The Evolution and Revolution in Music – a personal journey

There will always be a fascination with inventions, innovations and new development in music and musical equipment, whether for broadcasting and our personal enjoyment. Coincidentally, it is also a time of immense changes and disruption in the music industry, and also our own personal experiences with these adoptions and evolutions. Innovations in musical equipment have moved from the physical to the digital, starting from the wax cylinders, phonographs, vinyl, cassette, mpg file to streaming. I may have left out quite a few formats here but forgive me for my ignorance. Here I will try to cover some of these changes with some of my personal experiences.

 

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It may be back in the 19th Century, but occasionally I get asked at work to search for patents on musical inventions, which is very interesting.  In the article In what’s your best innovations yet?’, there is a brilliant description of musical history and our experiences in a nutshell. The explanation goes: “…before the invention of the phonograph people could hear music only when it was performed. When Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell began working on their phonograph in the late 1800s, their primary objective was to desynchronise the time, and place of a performance so that it would be heard anytime, anywhere…..Emile Berliner’s flat disc-shaped records and later, the development of magnetic tape made it significantly easier to mass-produce recordings, lowering their cost while increasing the fidelity and selection of music available. For decades, however, players were bulky and not particularly portable”. Does this sound familiar to you? This is a quick whistle stop of earlier musical inventions but you may have experience some similar changes too in our lifetime.

 

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I wanted to blog about the evolution of music from my own experiences, but it is with great coincidence and significance that the British Library held a recent exhibition entitled ‘Seasons of Sound – 140 years of Recorded Sound‘. This was a visual and interactive timeline of sound equipment, technology, culture, sub-cultures, and the impact these have had on society. This was the library’s first sound focussed exhibition – described as an exploration of how “sounds has shaped and influenced lives since the phonograph was invented in 1877”. The exhibition aims were to demonstrate how innovations in recording technology and radio broadcasting have transformed our listening experience. The exhibition was great to see (and hear…and feel) how equipment, technology and developments in recordings have progressed in this period, especially if you are a music fan. Working at the library, I have also answered queries on historical patents, including inventor and entrepreneur Emile Berliner and the phonograph!

 

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I had the privilege of also attending a guided tour by two of the exhibition’s curators. Some of the items that were highlighted were 16-year-old Alfred Taylor’s wireless log – which apparently would have been like a modern day vlogger or You Tuber. We were told that the first set of live radio broadcasting was not recorded in his diary, as there were a lot of “false starts”. It was also quite exciting to hear about the launch of live broadcasting at the turn of the 20th century, and so it seemed this had gripped the public’s imagination with a fascination for live shows. You can just imagine the development of such well-known media outlets such as the BBC, the rise of record buying, the pop charts, broadcasters, live shows – and the rest they say is history! One point the curator wanted to convey was that “the library is remembered for its books, but this exhibition was focussed on sound and listening and to raise the profile of the sound archive”. So look out for the Save our Sounds Project and for more ‘Season of Sounds‘ events on until this autumn.

 

 

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We have reached a stage where these inventions and innovations are ever-changing and so we can all relate to a period in time when we consumed music in one or another format. We have experienced, witness and moved from the early days of audio through to the digital age.

It still amazes me that there is so much personalisation. Andreas Pavel first created The Walkman in 1979. Apparently, Andreas wanted to create it but found resistance from the head of Sony at the time. However it was later launched.

 

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“They all said they didn’t think people would be so crazy as to run around with headphones, that this is just a gadget, a useless gadget of a crazy nut,” Sony on Andreas Pavel’s idea for the Walkman.

 

In the book ‘Inventions in the 21st century’, my ex-colleague wrote the following on the personal stereo: “the story is great for the birth of the idea where Sony’s head realised that young people loved their music and did not want to be without it”. Sony’s marketing staff were apparently not convinced that the product would sell, but after launch in April 1979 – 100 million units were sold. Certainly, this is a forerunner of the smartphone and other such devices as we know them now – but the rate of development has been steadily improving.

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The iPOD MP3 Player – ‘Inventing the 21st Century’ by Stephen Van Dulven

Despite the current move to the digital age, Vinyl has seen a resurgence and renaissance in their sales with more millenials discovering vinyl, and obviously record players too. Who would have thought that that vinyl would have their own best selling charts again? The experience of crate digging in a record store or in a pop-up shop is still a self-fulfilling experience. Some record fans have always preferred the physically activity of selecting, loading and playing records. Not forgetting the historical and artistic contribution of record covers designs. I used to get lost just looking at record covers and lyric sleeves. All of this is even more fun and better to share with friends and loved ones. I have loads of record stories but I remember our Italian relatives in a band asking us the lyrics to Steely Dan’s ‘Do it again‘ before we had access to the internet – we had to keep rewinding the cassette until we got most of the lyrics. It’s so easy now.

 

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I grew up in the age of vinyl in Trinidad were we bought hundreds of vinyl 45” and LPs in the late 1970s and 1980s. However the late 1980s saw the adoption of CDs and by this time, I was a foreign student on a budget in the UK, and so CDs were too expensive and a luxury for me to buy. However, I used to buy cassettes and also taped my favourite sounds from radio (for personal use). I buy music occasionally still and I continue to listen to the radio a lot compared to buying music. In the last 20 years, I have found the development from cds in the 1990s to the present fast moving and revolutionary.

 

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By the late 1990s, the Internet had disrupted all of this but also acted as a catalyst for a lot of innovations. You may recall Napster from about 1999. In the article ‘What’s your best innovation bet?’ by the Harvard Business Review July-Aug 2017 (link above), Melissa Schilling writes: “soon after the file-sharing platform Napster launched in 1999, consumers were downloading new music and film by the millions, and Napster like services were sprouting up like weeds”.

These disruptions were obviously having an impact on sales and the industry. The latest music statistics are healthier but in another article, ‘The trouble with streaming music: how to dig a new hole’, the argument is that the “macro trend is that music sales in real dollars have been decreasing every year since 1999, concerns in this digital age is that the model of the music has not only shifted in the democratisation of music. No longer are we tied just to the artist we hear on FM radio. In no other time in history has it been possible to sample so much music with so little fraction or cost”.

Another milestone in the development of music is without doubt by the company Apple. Steve Jobs, Apple’s late CEO, loved music and incorporated music listening in the design when Apple was developing the iPod – “an iPod, a phone and internet”. This leveraged the mp3 for a new generation. The revolution in music continued with iTunes, and now to Apple streaming music. The news is that Apple Music is now a rival to iTunes as mentioned in the report Streaming resuscitates entertainment industry, but operation bypasses retail where it states: “Apple’s entrance into streaming with Apple Music has resulted in limited investment in its original platform”.

 

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Up to date in the 2010s, this leads me to explore the new world of music streaming, which is tied in with the proliferation of the smartphone. The general topics are: rights and revenues paid to artists, how much of our spending ends up being owned by us, algorithmic versus personalised selection, and the interaction levels that are now possible. The rate of these digital changes is phenomenal! In this BBC article, the figures says streaming generated $7.1bn (£5bn) in 2017, more than sales of cds and vinyl. The number of people subscribing to a streaming service topped 176 million, up from 112 million a year before’.

Streaming has been around for a while but I have intentionally started paying more attention to its development and also using it too recently. I have had a Spotify account for my elder son for a couple of years, and I recently took out an Apple Music family account for my younger son and myself. It certainly is amazing how easy it is to have seamless, mainly banter-free and advert-free music streamed for your pure listening pleasure. You can let the algorithmic system work the magic with serendipity, smart searches and suggestions for you. An extra bonus is that you have access to millions of sounds at your fingertips and ears. For example on Spotify, you can see what your friends are listening to, have access to a whole album instead of a single, and various information and user-centric data. How cool is all this! Do you remember talking to your friends at school about new pop music? Then we had no You Tube links neither streaming music to discuss whilst showing them on our smartphones. So streaming music seems like a whole lot of fun whatever the genre you like – especially if you are passionate about music.

 

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The streaming music market is now rampant with competition with Google Play Music (owned by You Tube Music), Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Deezer and Amazon etc. I certainly don’t and can’t afford to use them all. There are billions of pounds in the music streaming business – but what about the artists? In terms of rights for the artists, it is argued in ‘The Trouble with Streaming Music: How to dig a new hole’ that “you can explore 100 artists that all sound similar to one you put with their algorithmic, but you will never get anything that blows your mind the way that one guy in college was able to do when introducing you to something completely novel”. It is the same occurs when you discuss with friends, or go to a party and accidentally come across a track that you may not have heard before. Music knowledge is great to discuss with a person face to face. The one suggestion for streaming music’s success says “to combat the economies of streaming services depriving artists of a working wage, and to keep new music coming out – is to buy more music, see more shows, and buy more merchandise”. This is the reason why touring artists and live shows are still very profitable for revenue and encouraged by both struggling and successful artists. They need their fan’s support too to survive.

 

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I do still have personal dislikes for streaming music – with my total cost of money spent a month averaging about £30.00, it still will not be wholly owned by me such like the 45”, albums, cassettes or cds that I owned in the past. Also although I only have experience of Apple and Spotify, it does not allow me access to the eclectic world music catalogue that I like. I frequently do not find songs on streaming that I know exists! You Tube videos may be better in those instances.

 

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I am 100% sure that music consumption and inventions will continue to evolve in time with new visionaries, ideas, technological developments and experiences. Generally, I feel all will be well with the future of music and the artists who make these beautiful melodies. How do I know this? Our love for music will be at the heart of all this driving the changes, and we will show that we do care.