There’s no denying the digital age has revolutionized the production and distribution of music in ways we couldn’t have imagined even 20 years ago. Just when we thought we had some stability with iTunes, streaming services have again upended the industry’s business model, leaving artists and audiences scrambling to navigate a new landscape. Who survives and how they do it will be interesting to watch.
That said, this isn’t the first revolution in music. The earth truly shook, fingers pointed and hands wrung when, as explored in a recent Smithsonian article, Thomas Edison unveiled his phonograph in 1877. In his autobiography “Life,” Keith Richards regards the advent of recording technology as a great social leveler. Before recording, the only way for composers to share their work was to notate it on a written sheet and have professional players perform it live in a public setting. This assumes a certain level of wealth and education, reserving the artistry of music for certain social classes. That changed with the ability to record songs, which allowed people to bypass the concert hall and produce a composition on their own terms. Most importantly, Richards argues, it removed sheet music from the equation. You could learn guitar lick by listening, not reading, and anyone with talent, “literate” or not, was no longer restricted from participating.
That’s all well and good for performers, but what about audiences? Not surprisingly, consumption of music also underwent a seismic shift thanks to a previously unheard of option: on-demand playback. A new kind of listener emerged — one whose devotion to a work or genre no longer was limited by the availability of performances. If you liked a record, you could listen to it over and over. You could gather its nuances and moods in ways that wouldn’t be possible at a one-off Saturday night concert.
Consequently, a new kind of musical order emerged — one divided into specific genres, e.g blues, jazz, opera, hillbilly. Because people were able to pick and choose what they listened to and how often they listened to it, winners were separated from losers, with a broad spectrum of losers collecting dust on the shelf as a favored repository of winners commanded heavy rotation on the phonograph. That’s a phenomenon that continues today with the availability of dedicated satellite channels and customized Spotify playlists (with an unexpected consequence; more on that later).
And finally, a new kind of behavior emerged — the act of listening to music alone. This was unsettling to early critics of the phonograph, who saw music appreciation as an essentially social experience. I spend a lot of time listening to music alone — I think of it as something akin to reading — and judging by the number of people I see wearing earbuds at the office, on the bus, or running in the park, I’m not the only one. But I also understand the elevated sensation of a shared musical bond — even if it’s a cover band cranking out “Brown Sugar” as we all bounce and sway in unison and grinningly wail the lyrics at each other. The concert performance hasn’t died — in fact it has seen a renaissance of sorts as musicians realize its income potential vs. the dwindling returns from download sales or streaming royalties. You could even argue recorded music benefits its live cousin because of the familiarity it establishes between artist and audience.
Bottom line: Recorded music wasn’t the end of the world that its critics imagined. Just a different world. And that world is changing again with the prominence of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, which have already produced a curious effect. The Smithsonian article suggests that listeners, particularly younger ones, are now rejecting the genre-based categories we’ve become accustomed to as the ease of sampling a wider variety of styles lures us out our comfort zones. That’s a development I would not have predicted, and I think it’s a good one.
What’s a little more troubling is the paltry financial compensation artists get for licensing their works through streaming services. Proponents of this model argue that the exposure those services bring is the true payoff. That’s a quandary artists, labels and the services still need to resolve, but it’s reminiscent of the inequities that existed in the early days of recording. The revolution, it would seem, has come full cycle.