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Chronology: Technology and the Music Industry by callie taintor
An examination of some of the technological milestones of recorded music -- and reaction from the music industry -- from Thomas Edison's first indentions on tin foil to the current digital revolution.


Recording the human voice

While experimenting with a new telegraph device, Thomas Edison stumbles upon the beginnings of recorded sound. He notices a speech-like noise as he accidentally runs indented tin foil under the telegraph stylus. By the end of the year, he records "Mary Had A Little Lamb" on the first working phonograph, becoming the first inventor to successfully record the human voice (although the speaker is forced to shout to produce an audible playback).

By 1885, rival inventors Chichester Bell and Charles Tainter challenge Edison's phonograph with their "graphophone." The graphophone, like Edison's phonograph, creates sound as an engraved wax cylinder rotates against a stylus. Edison responds in 1887 with a phonograph that utilizes a battery-driven motor, which produces a constant pitch the original hand crank can't match.


Invention of the gramophone

In 1888, Emile Berliner invents the gramophone, which uses a disc rather than a cylinder as the recording medium. The discs are flat, measure 7 inches in diameter, and can hold up to 2 minutes of recorded sound. The master disc is composed of zinc covered with a thin layer of acid-resistant wax. The original recording scratches lateral-cut spirals into the wax, and the scratched disc is dipped in acid. The resulting grooves in the exposed zinc become a negative stamp that allows Berliner to mass-produce discs in vulcanized rubber.


The nickel jukebox becomes popular

As one of 30 franchises competing in the graphophone leasing business, the Columbia Phonograph Company achieves little success until it begins to record music to send to fairgrounds to accompany its leased graphophones -- thus resulting in the birth of nickel jukeboxes. The popularity of the fairground jukeboxes allows the Columbia Graphophone Company (the company changes its name in 1894) to survive the dwindling economy of the 1890s and to become the only graphophone leasing company to turn a profit. Though extremely popular, the first jukeboxes are limited by the impossibility of mass-producing the bulky cylinders used in the graphophone.


Boom in recorded music leads to copyright questions

At the turn of the century, developments in the materials and the production techniques of both the disc and the cylinder give recordings a more clear, strong, and dynamic sound. Mass production techniques for both technologies improve, and the automatic music business takes off. In addition to the graphophone and gramophone, the player piano becomes one of the most popular automated businesses of the time.

However, the unexpected boom in pre-recorded music leads to questions over copyright infringement. Music publishers appeal to the courts when the piano roll companies refuse to pay publishers for the rights to reproduce recordings on the player piano scrolls. The U.S. Supreme Court delivers a blow to the music publishers by declaring that copyrights will only protect those songs that can be read by the human eye -- thus exempting piano rolls and other machine-produced music products. Congress eventually passes a law requiring a royalty paid to the publishers for each mechanically reproduced song.


The Victrola signals the end of the cylinder

Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, developments in disc technology bring to light the inferiority of the cylinder playback technology. In 1901, the 78 debuts. Named for its rotational speed of 78 rotations per minute (rpm), the 78 is 10 inches in diameter and lasts as a format until 1974. By 1910, the disc is available in 7, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 21-inch formats, all playing at around 78 rpm.

The cylinder, hindered by the lack of industry standardization, lack of recording space, and its cumbersome size, is finally retired with the Victor Talking Machine Company's 1906 introduction of the "Victrola," an adaptation of a phonograph designed to fit within the home. The Victrola features the amplification horn folded below the turntable and concealed within a polished wood cabinet. The cabinet doors could be opened to reveal the horn and increase volume. The Victrola becomes the best-selling record player of its time.


"This is KDKA in Pittsburgh"

By the 1920s, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) begins mass-producing commercial radios. KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pa. becomes the first commercial radio station to receive call letters and begins regular broadcasts by announcing the returns of the presidential election. Though sound quality and reception on the radio cannot rival the quality of discs at this time, the record companies rush to draw up contracts to forbid major artists from working in the rival medium. These efforts to limit the output of radio are thwarted as improvements in radio technology rapidly refine sound quality and reception. Record sales plummet as a result.


Fidelity fights back

The industry's solution to fighting decreased record sales is to increase the sound fidelity of its recordings. In 1925, Bell Telephone Laboratories introduces electrical amplification, and the first electrically recorded discs go on sale. The development of orthophonic sound adds more than an octave to either side of the existing reproducible sound range. Victor introduces new machines that reproduce these high fidelity recordings and deliver a fully electronic playback, and record sales rebound.


The music industry suffers during the Great Depression

In 1928, RCA buys Victor, forming RCA Victor. The record factories that are not converted into radio production houses begin producing "transcription" discs -- vinyl "Vitrolac" discs that rotate at 33 1/3 rpm and are used to pre-record radio. Vitrolac is largely ignored by commercial record companies as the Great Crash of 1929 transforms leisure items like electronics into luxury goods.

Tape recording cartridges are developed in 1930, but tapes remain largely behind the scenes during the Depression and into the 1950s. The presence of free radio broadcast during the Depression leads to a decline in record sales.


FM Radio introduced

Frequency-modulated (FM) radio, once believed to be an impossibility, becomes reality in 1933. FM radio, as opposed to amplitude-modulated (AM) radio, offers higher fidelity sound with less static, and it requires less transmittal power. The inventor of FM radio, Edwin Armstrong, is working at RCA when he presents his technology at a meeting of the Institute of Radio Engineers. However, Armstrong's invention threatens RCA's hold on the AM radio market, and the company fights back by launching a campaign to smother FM radio. RCA's first attempts at persuading the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to limit FM radio capabilities fail, but as the nation becomes distracted by World War II, the company succeeds. The FCC announces that FM radio would be moved to a new spectrum and the transmittal power of FM stations would be cut. These regulations effectively cripple the emerging FM market and Armstrong appeals. RCA declares his patents invalid, refuses to pay him, and a broke and defeated Armstrong jumps out of a 13th story window to his death.


Vinyl becomes medium of choice

The fragile nature of discs made from shellac is revealed when RCA Victor ships the first "V-Discs" to entertain troops abroad in 1943, and polyvinyl chloride, known as "PVC" or "vinyl," is adopted as the new material for record production. Vinyl survives as the record industry's material of choice long after WWII ends.


"Battle of the Speeds"

The race to establish the new dominant record format begins when Columbia introduces the first 12-inch, 33 1/3 rpm microgroove long-playing vinylite record in 1948. The LP enters the market with a bang. Columbia ensures success by releasing a back catalogue on LP along with a cheap means of playing the new format. RCA retaliates half a year later with its own format -- a 7-inch disc also with microgroove and vinylite. The RCA disc is also introduced alongside a cheap means of playing its format and the 7-inch single quickly becomes the standard for the jukebox.

In 1950, RCA releases records on the 12-inch Columbia format, and in 1951, Columbia follows suit with the release of records on the 7-inch RCA format. With 78 rpm discs still available, it takes a decade for a standard playing speed to be determined.


The cassette tape becomes mainstream

Though the cassette tape cartridge is invented for transcription purposes in 1930, the cassette is slow to enter the recorded music industry as a viable format. The cassette tape takes a major step toward becoming mainstream in 1944, when Signal Corps Captain John Mullin sends two working tape recorders recovered from Radio Frankfurt in Germany to the U.S. German inventors also had developed tapes with 20 minutes of recording time.

Adopting and building on the German technology, American inventors introduce the first portable audiotape recorders in 1951. In 1958, RCA offers cassette tapes for $1 more than the vinyl album. But it isn't until 1964 that the cassette has its commercial breakthrough, when Philips introduces its own 30-minute format for the tape cartridge and allows other manufacturers to duplicate the specifications. This standardization of cassette tapes creates a market for an inexpensive and portable solution to reel-to-reel tape. With the price of a blank tape around $3 and a vinyl album at $6 by the end of the 1960s, the record companies start to worry about the recordable cassette affecting their sales.


The 8-track goes on sale

The format most likely to challenge the cassette tape for consumer acceptance is the 8-track tape cartridge. Its development begins as a refinement and improvement on a 4-track tape cartridge developed in 1956. The 8-track is designed to remedy the 4-track's problems with tape jamming and to increase the accessibility of individual tracks. While the two programs of the 4-track tape ran about the same length as one side of a vinyl album, the 8-track, in its attempt to double the number of programs from two to four so that the user could switch more efficiently between programs, halved the length of each program. Thus, in an attempt to avoid long silences at the end of one program, the manufacturers of the 8-track often rearranged the songs from the vinyl in order to produce 4 programs of roughly equal amounts of music. This also meant that if an individual song could not fit on the program, the song would abruptly stop at some point while the tape switched tracks and then the song would pick up again.

Despite its shortcomings, the 8-track player is introduced as an option in each of Ford Motor Company's 1966 models. Though the 8-track produces higher quality sound than the cassette tape, it all but disappears from a market looking for convenience and versatility rather than high-end sound reproduction.


The industry fights back against cassette recording

The U.S. Congress declares sound recordings worthy of copyright protection in passing the 1971 Sound Recording Amendment to the 1909 Copyright Statute. Though this amendment is proposed largely in response to the record industry's complaints of vinyl bootlegging, the implications of the amendment are applied to the burgeoning recordable cassette market. Record executives complain that teenagers tape and swap their favorite albums, and advocate a tax on blank cassettes to make up for the lost revenue from tape trading. With music sales still growing, the objections to taping are largely unheard.

By the late 1970s, music sales slide, and the record companies begin an industry-wide campaign to curb home taping. But cassettes hit the big time with the decline of 8-track players and the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979. The Walkman revolution coincides with improvement in cassette sound quality and the cassette tape suddenly became the only format that you could have in your home, in your car, and in your pocket. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the record industry's lobbying and trade organization, continues its fight for taxes on blank tapes into the 1980s and legislators eventually grant the music labels a portion of every blank tape sale.


Death to vinyl?

Philips and Sony announce plans to work together to come up with a uniform standard for a Compact Disc (CD) in 1978. In 1982, record companies announce a worldwide standard that ensures that all CDs will play on all CD players. Billy Joel's 52nd Street, released in 1982 in Japan, becomes the first CD released in the world. By 1988, the CD surpasses the LP in sales.

With the introduction of the CD, the '80s become the most explosive boom period in recorded audio history, as consumers replace their vinyl collections. Within three years of the CD's arrival in the marketplace, the electronics industry sells one million CD players. By contrast, it took 11 years for color television manufacturers to sell one million units.


Protests over the Digital Audio Tape

The Digital Audio Tape (DAT), introduced shortly after the CD, meets with immediate resistance from composers and music publishers fearful of piracy due to the DAT's superior sound quality and capacity for near-perfect duplication. From the outset, the RIAA argues for a device to be placed within the DAT recorder to prohibit duplication. Even after the device, called a "serial copy management system," is included on every DAT recorder exported to the U.S., publishers and composers argue for royalties on each DAT machine or tape sold in order to compensate for possible home taping. The continuing debate slackens record industry support for the format. As record labels begin to see the DAT as not viable, they choose not to market or produce pre-recorded DATs. In the absence of pre-recorded tape, the consumer will not buy the recorder. Without recorder sales, there's no market for pre-recorded tape. The DAT does not break into the consumer market.


The birth of the MP3

The combination of digital audio and the Internet create a combustible phenomenon upon the invention of the Moving Picture Experts Group-1, Layer-3 (MP3) in 1990. The MP3 compresses digital audio files by a factor of 12 to a size that can be easily sent from computer to computer without compromising quality.


Audio Home Recording Act of 1992

The Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 requires manufacturers of digital recorders to pay a 2 percent royalty rate to copyright holders to compensate for the ease of piracy that digital recording allows. In addition, digital audio recording devices are required to include a device that prohibits serial copying.

In 1993, the music industry files one of the first lawsuits challenging digital technology. Frank Music Corp. files a suit against the online service CompuServe on behalf of the more than 140 music publishers of the Harry Fox Agency. The suit argues that CompuServe's music forum allows users to download music files without the consent of the copyright owners. The suit is settled in 1995, when CompuServe pays the Harry Fox Agency more than $600 per song allegedly infringed.

In 1998, the RIAA files against the Rio MP3 player manufacturer, Diamond Multimedia, stating that the MP3 player does not contain the prohibitive device required by the Act of 1992 and therefore cannot be distributed. The case brings to light the fact that the wording of the act limits the requirement to digital audio recording devices that can accept input from a consumer-electronics device such as a stereo. The Rio, designed to record audio from a computer, which is not categorized as a consumer-electronic, is exempted.


Streaming Internet audio introduced

RealAudio successfully launches the first major streaming audio service in 1995. In comparison to the long wait associated with downloading a music file, streaming audio becomes highly popular, despite initial poor audio quality.


Early attempts to sell music on the Internet

In a "step forward for music commerce," Capitol Records announces intentions to offer the single from the new Duran Duran album in downloadable form on the Internet one month before the album's release to retail stores. Capitol sees this as an exploration of the marketing capacity of the Internet; however retail stores see this as a threat to their sales. Capitol concedes and agrees to delay the release of the single on the Internet to coincide with the album's release in stores.

In August, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince announces that his next album will only be available via the Internet or an 800 number. The move is a symbolic statement that in the Internet world, the artist is freed from the economic shackles of the record labels and record stores. He sells 100,000 albums without the aid of a record label, but the experiment highlighted the difficulties of trying to create a new distribution service from scratch.


The RIAA battles Internet piracy

In 1998, the RIAA accuses three unnamed Internet pirates of posting audio files from hundreds of recording artists, thus allowing anyone to download the audio files freely. The accused pirates settle with the RIAA and in exchange for agreeing not to post again, the RIAA waives their fines, which totaled well over $1 million per violation.

The RIAA later sets out to take legal action against those downloading the copyrighted songs as well. As of March of 2004, the RIAA has tried to sue 1,977 individuals for allegedly sharing music illegally on file-sharing networks.


Napster debuts

Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker debut the peer-to-peer file-sharing network Napster in May of 1999. In December, the RIAA sues Napster for alleged copyright infringement and the following April, the band Metallica and the rapper Dr. Dre follow suit. In 2001, after years of legal battles, Napster is ordered to remove all copyrighted material from its network, and the service shuts down in July 2001. The company then strikes a deal with the National Music Publisher's Association to pay $26 million for past abuses and $10 million toward future royalties.

After Napster's shutdown, other peer-to-peer file-sharing services, such as Kazaa, Morpheus and Grokster spring up; however, in contrast to Napster, these services avoid the use of a centralized server. The RIAA sues Kazaa, Morpheus, and Grokster for copyright infringement in October 2001. In 2003, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson rules that file-sharing networks do not violate copyright law because the Morpheus and Grokster networks cannot be held liable for illegal activity of Internet pirates that may take place within their network.


Launch of iTunes

In 2003, Apple Computer launches the most successful online music store to date. In its first year, Apple sells 70 million songs at $0.99 per song, creating nearly $70 million in legal Internet music sales. Questions remain as to how the new market for legal downloading will affect the sales of physical CDs and whether it will redefine the basic unit of music consumption.

Sources: Beyond the Charts: MP3 and the Digital Revolution by Bruce Haring (Los Angeles: JM Northern Media LLC, 2000); Recording Technology History by Steve Schoenherr, (revised Feb. 16, 2004); and A History of Vinyl by the BBC.

Callie Taintor is the production coordinator of "The Way the Music Died."


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posted may 27, 2004

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