In episode 7 of The Menu Bar podcast, Zac Cichy and Federico Viticci go deep on streaming music services. They talk specifically about how streaming services have not only changed the way we listen to music, but the music itself that artists create. It was an inspired and extremely enlightening discussion—as is par for the course on The Menu Bar (consider supporting their Patreon). I have a counterpoint, though.
It’s refreshing to listen to people with similar backgrounds to mine talk about the recorded music industry—something I think about frequently. These guys are album guys, just like me! There is no doubt we are a dying breed, but were we ever really more than a byproduct of a technological limitation?
I have written before about how the recorded music industry is merely a recent anomaly in the music industry as a whole. Sound recordings have only been possible for a little over 150 years… Homo sapiens have existed for at least 250,000 years… Selling plastic circles is a hiccup in the deep cavern of music history… blah, blah, blah. To be sure, this hiccup largely defined me as a person, but one needs to maintain a realistic perspective of one’s place in the universe.
In the early 20th century, radio and sound recordings disrupted the music industry. Up until about the 1920s, if you wanted to hear music, you had to make it yourself, or go to it. With the gramophone, you could fit an entire orchestra or big band (or both!) in your living room.
At 78 RPM, these records were short. It took some effort (and money) if you wanted to listen to music for an extended period of time. Thankfully, radio Disk Jockeys eventually stepped in with their vast record stacks. It’s much easier to listen to music all day when you have someone flipping through (dare I say: a playlist of) records for you.
As technology improved, records got smaller, and then bigger!
From about the 1950s through the 60s, 7 inch 45 RPM records dominated the (plastic circle) industry. The limitations of these small records influenced the pop music of this era, in the form of two-to-three minute songs.
I believe it was Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone that is largely credited as being the tune that pushed the 12 inch album into the mainstream. The song was six minutes long, and fans weren’t about to have any part of a three-minute radio edit.
By the 1970s (when I was born), long play record albums had become the norm. Bands started to write long songs again, and for the first time ever: record them! Artists started releasing double albums with overarching themes, and filling up entire sides of records with single 20-minute songs. This continued through the 1990s, where the advent of the compact disc only furthered things in this direction with it’s 80 minute playing time.
Inter the enternet… wait… Scratch that. Reverse it.
The internet resulted in a free-for-all of file sharing and leveled the playing for independent artists. In a little over ten years, we went from 1,000 songs in your pocket, to 45 million songs in the cloud. The firehose of non-linear music played right into our natural tendency to favor variety.
Radio, mix tapes, shuffle, playlists—when you look back over the past 150 years, the 30-or-so-year heyday long play record albums had is not all that significant; and during that time, we still found ways to mix it up.
Zac and Federico’s discussion was well informed and they made some astute observations I had never considered. As both a music fan and a musician, I—like them—am an album guy to the core. I do think people like us tend to have trouble taking a few steps back to acknowledge the way others appreciate music, though.
The internet has all but replaced the radio, algorithms are the new DJs, and artists are adapting their songs to popular listening formats as they always have. The long-play music recording is a tiny nothing on the already tiny blip of recorded music history. Maybe it will reappear, maybe it won’t, but from here it looks to me like we are just going back to the 1950s.
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