¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 The music industry as we know it today began more or less by accident. When Thomas Edison first developed the technology for sound recording, it was an unintentional byproduct of his attempts to improve the telephone. Of course, the canny entrepreneur rapidly moved to publicize the invention. In an 1878 article for the North American Review, he enumerated ten possible uses for his new discovery, with letter dictation at the top of the list (typical of his business-oriented market strategy). “Reproduction of music” only came in fourth, after “the teaching of elocution.” Today, all ten of his uses, from audiobooks to voicemail, are staples of our technological and cultural landscape. But without question, the definitive use of sound recording has been in the field of music and entertainment. Of the first three major American record labels (all launched in the 1900s), two of them (Victor and Columbia) still exist as elements of Sony Music Entertainment, the second-largest of today’s four major labels. The other, Edison’s own company, went out of business in 1929.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Similarly, when “wireless telephony,” or radio sound transmission, was first developed by Nicola Tesla, Guglielmo Marconi, and others around the turn of the 20th Century, the medium was initially considered appropriate for person-to-person communications. In the decade before World War I, hundreds of thousands of independent radio enthusiasts took to the airwaves, using their often self-assembled sets to share news, gossip and advice on everything from homework to dating. None of these enthusiasts were merely “transmitters” or “receivers”; they were each participants in a rapidly growing, technologically-enabled community spanning thousands of miles. After the US government temporarily banned amateur radio during the war, the medium grew into something very different. During the 1920s, the government established the Federal Radio Commission (later to be supplanted by the Federal Communications Commission), equipment manufacturers started shipping a significant number of radio receivers (for listening only), major broadcast networks like NBC and CBS emerged, and hundreds of stations across the country took advantage of federally licensed “clear channels,” free of amateur clutter, to broadcast news and music to millions of listeners across the country. By 1930, the radio industry looked, and sounded, much as it would at the end of the century, with a handful of major networks broadcasting music, news and entertainment to a massive but largely passive audience.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 In short, neither of the technologies that came to define and dominate the music industry in the 20th Century were initially invented or conceived for this purpose. Nor was the existing music industry, in the form of the publisher titans of the 19th Century, necessarily keen on these technological innovations. To the contrary, as I alluded to at the end of the previous chapter, these new distribution channels were initially considered “pirates” by the industry’s vested interests, for their disruptive economic potential. Nor were recording and broadcast technologies especially well suited to music distribution, at least in their initial forms. The high level of noise and single-channel audio provided by wax cylinders and early AM radio offered a listening experience that today’s musicians and music fans would have little use or patience for. Yet, despite all of these challenges, records and radio grew rapidly in popularity, performance and power, generating billions of dollars in market value and contributing to radical changes in our musical cultures and practices.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 As I will discuss in this chapter, these developments were neither necessary nor inevitable. Rather, the development of the modern music industry reflects a complex, longstanding love/hate dynamic between the industry’s most powerful institutions and the technologies that enable and constrain them. In science and technology studies (STS), this process is called the “social shaping of technology” – a dialectical process of push-and-pull between social dynamics and technological innovation, in a perpetual circuit with neither beginning nor end. Such a dynamic has been integral to music industry evolution. On the one hand, new technologies have allowed labels, publishers, broadcasters and musicians to continually reinvent themselves and their products and to refine their economic and aesthetic models. On the other hand, each new technological innovation complicates and challenges established economies and aesthetics, putting powerful institutions at risk and providing an opportunity for upstarts to gain leverage. Consequently, the industry has often treated technological innovation like the tiger in the Chinese proverb – dangerous to ride, but more dangerous still to dismount.