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

Music In The Air: Radio and the Record Industry

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In some ways, the development of radio closely paralleled the evolution of recording formats during the 20th Century. As in the recording industry, there was a general trend toward greater sound fidelity and utility, but also a significant amount of conflict, compromise and confusion along the way. The two industries are deeply interdependent, which helped link their development. Radio is a promotional vehicle for recordings, so format innovations such as stereo sound, higher fidelity, and longer playing time could only be adequately marketed if radio standards and practices were adapted accordingly. At the same time, radio has always threatened to cannibalize music purchasing; one of the reasons consumers continued to buy records over the years is because broadcast technology did not allow them to listen to their choice of music on demand. Radio developed as was what media analysts call a “lean back” technology for passive consumption, while records were a “lean forward” technology for active engagement, and this arrangement was not so much an accident of technology as the outcome of the “social shaping” of these platforms, laws, and industries by the various interested parties over the decades.[1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As close as they are, the two industries differ in a few important respects. First, while the recording industry developed with very little government oversight, as a classic “free market,” the radio industry’s development was guided heavily by the FCC and other federal agencies, and therefore more constrained both in its ability to innovate and in its capacity for self-destruction.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Second, the record industry is organized around a single economic transaction, the retail sale of a song or album. Once the music is sold, labels have little concern with consumers’ use of their products (as long as they don’t “pirate” it!). By contrast, the radio industry earns its revenues from advertising, which are tied directly to the measurable audience for any given station at any given point in time. This means that there is an immediate correlation between consumers’ listening habits and the economic success or failure of the broadcasters. This difference has contributed to some interesting divergences and tensions between the two industries. For instance, while record labels have historically limited the content of albums to two or three “radio hits,” supplemented with an ample amount of “filler” (much akin to fast food hamburgers), radio play lists consist almost entirely of hits (with the exception of specialty formats, such as “Album-Oriented Rock”). Similarly, while long-playing vinyl records and their descendants have enabled popular recording artists to experiment with more extended compositional and improvisational musical styles for half a century, popular music broadcasters typically remain focused on songs of three minutes or less, in order to retain audience attention and keep listeners from turning the dial or, even worse, switching off the radio.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Just as our examination of the recording format replacement cycle demonstrated the complex interplay of forces and stakeholders behind the market progression from vinyl to cassette to CD and beyond, the evolution of radio as a platform has not been quite as tidy a process as it may appear on the surface. Although the medium has been evolving for over a century, perhaps the greatest development of the pre-digital age was the shift from AM (amplitude modulation) to FM (frequency modulation) as the dominant broadcast standard. At first glance, this change would appear to be an obvious case of the better technology winning out; after all, FM has a clearer signal, and the ability to carry stereo (or even quadrophonic) sound. While it’s true that AM signals can travel farther at lower expense, a strong enough FM transmitter can easily blanket an urban market of millions, and has the added feature of passing through thick walls and nasty weather. Yet, as was the case with recording format evolution, the change from AM to FM had at least as much to do with social and political factors as with technological ones.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It took half a century after FM was first patented by Edwin Armstrong in 1933 for its share of the radio market finally to eclipse AM’s in the early 1980s. What accounted for this delay, if the technological benefits of the newer standard were so obvious? It certainly wasn’t for lack of knowledge or interest within the general public or the industry; as early as 1944, Billboard Magazine (then titled The Billboard) dedicated significant coverage to the emergence of FM and “to the opportunity FM presents,” and anticipated a boom in what it presciently (or optimistically) referred to as “post-war FM.” At the time, the new technology was viewed by labor organizations and other marginalized voices as a valuable opportunity to provide more mass media representation for groups and interests that had been structurally excluded from AM radio. In the same issue, however, there were signs of trouble brewing for the new format. Specifically, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) decided not to allow existing radio networks to repurpose musical programming licensed to their AM stations for their new FM affiliates. According to the story, this decision could be “interpreted virtually as an FM nix,” due in part to the perception that there was “no financial gain to the networks in feeding programs to FM.”[2]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Despite the buzz around this new technology, FM radio failed to materialize for decades after World War II. An oft-repeated version of the story suggests that the large AM networks, content with their business model and focused on developing television rather than improving radio, stalled the new format’s progress by manipulating the FCC into redistributing broadcast spectrum at a crucial moment of adoption and by undermining support among consumer electronics manufacturers. Armstrong’s suicide in 1954, after years of patent disputes and disappointments, provided poignant support for his reputation as a lone innovator at odds with big business. While this narrative certainly appears to have some basis in truth, media historian Hugh Slotten has shown that the full story of FM’s delay in adoption involves the “complex nature of regulatory decision making, the defining role of different institutions and individuals, the contingencies of historical context, and the essential role of nontechnocratic strategies in shaping technological development,” and can’t be reduced to the “inherent ‘technical superiority’ of such inventions as FM radio [or] grand conspiracies.”[3] As the Billboard article about the AFM suggests, for instance, some stakeholders legitimately questioned FM’s financial value as a music distribution channel, and full-scale acceptance of the format could only take place once its risk-to-reward ratio could be adequately agreed upon across the entire industry.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 When FM finally did begin to gain some market traction, in the 1970s, the factors driving it were just as complex as those impeding it earlier in the century. For decades, the FM band had been seen widely as a kind of highbrow wasteland, the province of classical music and didactic talk programming, earning jibes from cultural critics such as Woody Allen, who jokingly laments that he “sound[s] just like FM radio” in the 1977 film Annie Hall. Yet, a decade later, by the time Allen’s nostalgic Radio Days was released in 1987, the industry had so completely adopted the new format that AM music radio seemed like a relic of the past.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Part of the slow-to-arrive, suddenly transformative success of FM was due to recent changes in America’s socioeconomic organization and marketing landscape. With the success of the civil rights and women’s rights movements in the 1960s, advertisers grew interested in developing relationships with the burgeoning ranks of the black and female consumer class. While many AM stations were ossified around old-fashioned formats that segmented audiences on the basis of traditional demographics, FM stations had the freedom to experiment with newer lifestyle and genre-driven formats, such as “Urban,” that aimed for bigger audiences by combining black and white, male and female, and even members of different generations.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Another important (and related) factor was stylistic change. Radio entrepreneur and historian B. Eric Rhoads argues that “the death of AM came in 1978 when record promoter Robert Stigwood released the musical film Saturday Night Fever.” Rhoads observes that disco’s sudden explosion into the mainstream that year drove a record number of music listeners to new FM stations such as New York’s WKTU, which “rose from nowhere to become New York’s No. 1 station overnight,” purely on the basis of its disco play list. By the time the dance music sensation imploded a year or two later, he argues, the damage had been done; listeners had discovered the FM dial, and many would not return to AM.[4]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Perhaps the most important factor in the ascendancy of FM was a larger shift in popular music aesthetics across a range of different styles, all of them coevolving with innovations in recording technology. The development of cheap magnetic tape in the wake of World War II contributed to new multitrack studio techniques such as overdubbing and phasing, which were first introduced to popular music by experimenters like Les Paul in the 1950s, exploited fully for psychedelic effect by producers such as George Martin and Brian Wilson in the 1960s, and standard practice in many genres by the 1970s. The most significant aesthetic consequence of multitrack studio techniques was, of course, multichannel sound (mostly stereo) and resulting innovations in both panning (e.g. location of instruments and voices in the sound field) and reverberation. However, it also contributed to a renewed emphasis on musical aspects such as dynamics (the loudness or softness of a given sound) and timbre (the unique “voice” of a given instrument or part). These new aesthetic trends made FM’s ability to carry multichannel sound with less noise and richer bass stand out in stark contrast to AM’s tinny mono signal.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 As with recording formats, then, radio broadcast technology has been shaped less by a teleological march toward sonic perfection than by a complex array of competing interests, technological innovations, and regulatory interventions. The recording industry both loves radio (for its promotional power) and hates it (for its cannibalizing potential), and has both impeded and assisted its technological development at different stages and in different ways over the years. And just as in the case of recording technologies, concerns about granting too much power to listeners (sometimes framed as “piracy”) have been a significant factor throughout the development of this industry. If anything, these concerns have only increased since the ascendancy of FM, with newer broadcast platforms such as satellite radio, internet radio, and digital radio offering new capacities, and with them, new perceived threats, ranging from “stream-ripping,” or the unpermissioned download of online broadcasts, to the inclusion of DVR-style personal storage functionality in satellite radio receivers. As I discussed in Chapter 1, “home taping” of FM radio failed to kill the music industry as promised (to the contrary, it inaugurated the greatest rise in music retail sales in history), but that hasn’t stopped the recording industry from using both law and leverage to limit radio’s functionality across both analog and digital platforms in the years since then. More on that later in the book.


12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [1] For more in-depth analysis of the social shaping of radio, see: Christopher Sterling, Michael Keith. Sounds of Change: A History of FM Broadcasting in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press; Slotten, H. R., Radio Engineers, the Federal Radio Commission, and the Social Shaping of Broadcast Technology: Creating “Radio Paradise”, Technology and Culture, 36:4 (1995:Oct.) p.950; Dunbar-Hester, C. (2008). Geeks, Meta-Geeks, and Gender Trouble: Activism, Identity, and Low-power FM Radio. Social Studies of Science April 2008 vol. 38 no. 2 201-232; Early FM Radio: Incremental Technology in Twentieth-Century America by Gary Lewis Frost

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [2] The Billboard, 2/19/44

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [3] Radio and Television Regulation: Broadcast Technology in the United States, 1920 –1960 by Hugh R. Slotten. 2000. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London; p. 144

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 [4] Rhoads, B. Eric (1996). Radio’s First 75 Years. West Palm Beach, FL: Streamline Publishing; pp. 328-9.

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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/piracycrusade/chap2/music-in-the-air-radio-and-the-record-industry/