How Technology Has Changed Music Over the Years
Singing, chanting, and playing musical instruments have been around since the dawn of time, but when asked how technology has changed music, it’s tough to know where to begin. From the way music is produced to its distribution and every factor in between, modern technology has been the driving force of how we enjoy music today. To understand the progression and future of music in the digital age, it’s best to look at where the earliest inventions began in the late 1800s to where it is now well into the 2000s.
1800-1940: Phonographs and Record Players
In 1877, Thomas Edison invented a cylinder phonograph. This machine allowed music producers to record and playback audio, an invention which eventually evolved into record players approximately a decade later. Phonograph recordings were placed on city sidewalks in a pay-to-listen fashion. People could stop and listen to audio, including music, jokes, and monologues at their leisure.
Originally, a hand crank was used to rotate the cylinder as the needle found the groove to record sound vibrations of songs. At the same time, at-home listeners would be able to hear it by capturing sound through a needle and amplifier. The great lengths it took to actually “cut an album” could explain why early vinyl records often have a shorter tracklist than compact discs (CDs) that followed in later years.
Fortunately, with the introduction of the turntable, modern record player technology could rely on a mechanized spin to turn the record and drive it to the next song without constant cranking or lifting the needle for continuous play. During this time, vinyl records were introduced as a replacement for rubber discs. These were easier to mass produce as records became in high demand.
1940-1980: 8-Track and Cassette Tapes
While record players were still the most popular music listening device for the next several decades, 8-track and cassette tapes changed the music game again. The height of 8-track craze started in the mid-60s and continued a run into the early ‘80s as the music technology of the moment. Unlike a record that you had to flip to hear the B side, the 8-track tape played continuously.
This invention coincided with the installation of radio devices into automobiles. Ford Motor Company introduced factory-installed 8-track players into their newest models, which increased their popularity and allowed people to take their favorite music out of their homes and on the road with them wherever they went. As listening audiences continued to grow, the technology shifted again and 8-tracks were soon replaced by cassette tapes which arrived in 1963.
Fans preferred the smaller, portable size of the cassette tape compared with the clunkier shape and size of the 8-track cartridge. People were so quick to make the switch because of the limited sound quality of 8-track tapes. It was easy for tape residue to build up, which would create a varying sound speed and cause some tracks to “bleed over” due to head height misalignment.
Compared to the record player, the 8-track was convenient but lacked the quality provided by the cassette tape’s invention. Once the Sony Walkman was introduced in 1979, 8-tracks became mostly obsolete as the new wave of audio technology and musical style entered a new decade.
1980-2000: Compact Discs
When following how technology has changed music, you’ll notice how it sped up at a faster rate starting in the 1970s and into the 2000s. The compact disc or CD was co-developed by electronic company powerhouses Sony and Philips. The CD offered a modernized format that allowed musical producers and artists to store and play digital audio recordings. The CD’s debut made room for other audio technologies, such as the CD-ROM, used for data storage, and CD-RW, used for rewritable media, among many other iterations for storing recorded sound.
The benefit of owning a CD was that more data could be stored versus a cassette tape than any other sound recording technology previously introduced. The slim, shiny discs were seen as the successor to the vinyl record, similar in style and appearance. CD sales soared as new model cars became equipped with CD players, and massive stereo systems and multi-disk CD changers were part of the music industry trends of the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s.
CDs offered greater accessibility through its continuous play option, smaller product format, and the ability to store a large amount of data. However, maintaining the CD’s integrity was important as scratches or grime building changed the discs’ quality, causing songs to skip and sound to be altered. Extreme temperatures could also affect the integrity of the music recorded on a CD. Plus, owning a CD collection became a costly endeavor, which was good news for record labels and artists trying to sell their music but started to carry a hefty weight on consumers.
2000 to Present Day: Streaming Services and Beyond
The debut of cassette tapes and CDs made portable listening devices popular. Walkmans and Discmans were the go-to inventions to play music on-the-go, when not in the car. Of course, it required traveling with cassette or CD cases, which didn’t always prove to be convenient. The clunkiness of carrying around a music catalog began to shift music lovers’ wants and needs searching for something more suitable to a busy lifestyle. Enter: streaming music services.
Napster made a name for itself at the turn of the century in 1999, taking the music world by storm with its peer-to-peer online music sharing platform. Anyone could download, listen to, and share music as they pleased for a small subscription fee. However, the novelty was short-lived as lawsuits began due to copyright infringement and the violation of piracy laws.
Despite its demise, the birth of Napster led the way for the digital revolution of music that’s helped shape what music listening is today. Apple iTunes online music store followed a roughly similar model. Music lovers had to pay to download, giving musicians and recording companies the revenue stream they deserved for their work.
Filling iPods with a mix of tracks from various albums allowed people to mix-and-match their favorite tunes to form a curated playlist. This shift came when the internet became mainstream, and people began looking for information about their favorite artists online.
Now with streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, music technology execs and the music industry, in general, continue to look for ways to improve the user experience and get more of their artists’ music in front of more people. One approach is making content that’s shareable and recommending options based on a user’s previous music listening history. This paves the way to introduce tracks and albums in the same genre to an audience that most likely will receive it well.
How technology has changed music over the years is how recording labels connect with fans and consumers. There are more opportunities than ever for independent and up-and-coming musicians to promote their work through crowdsourcing and social media marketing. In today’s world, artists don’t even need to release a full studio album to attract new listeners.
It’s not uncommon for new artists and independent musicians to start a YouTube channel or perform their music on Instagram live streams to build an audience and test new music. It’s the digital version of the coffeehouse open mic and passing out mixtapes at bars to attract new audiences. The online world is a crowded space, so quickly adapting is one of the greatest skills to make in today’s music business.
What’s Old Becomes New Again
Modern technology is continuously moving the needle forward, especially in music. It changes how we’re able to listen to music and how we connect with the artists through audio, visual albums, video-streaming concert events, and other experiences that heighten the excitement and appeal of a musician. However, the upswing of vinyl sales from 2005 to 2019 shows the nostalgia of what was now in high demand again.
To stand out, artists have to innovate and be seen on various platforms continually. On the positive side, recording technology allows more people to enter the music space and find their fans. On the downside, the convenience of producing music at such a rapid pace can often detract from the sound quality that’s recognized and appreciated when listening to music on vinyl records or even CDs.
Nielsen statistics show the increase of vinyl LP sales in the U.S. spiked significantly from about 0.9 million in 2006 to approximately 18.8 million as of 2019. Although music streaming services are still the primary way people are consuming music, the purity of listening to records makes an impact even decades later. The sound quality lends itself to a different listening experience than hearing songs through a computer or smartphone screen.
As music technology continues to change, it’ll always be inspired by the past. Likewise, musical artists are inspired by past eras’ sounds as they recreate them to make music that feels wholly original.