My ten-year-old son asked me the other day which Spotify playlists I listened to when I was a kid. I started laughing and told him that we didn’t have Spotify back then. And since I had just told him a few days before that none of the games he is playing on his iPhone existed when I was younger, he looked at me long and hard and finally asked, “If you didn’t have any of this stuff, what did you guys have on your iPhones then?” I looked at him equally long and finally said, “We didn’t have iPhones.”
I get where he was coming from. I remember asking my dad about cable television and getting pretty much the same answer, “Cable TV? Are you out of your mind? We didn’t even have a TV!” I also remember how outdated sheet music seemed when I was young. My grandfather told me that when he was a kid in the early thirties, the only way you could enjoy music on a daily basis was if somebody in your family could read music and play the piano. Even though they already existed, most families did not yet have radios or phonographs, as record players were called back in the day. By the fifties, the situation had drastically changed. The mass production of turntables and radios made them affordable to the masses, and by the time I was a kid in the eighties, sheet music had become a relic of the past: trivial and obsolete. It was something you identified with concert pianists and senior citizens. You certainly didn’t expect to find a library of sheet music at your friend’s house.
However, in the nineteenth century, it was the sheet-music publishers who dominated the industry. Before the age of sound recording technologies, this was the prominent medium for music lovers to consume music. Naturally, people went to see operas and concerts but really, the easiest and fastest way to hear and experience new music was to buy it in its printed form and play it at home with the help of family and friends. In fact, sheet music became so very popular among the masses that the most important music publishers of the late 1800s set up shop in the same district of Manhattan in 1885 to facilitate publisher-to-publisher communication in the pre-telephone era and also, to create a hub for songwriters. This district became known as Tin Pan Alley.
Tin Pan Alley had a very good and profitable run for nearly 70 years. At its height, Tin Pan Alley was producing thousands of new songs every year for the musical public. Its influence was somewhat weakened in the thirties and forties by recorded music and radio. However, the final nail in its coffin didn’t come until the rise of rock’n’roll in the fifties. All of a sudden, it wasn’t just the medium of sheet music that was deemed old-fashioned; people also started feeling this way about the music that was printed on these sheets. And as the earlier styles of American pop music fell out of favor among the masses, the reign of sheet music began its inevitable decline, finally losing out to 78rpm records. In just a few years, the image of a family singing songs around the piano was quickly replaced with that of a family sitting around a phonograph. After all, why listen to Auntie Amy’s amateur performance of “Love Me Tender” when you can hear the King crooning it perfectly every time?
However, the fifties became a significant milestone for recorded music in other ways as well. This was the decade that saw the invention of magnetic tape or rather, a decade when magnetic tape was introduced to the world at large. You see, to be fair, magnetic tape was a German invention, the first version of which was introduced as early as in the thirties. Germans used this invention almost solely for broadcasting purposes and it remained restricted to Germany until the end of the Second World War when the US and British troops discovered the technology and brought it home with them.
For the recording industry, this was nothing short of a miracle: no longer was sound recorded directly to a vinyl disk! Magnetic tape provided not only a major leap forward in fidelity (ultimately allowing hi-fi stereo recordings) but more importantly, it made multi-track tape recording possible. Now that vinyl records were pressed from master recordings on magnetic tapes rather than from live performances captured on vinyl disks, it meant that recordings could be manipulated sonically: edited, and combined in ways that simply weren’t possible before. This resulted in such iconic and groundbreaking LPs in the sixties and seventies as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
If there is an accepted golden era of LPs, it most definitely is the ten-year period between 1965 and 1975. In fact, during this era, LPs were by far the most prominent medium for pop music, making singles and even broadcast media appear rather trivial in comparison. Indeed, such was the dominancy of LPs that during this golden period of pop/rock albums, even LP sleeves began to be considered as standalone pieces of art. They were no longer just pictures of artists with the album title printed on them. Rather, the sleeves were being tailor-made to fit the theme and the mood of the record. The sleeve for the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, for instance, shows the band at the San Diego Zoo. Furthermore, when looking at the sleeve designs of the Led Zeppelin albums, one cannot help noticing how cleverly Jimmy Page is using them to create a mystic brand for his group.
However, regardless of their domination, LPs were challenged by pre-recorded music cassettes from the mid-sixties onward. And even though music cassettes were never able to push LPs out of the market, by the late seventies, they had brought the golden era of LPs to an end. Why it took so long was due to a number of reasons, the most important of which boils down to sound quality. To begin with, music cassettes suffered from a rather dreadful sound, offering listening experiences that were mediocre at best. They were, after all, a system that had been designed for dictation rather than listening to music. All this changed with the introduction of Dolby noise reduction and chromium tapes in the early seventies. With these new technological advancements, the sound quality of music cassettes was dramatically improved, which meant that more and more people were beginning to see them as a viable alternative to LP records. This battle between LPs and cassettes raged on until the mid-eighties, when both of them were replaced by a new invention, or rather something that was introduced as a new invention, called Compact Disc.
Even though the CD technology was invented as early as in 1966 by James T. Russell, it took a long time for CDs to become commercially available. In fact, it wasn’t until the August of 1982 that the first ever compact disc, Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, was released, along with the world’s first CD Audio Player (CDP-101). The disc you could get with $30; the player was slightly more pricy, costing a whopping $900. In the age of streaming, it seems unimaginable that somebody would spend that much on a CD player but at the time, CDs were seen as super modern, space-age marvels. Finally, diehard hi-fi enthusiasts were blessed with a pristine alternative to the hiss of cassette tapes and crackling of the vinyl. Ultimately, both compact discs and CD players became affordable (although not cheap) and you could expect to find one in most households. However, this took a few years and it was especially the outlandish cost of CD players that kept the consumers from adapting the new technology for several years. I remember buying my first CD player in the summer of 1988 at the price of roughly $300.
And now it’s been more than a decade since the record industry announced the death of CDs. The audio CD was killed by digital downloads (at the time of this writing, CDs are slowly but surely becoming extinct). It seems silly now that at one point, we thought mini discs might be able to claim that honor. They entered the market in 1992, and never really caught on, and one can understand why. By the beginning of the new millennium, mps3s were rapidly becoming the most popular format through which music was consumed. Downloading music off the Internet was easy. You didn’t have to get up from your couch to drive to the CD store anymore and worry about the store not carrying the CD you wanted. You only needed to click on the download button on your computer screen, wait for a few minutes for the mp3 files to download and you were in business. The relatively small size of mp3s and their acceptable fidelity made them very popular. And of course, they also brought with them the issue of online piracy but we’ll save that topic for another article.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the world of commercial mp3s lasted even shorter than that of CDs. Their era came to an end almost as quickly as it had begun. Just as we had gotten used to them and they had found their way into our daily lives and onto our computers, Spotify introduced us to the world of streaming. Now, you didn’t even have to wait for that short while for your music to download, you only needed to press play and listen. And you could listen to what seemed (and still seems) like an endless amount of music for just $9.99 a month. The result? Provided that you move your fridge next to your couch, you can stay immobile and still enjoy music undisturbed without a break for hours on end. And thanks to Spotify’s algorithms that keep directing you to new music after your own playlist or music selection has been played through, you don’t necessarily even have to think! Spotify is more than happy to make your next music selection for you.
Oddly enough, even though the medium for music consumption has changed many times over the years, there is one thing connected to enjoying music, the basic concept of which has changed very little in the past 90 years: the loudspeaker. It seems that regardless of the device that’s playing the music, we still need loudspeakers (or headphones) to hear it. I’m sure that one day music lovers will have music-amplifying implants surgically placed behind their ears, but until that day arrives, we are stuck with an age old method of converting electrical impulses into sound introduced to us in the shape of right-angled boxes back in 1925 by Rice and Kellogg. Amazing, right? I thought so.
You can check out author Tommi Tikka's Music to Celebrate Life playlist here.