From Vinyl to Streaming: The Evolution of Music Consumption
Get on any subway or crowded bus and you’re bound to see a number of people with headphones jammed on their head and plugged into their phones, listening to their favorite playlists from their streaming service of choice. What was once only available to listen to at concerts and live performances, music has now become ubiquitous. But how did we get from live piano concerts to commodified playlists on Spotify, from disciplined and highly acclaimed musicians to throwaway SoundCloud rappers? Below, we’ll take a look at a condensed history of music consumption.
It all starts with the phonograph
Before the phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, the only way for people to consume music was by attending the live performance in question. The phonograph was the first machine that could record music as well as play it back using special cylinders, a playback stylus, diaphragm and horn. A few years later in 1889, Edison created pre-recorded cylinders, effectively allowing music to be distributed en masse.
Of vinyl importance
The birth of vinyl actually started with the invention of flat-disc records in the late 1890s that came in various sizes – five-inch, 10-inch, as well as 12-inch. These flat-discs were made of shellac, and wouldn’t be replaced with vinyl until after the second World War. Vinyl allowed much more music to be recorded onto a single disc – a 12-inch vinyl record could contain about 20 minutes of music on each side. Apart from the records themselves, the technology to play music also evolved. Belt and direct-drive turntables, and devices such as more advanced styli meant that music could be more easily distributed.
Tape to the streets
1958 saw the introduction of the RCA tape cartridge. As a precursor to the cassette tape, the RCA was the first medium that utilized magnetic tape to store large amounts of music for home use. This meant that up to 60 minutes of music could now be stored on a much smaller device. Soon after, 8-track tapes were introduced and along with them 8-track players which allowed music to be played in cars. Suddenly, music was not only available for listening at home, but everywhere four wheels could take you. In 1979, music portability was taken a step further with Sony’s invention of the Walkman. This tiny portable stereo tape player changed the face of music consumption forever: music lovers could now take their tunes with them wherever they went.
CDs to MP3s
The 80s saw music being recorded onto compact discs. Being able to store yet more music and paving the way for the CD-RW (rewritable CDs), CDs exploded on to the music scene. They were relatively unchallenged as the status quo music storage medium until the rise of mp3s and electronically-encoded music. It was this rise which would ultimately go on to radically warp the music industry as it was at the time. Mp3s meant that music could now be shared via peer-to-peer music services such as Napster illegally.
Legal streaming really came into its own with the rise of Pandora. It was a hard sell: a service that allows audiophiles to listen to thousands of songs without buying an album. This didn’t stop other music streaming services from following suit, however. The biggest of them being Spotify, although there is an entire host of alternatives such as iHeartRadio and iTunes Radio. These services have come to dominate the music market, having surpassed digital music sales altogether. And while artists may not get the royalties they once did, these services have opened up the market to a whole new generation of artists who would otherwise have not gotten the chance or platform to be recognized. Industry killer or artist enabler? Whichever it is, it’s clear that streaming has changed the way we consume music, and it’s likely here to stay.