A revolution in the music business: the phonograph

78 rpm record, history of phonograph, recording music industry

Victor Record 78 rpm License Label, ca. 1905-1906

New media and services like YouTube and Spotify are shaking up the music industry. But they have no more impact than the phonograph record player did just over a hundred years ago.

Not very long ago, if anyone wanted to experience music, they had to go to a concert or make it themselves.

Many towns and smaller cities had no local professional concert organizations. Their citizens could attend a concert only if traveling performers chose to stop there.

On the other hand, nearly every middle class household had a piano. Many people sang and played other instruments. Even small towns had bands, perhaps attached to a local militia unit.

Then came the phonograph record player.

Early phonograph record players

Edison home phonograph, history of recording music industryThomas Edison introduced his phonograph in 1877. It wasn’t the first machine that could record and play back audio, but it was the first reliable one.

It relied on a rotating cylinder. Phonograph discs ultimately supplanted cylinders.

Electronic recording techniques proved superior to the earlier acoustic recordings.

It is a mistake, however, to regard the history of the phonograph merely as a history of technology. Edison and other pioneers in phonograph-related businesses had one idea what it was for. The general public took it in a different direction.

In 1878, Edison predicted that “the phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music.” At first, though, he decided that he disapproved of selling records for entertainment. He saw more future in the phonograph’s use as an office dictating machine. And so his earliest models had read and write capability.

Two California businessmen, Louis T. Glass and William S. Arnold, had other ideas. Glass invented a coin-operated phonograph record player to be set up in public places. People passing by could put a coin in a slot and select a cylinder. They might listen to jokes for a few minutes, other spoken word recordings, or songs.

The public loved the service and the owners made good money. One phonograph parlor in Missouri collected $100 in a single week. Edison embraced the idea of phonographs as entertainment.

Phonograph record players and cylinders soon went on sale to the general public. people could by recordings of anything anyone could think of to record. The nascent recorded music industry began to notice patterns and establish categories.

Some early technological developments in record players

His Master's Voice. history of phonograph, recording music industry

His Master’s Voice / Francis Barraud, 1898. Notice the cylinder player. The Gramophone Co. and Victor later paid him to update it and show a disc player. In this form it became a Victor trademark.

Cylinders had some severe technical drawbacks, though. They had a very faint sound and could only record two minutes of sound.

More serious from a commercial standpoint, they could only be one-off creations. There was no way to duplicate them. Recording performers had to make multiple unique recordings of the same material.

Edison introduced the larger and louder concert cylinder in 1902. It could hold four minutes of sound, but a new technology soon supplanted it.

Emile Berliner invented a machine he called the gramophone and began to record on discs in 1889. He started marketing them in earnest in 1894. His technology could produce a metal master recording and use it to make shellac copies

Columbia, another of Edison’s competitors, stopped making cylinders in 1909. Blue Amberol sold both discs and cylinders until it went out of business in 1929. From then until the digital age, phonograph discs the recorded music industry.

Both cylinder and disc players operated on wind-up spring motors. Eventually large horns amplified the output.

The musical and social impact of early recordings.

Discs could hold about three minutes of sound. That limitation affected composition and performance of both popular and classical music. Anyone who wanted to record music, or have their music recorded, had to respect it.

Earlier popular songs had several verses and perhaps a perfunctory chorus. With the phonograph in mind, the chorus became more important. There might be only one verse, or maybe none at all.

Even classical composers planned music with an eye toward phonograph record sales. Igor Stravinsky, for example, composed his Serenade in A in 1925 so the entire piece fit on two discs. Each of four movements lasts about three minutes. He planned for one complete movement per side.

Impact on performers

Acoustic recording session, history of phonograph, recording music industry

The Victor Orchestra crowds around an enormous horn for an early acoustical recording session.

Before the days of electrical recording using microphones, performers had to play or sing into a recording horn. High pitched instruments like the violin and soprano voices sounded awful.

Drums easily drowned out other performers. Other instruments, like the dulcimer-like tsimbi in Klezmer bands, couldn’t make enough sound to activate the recording.

So musical groups not only had to adjust not only to shorter times, but also select instruments that could be recorded successfully.

The tenor voice sounded as good as the soprano voice sounded bad. Caruso’s recordings suddenly made opera more popular. They can still give pleasure. I heard a recording of the great soprano Lilian Nordica once, and she barely sounded even human.

Live performers can make mistakes and hardly disturb anyone. They’ll do better next time, or at least make different mistakes. But recordings sound exactly the same every time, mistakes and all.

No one could edit early phonograph recordings. Recording therefore demanded a different kind of performer.

The recording horn cared nothing about stage presence or passion or virtuosity. It required musicians who could consistently get through a piece accurately. Some performers may have established their careers only through success in the recorded music industry.

Also, live performers draw energy from the audience. There’s no audience in a recording session, and some performers couldn’t make that adjustment. “Phonograph fright” joined stage fright as a psychological barrier to performing well.

Once recordings were made, musicians had a new way to learn music. Before, if they couldn’t read music, they could only learn by rote.

Jazz musicians in particular found another way. Whether they could read music or not, they could listen to harmonic progressions and so on over and over until they completely had it in their ears. Then they could pick up their instruments reproduce them, vary them, and make something completely their own.

Impact on listeners

Windup gramophone disc record player, history of phonograph, recording music industry

Windup gramophone disc record player

Recording had as profound an effect on listeners as on composers and performers.

They could listen to whatever music they wanted whenever they wanted to hear it. And they could listen to the same performance as many times as they wanted to.

It had always been possible for people to study and appreciate the nuances of a piece of music. Now they could study and appreciate the nuances of a single performance.

Music had always been a social activity for anything more complicated than a piano or guitar solo.

Everything else required collaboration with other musicians to perform it.

And whether in a concert hall, a park, or someone’s house, people always listened to music as part of a group.

Early phonograph music made it possible for the first time to experience music in complete solitude.

John Philip Sousa and other musicians objected that recordings cheapened music. They claimed that recordings were inherently inferior to live performance. That argument continues to some extent to this day.

But at the same time, early phonograph music broadened people’s musical experience. It exposed them to music that would have been otherwise unavailable.

People could listen to musicians who would never perform locally. Americans could hear great artists who never left Europe. Europeans could hear non-touring Americans.

City dwellers, if they wanted, could hear music of rural musicians. Rural residents could listen to city music. And at a time of strict racial segregation, people who were so inclined could listen to the music of other races. White America could hear authentic black culture through jazz records.

Early phonograph recordings offered classical music, popular music, “race records,” “hillbilly records,” and more. Maybe some people furtively snuck socially unacceptable records home. There, they could listen without fear of censure. Slowly but surely, recorded music played a role in healing race relations in the US.

New technologies have shaken up the recorded music industry ever since Emile Berliner’s gramophone discs. They can never be as revolutionary as the birth of the industry in the first place.

History of the Phonograph / Johan le Roux, Intekom. © 1994-1999
How users define new media: a history of the amusement phonograph / Lisa Gitelman. MIT Communications Forum
How the phonograph changed music forever / Clive Thompson, Smithsonian. January/February
Phonograph history / Mason Vander Lugt, Sound Beat. January 28, 2013.

Photo credits:
78 rpm record label. Some rights reserved by takomabibelot
Edison home phonograph. National Phonograph Company catalog, via Harvard University
His Master’s Voice. Public domain
Acoustic recording session. Library of Congress
Gramophone. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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