity to retain some physical media in order to enjoy artists and albums that don’t make the cut on Spotify. Contrary to what one might think, not everyone has jumped on digital streaming all at once so there are still populations that remain outside its influence.

Kid looking at virtual music notes floating in the air.

But what does this mean for music’s future? What about beyond? Is there something beyond digital streaming? Maybe one day we will abandon the physical world completely and instead rely completely on digital technology for our media and entertainment. Regardless, it’s very difficult to even begin imagining how music will be distributed and made available in a way that isn’t streaming in some shape or form. Certainly the delivery might be different (perhaps one day things will be downloaded into our brains?) or the quantity of available content will be significantly better (perhaps even infinite?), it will be bigger, more intense—and hopefully better—than any previous iteration before.

The history of recorded music infographic.