From Vinyl to Wireless – The Media is Only Part of the Message

When I was a kid one of the most fun things was to be allowed to open the ceiling trap door, lower the extendable ladder and climb up into the Aladdin’s cave that was our attic. Here my parents’ forgotten possessions lay strewn among the rafters. Taking care not to step off the sparsely laid floorboards my brother and I would rummage through the forgotten treasures of yesteryear. One of our best ever finds was a collection of 78’s – thick solid 10” plastic disks – together with a wind-up gramophone.

We brought our dusty booty downstairs and after winding it up we watched the turntable spin at 78 RPM and were delighted to hear the scratchy refrains of Glen Miller’s big band emerge from the phonograph’s sound chamber. No volume control – in fact we discovered the true origin of the phrase “put a sock in it” as we found ways to attenuate the considerable sound generated by the steel needle as it converted the wiggly grooves in the heavy shellac disk into what could only be regarded as low fidelity audio. 78’s allowed people for the first time to play the music they wanted to hear in their homes when they wanted it. The record industry was born based on stamping out these crackly discs.

Not long after this we were thrilled when our parents purchased a record player that could play 45s. Music from the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Zombies and countless other groups made its way via a stylus, electro-magnetic pickup and transistor electronics to a 5” speaker.  Advanced features allowed for the 7” records to be stacked up to play in sequence meaning that up to 30 minutes of music could be choreographed by mechanics worthy of a Swiss watchmaker. During this era the music industry scaled up pressing millions of records to distribute the music of the myriad groups and singers that became recording stars. Musicians and record companies made fortunes as this business rapidly scaled.

Then the big breakthrough! My Dad convinced my Mum that the time had come to invest in a Stereo. Housed in a stylish walnut cabinet, the size of a small sideboard this could play 33 1/3 Long Playing (LP) albums in full glorious stereo sound!  And beautiful sound it was too. The 12” vinyl disks were imprinted with mirco-grooves which were traced by the expensive pick-up hanging off the finely balanced tone-arm. Led Zeppelin sounded wonderful booming out from this Hi-Fi Stereogram. Rock bands were touring relentlessly showing up weekly in my hometown theatres to further encourage me to spend my hard earned allowance on the latest LP release. As these recordings became more sophisticated so did the marketing of the “product”. Musicians drove very fancy cars while the record company execs flew from LA to New York to London spending their huge profits on lavish release parties.

Up to this point in time, if you wanted to listen to music you had to travel to the source. Music was inherently non-portable. That was until the cassette tape was introduced. Music from David Bowie to the Eagles could now be carried everywhere and played on a boom-box at the beach or through the ubiquitous cassette player slot in the car stereo. True, cassette tapes had a habit of unspooling themselves inside the player but what new technology comes without some challenge? Record companies grumbled that copying of records onto cassettes was not legitimate and was cutting into their profits – the grumbling stopped no one!.

When compact disks or CDs were introduced the sound quality was heralded as stunning. And it was pretty impressive. No more pops from record scratches and it was digital! Somehow the term “digital” became synonymous with high fidelity sound. Sadly this tended to be more a triumph of marketing over reality as the “digital” label often cloaked shoddy production values. Still CD’s were well suited to the music of the day. Dire Straits, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac were filling massive arenas and stadiums on global tours to promote the sales of new recordings.  CD’s as a medium were relatively small allowing me to store my entire collection of CD’s inside my 400-CD juke box.

The CD ruled the roost for about a decade before a new encoding scheme  “mp3” came along allowing music  to be ‘ripped’ from CDs and put onto PC hard drives. From there the digital file could be searched, sorted and played on demand on the PC and downloaded onto tiny solid state memory MP3 players. Even more significantly these files could be easily shared over the Internet.  Services of questionable legality such as Napster and Limewire sprung up and grew to scale seemingly overnight.  Convenience, personalization and portability were the names of the game. MP3’s allowed Hip Hop music to spread like crazy as well as independent artists to establish themselves without record company backing.  Once again new technology  begat  business changes and soon with iTunes, Apple found a way not only to legalize and profit from the mass distribution of digital music files but also to cause  a seismic disruption to the music industry’s business model.

And so to today; Music is delivered via subscription streaming services such as Spotify, Amazon and Google to name just a few. These services offer the exact music we want,  when and where we want it, conveniently delivered wirelessly to our smartphones. We rarely if ever stop to think that while the music comes out of our smartphones it is in fact stored on a hard drive or solid state drive that might be located at a data centre half a continent away.

Change is a constant in the world of recorded music. Within a few decades the recording media, delivery mechanisms and indeed the music itself have all changed beyond recognition.

Businesses that fail to adapt to these shifts can face extinction (remember the 8-track?). Companies that re-invent their business models and start-ups that take advantage of innovative technologies will be able to develop new eco-systems to exploit massive new opportunities.

When it comes to music the media is only part of the message.

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