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How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties

Higher Fidelity, Longer Plays: A Brief History of Recording Formats

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “Have you heard The EDISON PHONOGRAPH play an Amberol Record?” So screams the headline of a full-page ad in a 1909 edition of Harper’s Magazine Advertiser. The rest of the ad copy, short and punchy for those prolix times, goes on to list the many superior qualities of these two products, and challenges readers to experience them directly:

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 You can do this at the store of any Edison dealer. When you go, note the longer playing time of Amberol Records (playing twice as long as the standard Edison Records), note the Amberol selections, not found on any other record of any kind; note also the reproducing point of the Edison Phonograph that never wears out and never needs changing; the motor, that runs as silently and as evenly as an electric device, and the special horn, so shaped that it gathers every note or spoken word and brings it out with startling fidelity.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 At the bottom of the advertisement, two drawings are juxtaposed. On the left, three young women gather around a phonograph’s horn, clearly enraptured by the music they are hearing. On the right, his back to the three ladies, a pianist in suit and tails sits at a piano. His right hand is on his knee, his left hand rests idly on the keys, and he gazes away from the sheet music, mouth set in a stoic line, eyes fixed on some distant or imaginary object; he looks like a man considering a new career. Beneath the drawings is the legend, “The Rivals.”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Amberol Records AdvertisementFigure 2: 1909 Print Advertisement for Edison Amberol Records

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This advertisement, quaint and dated as it may seem, contains almost every element that would come to characterize the music industry’s continuing drive to develop and market new recording formats and playback technologies during the ensuing century. The Amberol is touted for its longer playing time, and contrasted with earlier formats used by the same record label, demonstrating a willingness on the part of Edison to cannibalize its existing products in the interest of driving consumers to its newer ones. The use of format-exclusive content (“not found on any other record of any kind”) provides further incentive for consumers to upgrade. The playback equipment is celebrated for its durability and its “startling fidelity.” The visual tableaux at the bottom suggest that the sound fidelity is so great that it rivals the experience of live music (similar to Victor’s contemporary “his masters voice” trademark, and the “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” campaign of the 1970s and 1980s). There is also a whiff of cyborgian sexual innuendo, as the young ladies shun the impotent virtuoso for their “special horn.” Finally, there is what advertisers refer to as the “call to action,” offering consumers the ability to preview the technology in a controlled, in-store environment. Each of these factors remains a vital element in the marketing of music technology to this day.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Even many casual music fans are aware of the progression of dominant recording formats during the 20th Century.[1] Edison’s wax cylinders gave way to shellac 78 RPM (rotations per minute) records in the early 1900s, which were replaced by 45 RPM “singles” and 33-1/3 RPM “long-play” or “LP” vinyl records in the middle of the century. These, in turn, were supplanted by electromagnetic cassette tapes in the 1980s, and then compact discs in the 1990s. After music fans began using the digital MP3 format to back up and share their music collections around the turn of the 21st Century, the recording industry began selling “digital singles” in a variety of downloadable formats, which became the dominant sales medium around 2011.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 Although this well-worn narrative is technically accurate, the full story is far more complicated, and interesting. First of all, this teleological tale of upward progression ignores a great many failed formats that have fallen by the wayside. From Pathé discs to 8-track cartridges to DVD-Audio discs, the entire history of the recorded music industry is littered with dozens of once-promising technologies that died without achieving market dominance (or, in many cases, prevalence or even recognition). Far from a carefully-orchestrated progression from one stable platform to another, the evolution of recording technology has been a full-scale battle royale with far more casualties than victors.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Another complicating factor is that neither successful nor failed media formats ever completely disappear. In the words of historian Jonathan Coopersmith, “Old technologies never die, they just don’t get updated.”[2] At the time of writing, both vinyl records[3] and cassette tapes[4] have seen significant recent growth in market popularity, and all three of the failed formats I mentioned above can still be found for purchase online (a single eBay.com search for “8-track” returns over 25,000 results – not bad for a second-tier commercial format that hasn’t been sold at retail for three decades).

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Another related twist in the format progression story is the question of what “dominant” and “popular” mean in the context of the broader music marketplace and musical culture. When music industry research data show cassettes outstripping vinyl in 1983 or CDs achieving market dominance in 1992,[5] they refer to a very specific kind of market success: namely, the retail purchase of new, pre-recorded, popular music at major retailers. These data don’t claim to offer a comprehensive snapshot of all of the ways in which musicians and fans use recording technology, but merely all of the uses that generate income for the handful of labels who dominate the industry and subsidize market data collection.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 From the vantage point of musicians, fans and independent music sellers, the uses of these technologies are far more varied and persistent. The official narrative doesn’t include the use of prerecorded media created by independent artists and sold directly to consumers in performance venues or via artists’ websites. Nor does it include the used music retail market. Nor does it include the significant volume of recording and “librarying” that takes place within consumers’ own homes. Long after prerecorded cassettes waned as an over-the-counter retail product, they remained a vital element of mixtape and automotive cultures, due in part to the fact that millions of people still carried around Walkmen and drove cars with cassette decks. I still remember the day in 2002 (a decade after the CD ascended to market dominance) that I somewhat reluctantly dropped a cardboard box full of old cassette tapes on the curb outside my Brooklyn apartment. Within 10 minutes, some enterprising music fan or street vendor had made off with the whole lot. Even today, I still have a box of cassettes I didn’t get rid of, consisting of non-fungible recordings such as my own bands’ rehearsals and live recordings, and bootlegs from my favorite performing artists. I never listen to them, but one of these days, I tell myself, I’ll digitize it all and add it to my personal “cloud.”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 There are many reasons why some recording formats succeed in the marketplace, while others fall by the wayside. Higher fidelity, higher storage capacity, and other factors noted in the marketing materials for Edison and his modern descendants certainly account for part of a given technology’s ascendance. But there are other factors that come into play, as well. One of the challenges to format replacement is coordinating the adoption of the new technology across all major content providers and manufacturers of media and electronics. Consumers will only feel confident buying a new format if they’re assured of its longevity and breadth of adoption, and such confidence can only be achieved if there is significant support throughout the industry. Oftentimes, format wars (such as the battle between Super-Audio CDs and DVD-Audio at the turn of the 21st Century) or other socioeconomic factors (such as the tariffs levied on manufacturers of digital audio tape [DAT] in the 1990s) will slow industry development, and consumers, unsure of which horse to bet on, will simply walk away from the racetrack.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 This paralysis is damaging to the music industry, which has historically relied upon the “format replacement cycle” as an engine of economic growth. There is a classic scene in the 1997 film “Men in Black” in which Tommy Lee Jones’ character, a veteran agent at a top-secret government agency, shows the younger agent, played by Will Smith, all of the revolutionary new technologies the agency has access to. At one point, he picks up a disc the size of a quarter and says, “This is gonna replace CDs soon; guess I’ll have to buy ‘The White Album’ again.” The scene is funny, and widely quoted, because it reflects an economic reality immediately familiar to music buyers; whenever a new format successfully replaces an older one, a significant number of purchases during its first decade in the market consists of people replacing the titles they already own, rather than investing in new music.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The challenges to technological innovation I have discussed thus far fall on the supply side of the music economy; but in addition to the internecine battles between labels, electronics manufacturers and other industry sectors, there are also challenges on the demand side. While music fans are certainly receptive to promises of higher fidelity, enhanced storage capacity and other benefits such as portability, there are additional considerations influencing their adoption of new recording formats, as well. Most importantly, there is a vital question regarding what kinds of social music activities are permitted – and proscribed – by the technology in question.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 From the music industry’s perspective, the ideal consumer would learn about a new artist or song, purchase a recording, eventually lose interest in it, and move on to the next purchase. Periodically, a new format would require that consumers repurchase their existing collections, and repeat the cycle. Selling the record is the last step of the “value chain,” and the sole focus of the recording industry’s business model. But to music fans, buying a record is only the starting point of a much richer and more involved social process. For one thing, we don’t tend to listen to our music singly, and in solitude. One of the main reasons we buy music is to listen to it with our friends, to share our tastes, and to enliven our cultural environments. We amass libraries, in part, to exercise our creative faculties as curators of our personal collections. Sometimes, we even use the recordings as the basis for more involved acts of creativity, which I refer to as “production-adjacent” cultural practices in my book Mashed Up, such as assembling mixtapes or composing sample-based music. To the music industry, these behaviors are not merely threats to their ability to sell new recordings, but also criminal violations of their copyrights. To music fans, these behaviors are what make records appealing in the first place. And the more that technologies allow us to collect, share, curate and reinterpret our music, the more excited we become as consumers, and the more likely we are to embrace a new format.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 2 Consequently, there has been a consistent tension within the industry between the desire to promote formats that have adequate consumer appeal and the desire to promote formats that will limit consumers’ range of freedom in the name of protecting the bottom line. In the era of “vertical integration” (a term referring to a single parent company owning many complementary business units), this tension can even result in conflict within a given corporation. For instance, Sony Electronics, which pioneered the portable music market with its Walkman product in the 1980s, began selling portable digital music players in 1999, two years before Apple introduced the market-transforming iPod. With its unrivaled branding power, engineering expertise, and knowledge of the consumer electronics marketplace, Sony should have dominated this emerging product category long before Apple could make its entry. Yet, in what has now become a classic cautionary tale taught in business schools around the world, the company shot itself in the foot. Because Sony also owned a major record label (worth a small fraction of the electronics business), the company chose not to allow its digital music player to support MP3s, for fear that the open format would encourage piracy. Sadly, the device would only play songs encoded in Sony’s proprietary, copy-protected digital format, which could only be obtained from Sony’s music store or created using Sony’s specialized software.[6] Naturally, music fans showed little interest in the device, and the path for Apple’s eventual victory with the MP3-compliant iPod was cleared. Like the dog in the classic Aesop fable, Sony dropped its prize in its haste to have another.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 To summarize, we can understand the progression of dominant recording formats over the past century as a kind of moving scrimmage line in a sustained contest between consumers and the record industry, with consumer electronics manufacturers acting as (not entirely objective) referees. Some formats (such as LPs and CDs) offered higher quality audio in exchange for limited convenience, while others (such as cassette tapes and MP3s) sacrificed fidelity for greater portability and writeability. Many of the formats rejected by consumers, such as cassette singles, MiniDisc, and slotMusic, are those that failed to provide adequate leaps in quality to compensate for their diminished utility, or vice versa.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 Today, we are still in the midst of this process. The rise of MP3 ripping and CD burning at the turn of the century disrupted the traditional format replacement cycle, in large part because the industry hadn’t prepared adequately for digital business models (a subject I will explore in greater depth in Chapter 3). Initially, the industry tried, and failed, to introduce new formats (such as secure CDs and encrypted digital files) that sacrificed utility without improving quality. It also attempted to sell higher-quality audio discs, such as Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, but was hamstrung by the format war I mentioned earlier, as well as the fact that, given the CD’s claim to “perfect” digital fidelity in its 1980s market debut, most music buyers who weren’t audiophiles failed to recognize any difference in sound quality.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 Very recently, the industry has put significant weight behind digital subscription and “cloud” services, which offer listeners a significant degree of utility, and access to a very extensive library of music at relatively low cost, while retaining far more centralized surveillance and control over music than any previous format. Later in this book, I will hazard some observations about the potential for these models to succeed in the marketplace, and about their significance for musical culture and social practices. For now, I will simply observe that, innovative as these platforms may be, they are still subject to the same drivers and constraints as past music distribution technologies, and represent the continuing evolution, rather than the demise, of the format replacement cycle.


19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 [1] Media scholars such as Mark Katz (2010) and Jonathan Sterne (2003) have written excellent books detailing the social histories of music recording technologies, and each has not only informed my thinking on these subjects, but also helped to shape the larger scholarly approach to the topic. While it is not my aim here to reproduce or extend their work, I feel it is important briefly to revisit some of the same ground they have covered in the interest of my broader argument.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 [2] Old Technologies Never Die, They Just Don’t Get Updated. Jonathan Coopersmith. int. j. for the history of eng. & tech., Vol. 80 No. 2, July, 2010, 166–82

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 [4] http://www.usatoday.com/life/music/news/story/2011-10-02/mp3s-cassette-tapes-vinyl-albums/50639144/1

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [6] Also, because Sony owned its own digital storage format (the “Memory Stick”), it chose not to support less expensive, and more widely used non-proprietary flash memory cards.

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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/piracycrusade/chap2/higher-fidelity-longer-plays-a-brief-history-of-recording-formats/