By Mark Isaiah David
When you get a 27-year old (Taylor Swift) to single-handedly change the policies of the biggest tech company in the world (Apple) not even 24 hours after posting a simple open letter, when clips of reality TV shows such as The Voice or X-Factor get a bajillion more hits than a parade of scantily clad supermodels, and when you ride the MRT or walk down any street in the world and you see the same sight – people with their earphones on and lost in their own worlds – the truth is evident: music is big, music is everywhere, music is interwoven to our lives.
The popularity of music is intrinsic with how we consume and share it. From prehistoric times where music was critical to communication and passing down tribal oral traditions to how free access to digital files is changing the nature of the music industry today, the very act of song sharing is what makes music alive. It is through that process – from the musician to the listener – that music is born.
Here’s a rundown of significant ways how we consumed music, and coincidentally, how people have related to music through the years.
One of the biggest paradigm shifts in the history of music was brought by the invention of the phonograph. Prior to Thomas Edison’s invention, people were only able to listen to music when someone else was physically playing it. While technically, there were inventions before Edison’s phonograph that were able to record music on physical media, it was in 1877 that the first machine that could both record and playback music came about. Over the years, the material that was used for recording changed; but the phonograph’s main drawback – the necessity of recording individually (no mass production) – ultimately led to the need for a different technology in music sharing.
Wikipedia describes vinyl records as “an analogue sound storage medium in the form of a flat polyvinyl chloride disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove.” They are generally described by their diameter, the rotational speed at which they are played, and their time capacity.
Terms we still use – like ‘high fidelity’ and ‘stereophonic sound’ were originally coined in relation to the vinyl record due to its improvement in sound quality compared to previous playback devices. Even today, there are still enthusiasts that prefer vinyls over modern alternatives.
SHARE ON AIR
While there is some contention on the actual date of the earliest radio broadcasts, the birth of public radio broadcast is generally credited to the Lee De Forest company with a 1907 advertisement claiming that, “It will soon be possible to distribute grand opera music from transmitters placed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House by a Radio Telephone station on the roof to almost any dwelling in Greater New York and vicinity”.
Music wasn’t actually the main content in radio in those days. News reports, voting results, dramas that were often referred to as ‘soaps’ (from soap operas – because the programs were produced/sponsored by soap manufacturers), sports commentary and results, weather forecasts, comedic performances, stories, political commentaries, and even lectures, were all jostling for primacy on the limited airwaves.
Still, the impact of radio on the development of pop music cannot be overstated even until now. Also, the invention of the transistor in 1947 enabled the production of smaller – and therefore more portable – radios. Suddenly, portable music became a reality.
MP3s – still the most prevalent format on how music is shared today – began as a thesis challenge in 1982 to a PhD engineering student: to find a way to transmit music over phone lines. By dropping frequencies that the human ear is unable to hear, MP3s was able to decrease bitrates (resulting in smaller file sizes but with tolerable audio quality), and ultimately became the standard in music sharing.
The ability to make whole songs easily available and downloadable on the Internet, of course, ushered a profound age of change and uncertainty in the music industry. Peer-to-peer (P2P) music sharing gave rise to the infamous Napster – a free service that enabled more than 25 million users to share music with each other without cost.
The idea that music is being shared freely naturally shook the music industry to its core. Artists and the Recording Industry Association of America filed a suit, which ultimately resulted to Napster’s shut down and bankruptcy. However, the avalanche is unstoppable. P2P sites continue to flourish like the mythical Hydra – shut down one site and a dozen more takes its place. The technology made the old business models of the music industry practically obsolete.
The easy availability of bootleg content is undoubtedly a crucial factor in the incredible commercial success of MP3 players such as the iPod. Small, with long-lasting rechargeable batteries, and capable of storing an ungodly amount of songs, it was easy to see how MP3 players became ubiquitous – for a time. Later on, the launch of smartphones with MP3 playback features quickly nullified the need for a dedicated MP3 player. Huge upheavals are happening fast in how we consume and share music, and the changes aren’t finished yet. Even the accepted format, MP3, is undergoing change. The Advanced Audio coding (AAC) format will likely replace MP3 as the standard format in the near future.
DIVING INTO DIGITAL
Before CDs, music on magnetic tapes or record tracks were read mechanically. The digitization of music brought many advantages, and signifies a huge leap in audio technology. Quick, easy, and cheap production, error correction, and skip protection made CDs the undisputed king of musical media in the 90s.
The advent of CD writing technology also brought music personalization to new heights. Suddenly, everyone was making their own ‘albums’ – even to the extent that CDs became acceptable wedding souvenirs.
ROLLING DOWN THE STREAM
We used to keep immaculate collections of our music – whether you preferred vinyl, magnetic tapes, or CDs, you’re bound to keep a collection in your home. The advent of digital music, however, with its extremely small file size and unbelievable ease in getting them from the Internet, gave us access to an overwhelming amount of content. Where we used to be proud of our dozens of albums, we now have tens of thousands of songs sitting idly in our computers.
Now that music streaming services (Spotify, Pandora, etc.) are the new norm, we don’t even bother to have copies of the music we like. Because everyone has a smartphone and an Internet connection, we can just install the music streaming app and either enjoy music for free (with advertisements) or pay for the premium version (more features, no ads).
Unsurprisingly, music streaming as an industry still has a lot of kinks to work out. The fact that people can have legal access to hundreds of thousands of songs without buying a single album is, justifiably, a provocative concept. Artists are understandably demanding for higher royalties, but since the service is so cheap, it would take a huge number of plays before any real money can be made. However, it is undeniable that this is where the market is headed. To redefine the current reality would be an impossible, almost Taylor-ean task.
BACK TO THE PATRONS
A possible (partial) solution to the dilemma could be the return of patrons. In the past, an artist’s success usually depends on whether or not the artist can secure patrons that will support the work. Today, the same concept is being tapped – but amplified a million-fold through the Internet. Services such as Patreon and Kickstarter enable artists to go directly to consumers and ask for their help. Basically, any person can pledge a minimal amount to support the continued work of an artist they like. I can, for example, pledge to give a dollar to a YouTube artist I like whenever she uploads a music video. A dollar might not amount to much, but even a small percentage of her 20million subscribers – say, 3000 people – pledging the same paltry amount for every video she churns out can help the artist have a viable livelihood.
The content is still made available for free online – the Patrons just get extras as determined by the artist. That’s because ownership isn’t really the point – the point is that good content deserves just reward. If you really like the work of an artist and you want her to continue what she’s doing, then it’s only fair to pitch in.
Moreover, this model enables artists to pursue their work without the need to be signed by big record labels. This freedom ultimately benefits the industry as a whole – more money goes to the artists rather than the record label, and more music options become available to the consumerr.
Magnetic tapes were invented in Germany, where thin, ‘magnetizable’ coating on thin plastic film was used to record audio and even video. The technology revolutionized radio broadcasts and recording – prior to its widespread usage, radio shows had to broadcast live to retain decent sound quality. Magnetic tapes made it practicable to broadcast pre-recorded programs with acceptable drop in quality.
RCA introduced its tape cartridge in 1958, making magnetic tapes a realistic option for home use. However, the product didn’t really fly; hesitation on the adoption of the technology meant low sales of tape players.
The 8-track tape probably would have suffered the same fate, if not for the inclusion of 8-track players in many cars made in the 60s and 70s. Although the popularity of the 8-track was relatively brief, its inclusion in many cars made it a memorable format.
Compact cassette tapes ushered the extinction of the 8-track, due in part to its ability to retain high-fidelity audio content. But the biggest kicker is the compact cassette’s portability – it was instantly preferred by car manufacturers and by people on the move.
Corollary to the prevalence of the compact cassette tape is the invention of The Walkman in 1979. Suddenly, personal music listening became a thing. Listeners could now easily carry their favorite tunes with them, and not bother the public with their musical preferences. The Walkman became so iconic that there are still those that use them despite the proliferation of digital music.
The evolution of sharing music is now going beyond the limitations of the technology; considerations of ownership and artist support now play a more apparent factor in the equation. With the continued decline of the necessity for big companies in the distribution of music, a livelier, more dynamic industry may arise for both the artists and consumers.
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