The Music Industry (a brief history)

Since its inception the music industry has experienced countless changes and revolutions, and technology has always been the driving force behind that change. Up until the late 19th century there was no “popular music” as we now it today. Music was reserved for religious use, otherwise only available to those who could afford to see an orchestra or played/sang themselves, and only disseminated in the form of sheet music. Composers wrote music down, and in their written form notes and rhythms could be sold, read, and performed for paying audiences. Pen on paper and notes ringing in a concert hall were the only forms of music until the turn of the 20th century.

An Industry is Born

In the early 1900’s two new innovations came onto the scene that kickstarted the music industry: The phonograph and radio.

In 1877 Thomas Edison invented the first phonograph, a device that could capture the sound vibrations from the air and translate them into groves on a moldable surface, and reverse the process to play it back.  This primitive but crucial first step into the world of recorded sound matured over the next 30 years into something closely resembling the vinyl records and record players we know today. By the mid 1920’s records and record players were a relatively commonplace and affordable way to consume music.

An early gramophone record and player.

The technology that was the basis for modern radio existed in part since 1844, when Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message in morse code through a wire that stretched 40 miles. In 1888 Scientist Heinrich Hertz discovered that the air around us was filled with electromagnetic waves of varying frequency and proposed that these waves could be used to send messages wirelessly over long distances. In the 26 years that followed Hertz’s discovery, little progress was made. The start of the First World War in 1914 pushed the United States government to pursue innovation in the field of communication technologies, and radio in its modern form was born. After the war had ended, radio waves began being used to transmit music and voice over the airwaves and into people’s home’s.

The Industry Transforms

This Studer A800 24 track tape machine was common in many recording studios.

Following the firm establishment of radio and vinyl records, music industry technology underwent a series of radical changes leading up to present day. Primitive “direct to vinyl” recording techniques were usurped by multitrack magnetic tape machines in the 1930’s, which advanced the field of recording engineering leaps and bounds in a short period of time. Multitrack magnetic tape machines facilitated new recording techniques such as overdubbing (the ability to record once and add more “layers” afterward while listening back to the initial recording) and editing (physically cutting the tape and re-arranging it to fix mistakes or remove sections of songs). These new techniques enabled bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys to create the iconic and sonically groundbreaking albums that they are known for.

Starting in the 60’s magnetic tape technology was modified and miniaturized into different more portable iterations that consumers could use in their homes and

A typical cassette tape from the 80’s.

cars (namely “reel to reel” and “8 track” players) but the most notable and final advancement in the world of tape was the compact cassette. Cassettes were introduced in the 60’s and finally hit their stride in the 80’s by which point cassette players were standard fare in many cars, and tapes could be played on the go with portable devices such as the Sony Walkman. Finally there was a hyper portable, reliable, and relatively high fidelity format for music. But even greater change was coming.

A Digital Revolution

The final major change in the music industry came with the introduction of computerized digital recording and playback techniques, not notably with the compact disc. The transformation of audio from analog electrical signals into “ones and zeroes” came about in the 1980’s, when computer based Digital Audio Workstations (DAW’s) became affordable and started to compete with traditional magnetic tape recording. Instead of limiting him/herself to what a 24 track tape machine and analog processing equipment could do, recording engineers could now harness computers to increase track counts, create new sounds previously never heard, and alter sounds in new ways. DAW recording didn’t become the industry standard until we entered the 21st century, but its introduction in the 80’s paved the way for new styles of music, and more importantly encouraged the introduction of the digital music formats and standards we use today.

The logo for the Compact Disc format.

In 1982 Philips and Sony introduced the Compact Disc, a new way to store digital information, including digital audio. Over the next 20 years CD’s became an increasingly popular way to purchase and listen to music, and by the early 2000’s they had completely eclipsed cassette tapes as the standard for portable music in handheld devices and in cars. CD’s were originally developed for music storage and playback, but they were quickly modified to store any kind of digital data.

The Internet Takes Over

In the 15 years leading up to 1990 the US government had been experimenting with creating networks by manually connecting computers over long distances. These ideas came to fruition when the World Wide Web was created in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee. By the mid 90’s many people had internet access, and by the late 90’s a lot of them were sharing music online. The mp3 file format was also introduced in the mid 90’s. Mp3’s are what allowed online music sharing and selling to take off, because they are smaller “compressed” versions of larger audio files. There are parts of the audible spectrum included in full size uncompressed file formats that are not crucial to human’s general perception of a sound. The digital data representing some of those non essential frequencies can be removed, and to an untrained ear the mp3 will sound identical to the original. Therefore, mp3’s are the result of a computer algorithm removing the parts of a sound that won’t impact the listener’s perception of it, and then piecing the remaining data back together. The result is a file that is pretty much sonically identical but up to 10 times smaller.

In the beginning internet music sharing was rampant with piracy, and websites like Napster (which operated briefly in its free form from June 1999-July 2001) that facilitated such illegal activity were shut down quickly. The problem was that there were no standards for copyright protection of music on the internet, so the very early days of peer t0 peer music sharing on the internet weren’t technically illegal. Regulatory agencies quickly set up standards and laws regarding music on the internet, and soon Apple jumped into the mix with iTunes, the iTunes store, and the iPod.

The original iPod, released in 2001.

From 2001-2003 Apple put out a series of groundbreaking new products: the iPod, iTunes, and the iTunes Store. The iPod was Apple’s ultraportable introductory product to the hard disk music player market. In the years leading up to the iPod’s release, other companies such as Sony had released music players that acted as tiny PC’s, where you could store the music from your CD’s and play it back.  The iPod was the first of these types of devices that took off, and it was much smaller and held 1000 songs, a great deal more than its competitors. iTunes and the iTunes store were the first widely accepted platform with which users could organize the music that they had on CD’s, and search for and buy new songs online. Apple created its own copyright protection standard, which allows up to 5 iTunes enabled devices to share the same songs, but prevents songs purchased on iTunes from being played on any unauthorized platform. Moving forward through the 2000’s  some other companies like Amazon and Rhapsody started selling music online without copyright protection, but Apple products have maintained their position as the major player in that market. It is important to note the introduction of Pandora internet radio in 2005, because it was the first major web based music streaming service. Pandora was not immensely popular for another 4 years, but its introduction primed users for the streaming services to come, and introduced the idea of paying a monthly fee to

By the mid 2000’s the average user’s music experience was entirely in the digital domain, and increasingly portable. Most music consumers were buying CD’s and/or purchasing mp3’s online using iTunes and other online music stores. Laptop and desktop computers were central to an avid music fan’s setup, because this is where a lot of CD’s were copied to and added to the library of songs purchased online. Portable hard disk (and later flash based) music players were quite popular, and every year they packed more and more songs and additional features into smaller and smaller footprints. Portable media players such as the iPod were commonplace, and touchscreen smartphones were starting to enter the playing field. At this time 500 million people were using iTunes and a significant portion of them were playing the songs they bought on Apple devices. For users who didn’t have Apple devices to play Apple secured songs, Amazon and Rhapsody offered a comparable selection that could be downloaded and played on a multitude of 3rd party players.

At this point, even though the music industry was moving away from material goods and towards downloads, most people were still paying to own a copy of a song or album. Whether you used iTunes or bought CD’s, most people were still paying a flat one time rate to purchase music. This was the general practice since gramophone records became available to the public in the 20’s, and it persisted as the only way to consume music until the mid 2000’s. But what if instead of paying to own each individual song, you could pay a monthly fee to have online streaming access to (virtually) every song you could have purchased before? Spotify introduced this concept in 2008, and changed the music industry in way that it hadn’t changed ever before.



Seel, P. (2012). Digital universe : The global telecommunication revolution. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Grant, A., & Meadows, J. (2012). Communication Technology Update and Fundamentals(13th ed.). Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.


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