Stairiker: Music distribution evolves through time

Columnist Kevin Stairiker delves into the history of music-recording mediums.

Kevin Stairiker

Kevin StairikerHow long did it take the last piece of music to download onto your computer? I bought the new Mountain Goats album the other day — legally — from the Merge Records website, and the download took three and a half minutes. Three and a half minutes to get a nearly 40-minute album that probably took months to record. 2012 is pretty crazy.

As CDs slowly creep back further and further on store shelves and records, though climbing, remain a niche market, the MP3 is the obvious dominator in music listening.  Whether this is good or bad is really meaningless, because it’s already happened and people that listen to music are pretty steadfast in their ways. This is not a thought piece about that, however.

The history of how music has been released is a pretty varied and weird one. The phonograph was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison, but it took Victor Talking Machine Company to popularize the selling of 10-inch records in 1901. But before even that, there was sheet music. Before the invention of records, famous entities like Tin Pan Alley made its dimes by selling sheet music to the public to perform on different-tuned pianos in alleyways. As novel as it sounds, there was a time when this method was the only way for early songwriters to peddle their wares.

Recently, singer and songwriter Beck announced that he would be selling his new album only in the form of sheet music, thus bringing the form full circle.

Despite annotated music’s relevance, as soon as wax cylinders started catching on, the music-listening public soon shunned sheet music in favor of merely listening to the tunes instead of having to play themselves. Early jazz bands and classical performers recorded performances straight to records, playing all at the same time with the louder instruments relegated to playing in the back of the room to attempt to balance the sound. However, there were no microphones early on.

In the beginning, musicians would merely play in the direction of a horn-shaped appendage. This form of acoustic-style recording was thankfully short-lived once radio became a force in entertainment in the 1920s. The first acts recorded in the new “electrical” fashion were the hometown heroes of the Philadelphia Orchestra, performing such club bangers as Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave” at the Academy of Music for Victor in 1926.

Seventy-eight RPM records were the industry norm until the introduction of the Long Player record in 1948. I know what you’re thinking right now. “Kevin, this column is nearly half way done and you’re only just now getting to records and I’m totally not even bored yet.” Thank you, unnamed reader. If you thought wax cylinders were exciting, wait until you read on.

Columbia Records found itself on the forefront of this new technology following the ending of World War II, with new records featuring microgrooves that could now hold up to 20 minutes of music. Sold on a 12-inch record — though not for the first time — LPs almost instantaneously became the popular mode of music release once record executives found out that they could pump more music out to a rabid public wanting more Frank Sinatra for their collective buck.

Records were able to fit more music by lessening the RPM from 78 to 33 1/3. Sneaking up quietly alongside the record was the advent of the cassette. While never nearly as popular as vinyl or CDs, cassettes did manage to catch on with listeners in the ‘70s and ‘80s, coincidentally around the same time as the first onslaught of music piracy. The popularization of the Walkman in 1980 allowed people to actually carry around their music on the go, albeit for however long the batteries lasted.

Cassettes were, and still are, relatively cheap to make, allowing bands without sizable funds to have something presentable that fans can buy at shows. And of course, we have the CD. Released in the U.S. in 1983, compact discs enjoyed the similar immediate success that formats before it had. It also allowed record executives to release whole discographies on an entirely new medium, with the general population more than willing to replace its entire collections for the privilege.

After the CD — well, nothing. I’m not sure about you, but all of my CDs currently take up a shelf in my room at home and serve no purpose other than something to look at. Your car might have a cassette or CD player, but you’ve more than likely found a way to plug an iPod into it some way or another, you rascal. After the CD, there’s a good chance that there will be no physical medium to replace it, and that the MP3 and whatever comes after it will be the standard. And you know what? That’s OK. There’s a line from a recent Father John Misty song that sums this all up pretty nicely:

“Try not to dwell so much upon/How it won’t be so very long from now/That they laugh at us for selling a bunch of 15 year olds made from dinosaur bones singing ‘oh yeah’/Again and again/Right up to the end.”

Five Other Tchaikovsky Jamz:

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36: Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato – Allegro

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64: Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza

The Sleeping Beauty, ballet, Op. 66: Act 1. Waltz

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23: Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso

String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11: Andante Cantabile

Kevin Stairiker can be reached at

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.