From phonographs to the blockchain, a 150 year history of the space where technology and music intersect.
A study of technology in music could go back 40,000 years to the invention of the first bone flute, which was found in the hills of Slovenia. But effectively, the technology that underpins the music industry as we know it today dates back to around the turn of the 20th century. From the phonograph to the mp3 and beyond, music and the industry that orbits around it have revolved and evolved around technological innovation.
Now, in 2018, as blockchain technology rears up to rewrite the rules of the music business yet again, let’s take a look at the technologies that revolutionized the music industry, and look forward to what innovations will be changing the way we produce, distribute, and consume music in the very near future…
Drawing by Norman Bruderhofer via Wikimedia Commons
The first phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, made recorded music possible by etching grooves into tin foil discs, that when played in rotation under a metal needle, created soundwaves that were amplified through a horn shaped metal speaker. The first piece of music ever recorded and played on the newfangled device was a choral piece by German baroque composer Handel.
Although it sounds an ancient technique, the general technological methodology of reading music off of a material disc was the dominant mode of consumption for the next 125 years, through vinyl and compact discs alike. Although some later inventions came quickly, but left their mark, the phonographic turntable played a foundational role for a whole era.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Invented at the turn of the 20th century and first used to communicate in Morse code for maritime communications, the concept of radio as a medium for mass communication and music hit the airwaves in 1920, when it immediately became a national sensation in the US. In 1920, there were two radio stations in the country. The next year, there were over 600.
Early music radio consisted of a microphone hung over a phonograph, but it opened up local artists to large audiences, enabling the foundation of the music industry even as we know it today. For the past 75 years, radio has been one of the integral mediums of communication in modern society, and music has played a central role.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
In the 1950s, television brought music into vivid visual reality, and performers became household names. Shows like American Bandstand invigorated the fast developing youth culture, early while rock and roll and Motown acts captured the imagination. By this point in the development of the still nascent music industry, the pillars of funding, recording, marketing, and distributing music became enshrined, and the ways in which musicians achieve these goals is only now showing signs of changing dramatically with innovations like streaming and blockchain.
Later on, the visual accompaniment of music on television enjoyed its own mini-revolutions along the way, first in the 1980s with MTV and music videos, and again more recently with video streaming portals like YouTube providing a medium for everyday people to express their music.
Photo: Chris Hakkens via Wikimedia Commons
Invented in 1931 by Beauchamp and Rickenbacker, the electric guitar was the domain of jazz musicians and then rock and roll artists like Chuck Berry before it ever became a staple of mainstream music. It was a momentous and controversial event when Bob Dylan traded in his acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster and plugged in at the Newport Blues Festival in 1965 to bash out ‘Maggie’s Farm.”
The enlivened tone and brash sound of the electric guitar would go on to be an integral element of popular music, from The Beatles to the Sex Pistols to Nirvana, and has been synonymous with the 20th century music paradigm of not just music, but western culture as a whole.
Photo: Ueli Frey via Wikimedia Commons
The bombastic sounds of dance music DJs like Gramatik traces lineage all the way back to Robert Moog and the early days of digital music, when it was all bleeps and bloops and obscure computer nerdism. Popularized in the 1960s by the likes of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, synths created a whole new soundscape available to musicians and performers. Devices like drum machines and turntables and scores of fast-evolving synth keyboards opened doors for new kinds of music to be made, from techno to hip-hop, and the ability to access a studio’s worth of capability with a few pieces of equipment opened the door for many people to express themselves.
They may seem a little old school now, but the music industry harbored real concerns about home taping taking a bite out of sales in the early 1980’s. “Home Recording is Killing the Music Industry,” was the warcry of anti-taping lobbyists — and they meant it at the time!
Only a few years later, though, tapes were rendered somewhat redundant by CDs, read by laser and playable on snazzy portable devices. After a fear years on top of the market, though, though Compact Discs were relegated to nostalgia themselves as the rate of technological change increased and consumers rushed to the next revolution.
The MP3 and platforms like Napster presented the greatest challenge ever to the legacy music industry by democratizing distribution of digital music. Almost immediately, it seemed, music became free, and downloading and file-sharing — two early harbingers of decentralization — were at the fingertips of anyone with a computer and a dial-up modem.
Steve Jobs’ bright idea for a sleek, simple mp3 player played an important and symbiotic role in the growth of the MP3 and filesharing. The device became so popular that major record labels finally succumbed to digital distribution models. With singles sold at just 99 cents each, that represented a major cut in the revenues, a loss from which legacy record labels are still struggling to recover.
This one, stylishly designed mp3 player was the catalyst for so much change in the music industry, simply by creating the demand for a product for which the only prior supply was illegal downloading. This was one innovation the whole music industry struggled to keep up with, and created an almost instantaneous revolution with technology that was readily available.
Where do you hear most of the music you enjoy today? For most, the answer is on streaming apps like Spotify, Apple Music, or Pandora. For listeners, streaming platforms present the final word in accessibility, with vast amounts of music available within a split second. However, with artists only enjoying a fraction of a fraction of a cent per listen, the business model intrinsic to streaming doesn’t support the creator. Although streaming may have changed the way the world listens to music, it’s ripe for an upgrade….
Now, at the turn of 2018, we stand at the tip of a new technological revolution for music. Platforms built on blockchain stack the utility of peer-to-peer sharing, decentralized crowdfunding, and the removal of intermediaries like record labels and centralized platforms entirely. The world’s first decentralized entertainment economy — SingularDTV — offers musicians and filmmakers to share in the intellectual property and revenue streams of their favorite artists through tokenization, and dApps like EtherVision will present a direct distribution link between creators and fans. With everything from fundraising to distribution made possible without intermediaries, blockchain and apps like SingularDTV may just rewrite the rule book on the music industry.
When looked at with perspective of all the technological innovations that have changed the music industry in recent times, blockchain and decentralization present the culmination of the creation, distribution, and consumption of music returning into the hands of creators and fans. The long history of technological innovation in the music industry is ready to take one final step toward achieving its ultimate potential.
To learn more about blockchain and SingularDTV, check out the SingularDTV website and blog.