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From Vinyl Records to Digital Recordings

From Vinyl Records to Digital Recordings

Perhaps nowhere has the impact of technology been more obvious than in the music industry. New delivery systems have sprung up, causing once-successful businesses to fail; a major industry organization has changed course; industry-related lawsuits have worked their way up to the Supreme Court, and a computer company has become the largest music retailer in the country - and it's all happened in the last 50 years, dramatically accelerating over the last 20. Here we take a look at this process as it occurred.

From Singles to Big-Box Record Stores

In the mid-1960s, music buyers were making the transition from "singles", vinyl records that rotated at 78 to 45 revolutions per minute (RPM) and held a single song on each side, to "albums," which spun at 33 RPM and included six to 10 songs on each side. There had been albums for a number of years, but they were generally collections of previously recorded singles, grouped by a theme such as "Love Songs by .." or "The Greatest Hits of ...". In addition, record players that played albums generally cost significantly more than record players that played only singles. Players that played 33 RPM generally had settings (and an attachment for 45 RPM), allowing them to play both albums and singles. These units were called high-fidelity systems, or Hi-Fi. As the technology improved, these came to be called stereos, for their stereophonic sound.

The transition away from singles occurred as a result of a number of factors. For one, the price of a record player decreased as systems went from tube-based to transistor-based. The music-buying public, buoyed by boom times and encouraged by music radio stations, also began spending more money on records. Finally, albums were being recorded as original music with unifying themes - the most important of these, The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was released on June 1, 1967 - and the transition moved into high gear.

The growth in music-related sales led to the development of chains of big-box record stores, such as Tower Records, with large inventories and discounted prices. The success of these chains produced what has become a common effect in many growth industries - the eventual disappearance of many small, local record stores.

A Shift in Music Production

Another important technological innovation, the Moog Synthesizer, was introduced in June 1967. It allowed one electronic device to simulate and mix the sounds of many instruments. Diana Ross and the Supremes released the first rock song backed by a synthesizer, "Reflections", in July 1967. This influenced other well-known artists, including The Doors, The Monkees, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel and Buck Owens, and marked the early stages of what would eventually become psychedelic rock.

Years later, music artists such as Herbie Hancock, Laurie Spiegel, Todd Rundgren and Trent Reznor turned to computer systems as composition tools. As a result, music-editing programs such as Digidesign became standard tools for musicians.

The Rise of MP3s and Digital Downloading

Of all the technological developments, none would have the long-range disruptive impact of the 1993 publication of the MPEG-2 Audio Layer III (MP3) standard for digital audio compression for the transfer and playback of music. The first application of this standard was simply the copying of music from CD to computers but in 1994, MP3s began to appear on the Internet, allowing music to widely shared through email and Internet Relay Chat (IRC). This ability became of immediate cause for concern to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), an industry group whose members owned many of the copyrighted works being shared via MP3 file transfers. (Learn about the RIAA's most recent move against illegal downloading in SOPA and the Internet: Copyright Freedom or Uncivil War?)

The issue of copyrighted file sharing came to a head (the first of many such turning points) when Diamond Multimedia announced the Rio PMP300, a portable MP3 player, in September 1998. The following month, RIAA filed an application in the Central District Court of California for a temporary restraining order to prevent the sale of the Rio player, claiming the player violated the 1992 Home Recording Act. The court ruled against RIAA's application, 200,000 Rio players were sold.

Napster Brings MP3s to the Masses

In spite of the RIAA’s concern, at this point the distribution of copyrighted music was limited mainly to the small number of Internet savvy people who were able to use IRC. This situation changed dramatically in June 1999 when Shawn Fanning, a student at Northeastern University in Boston, introduced Napster, a system that allowed users to exchange music over the Internet. Fanning’s system did not require that the music be stored on a central server. It simply allowed users to find out which other users had songs of interest and then download the songs directly from those users. This approach left it rather fuzzy as to whether Napster was itself violating any laws.

Some clarity was brought to the situation when heavy metal band Metallica teamed up with rapper Dr. Dre to sue Napster for copyright violation. This action began a series of legal challenges that led to the eventual demise of Napster. In the meantime, however, many other file-sharing systems such as Limewire, Kazaa, Freenet and Gnutella appeared on the scene. Even at this early stage in Internet file-sharing's history, it was already clear that a major shift was occurring in the way people enjoyed music. What was also clear was that recording artists were fighting an ever-increasing battle to prevent their music from being distributed for free.

In 2001, Apple Computer introduced iTunes, both for Macintosh and Windows computers. This system provided a way for people to download, play and organize digital music. Although it was not obvious at the time, this was the first step in a succession that allowed Apple to become the largest retailer of music in the United States. The next step was Apple’s introduction of the iPod that same year. It rapidly became the dominant MP3 player in the world.

The last nail in the coffin of the way things were in the music industry occurred in April 2003 when Apple introduced the iTunes Store, an online music store that allowed the legal purchase and download of music to an iPod (and later the iPhone and iPad). To set up the online store, Apple CEO Steve Jobs had to convince the music companies that it was in their best interests to provide their music to iTunes - and that it was better to sell their songs at a low price (99 cents) than to allow them to be stolen online. Music industry analysts did not believe that the music companies would agree to such arrangements - but they did - and Apple’s initial projection was that it would sell 1 million songs in six months. The iTunes Store sold that first 1 million songs in a mere six days, and Jobs was quoted as saying "This will go down in history as a turning point for the music industry." Which, as we know, it did. (To read more about Apple, check out Creating the iWorld: A History of Apple.)

The New World

Jobs was right. The deterioration of the previous incarnation of the record industry deteriorated quickly. Tower Records went out of business in 2007; Apple became the largest retailer of music in the US, surpassing Walmart and Amazon. Every song purchased through the iTunes Store should remind us that there is no longer a need for these songs to be transcribed, packaged and transported to a retail outlet.

John F. McMullen
John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. He is also a member of the American Academy of Poets, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freelancer's Union, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the World Futurist Society.

His current non-technical writing includes a novel, "The Inwood Book" and "New & Collected Poems by johnmac the bard." Both are available on  Full Bio
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