Monthly Blog - Spring 2009
One of the more fascinating eras in American music was the early Jazz Age, or the "Roaring Twenties." Even by 60's standards, the 1920's were a pretty turbulent time. Consider some of the earthshaking events: The nation was still recuperating from the "Great War" and the worst influenza pandemic in history. Women had just gotten the vote (Nineteenth Amendment). Prohibition was enacted. Jazz was starting to establish itself as America's own unique music genre.
Technology was also changing the face of American life: electricity, automobiles, and soon air travel.
Technology would also profoundly change the music world.
So what was the music world like in America at the beginning of the Twentieth Century?
It was very different from today. All music was performed. You either attended a concert, you played music at home, or you owned a player piano. And these were diversions that only upper middle class or wealthy people could afford. The vast majority of Americans were musically illiterate. The average guy on the street probably couldn't whistle Beethoven's Ninth or even tell you who Stephen Foster was.
Thanks to technology that was soon to change.
The invention and marketing of the phonograph was a cultural watershed. It suddenly brought music to the masses. For not too much money ($30), a family could enjoy music recorded by professionals in their own homes. They could even take the portable victrola on outings or picnics and listen to Caruso. Students could hear Mozart played by a real symphony orchestra. Musicians in New Orleans could hear what Louie Armstrong was puttin' down in Chicago and New York.
The phonograph also spawned a whole new segment of the music business: the recording industry. Until 1920 the music business was ruled by publishers situated in a small section of Manhattan called Tin Pan Alley. Now victorola manufacturers started popping up. Small record labels were getting rich. Bessie Smith's "Crazy Blues" sold a half a million copies. Paul Whiteman's "Whispering" probably sold close to one million.
But as the Roaring Twenties decade came to an end, success was short lived. While Columbia and Victor survived, other labels, like Gennet, OKeh and Oriole, eventually went out of business or were swallowed up. From 1929 to 1932 sales of phonograph records had plummeted from $75 million to $6 million. What happened? By the beginning of 30s the record industry had suffered a near crushing blow, not just from the Great Depression, but at the hands another new technology.
Along comes the Wireless
The history of radio goes all the way back to 1893, when Nikola Tesla demonstrated its usage at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Marconi was awarded a patent in 1896 and the technology was perfected and commercialized by the mid 20s. Entrepreneurs like David Sarnoff understood how revolutionary the new medium was when he established AM broadcasting as President of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
Indeed RCA in the early 30s was the equivalent of Apple Computer today. They basically monopolized the music industry for two decades. They not only marketed and sold a majority of wireless units made by General Electric and Westinghouse, they also purchased a number of independent radio stations (WEAF and WCAP) and formed NBC (National Broadcast Company). In the 30s and 40s NBC was the linchpin of radio's golden age with acts like Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Bob Hope, Fred Allen, and Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra.
To add insult to injury, RCA also gobbled up the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1929, then the world's largest manufacturer of phonographs. This new subsidiary became RCA-Victor, the label associated with "Nipper" the dog. Even though the phonograph industry was ailing at the time, it proved to be a good investment.
It's no surprise that Americans gravitated to the new medium. The cost of a radio in 1930 averaged around $40, roughly the same price as one of the new "electrical" phonograph players. But radio was free. No need to go out and buy discs. Sound familiar? And Americans were smitten with the live broadcasts of their Big Band favorites. Benny Goodman launched his career on the NBC show "Let's Dance." Even territory bands from the Midwest like Benny Moten and Jay McShann were able to establish a following on the east coast.
History repeats itself and moves in cycles. So it's not surprising that 80 years later a newer technology, the internet, is overtaking and displacing an older technology, the compact disc.
The CD's not dead, it's just doomed
You can see it happening all around you. Mom and pop records stores have virtually disappeared and given way to bigger chains like Best Buy. If people want CDs, they buy them online at Amazon.com. When your teenage kid gets a CD for Christmas or a birthday, the first thing he/she does is load it into their iPod. Then the CD usually ends up on the floor or in the wastebasket. My son tramples on them.
Want to know the latest statistics? CDs sales are declining at a rate of 20% a year, while internet sales are surging. By the year 2015 the pendulum will have shifted to online music. In this new economy racked with recession, think of all the segments of the music industry that will simply disappear: CD plants, printing plants, distributors, retail stores, album graphic designers, liner note writers, etc. That's a lot of jobs.
This is difficult for me and other audio professionals, who founded their livelihood on the compact disc. But we've lived by the mantra: technology giveth and technology taketh away, so there's no solace in being nostalgic. But I am a bit burned that inferior formats (mp3, iTune's .aac) will overtake a superior one (compact disc) to perhaps become a new standard. My worst fear is that music listeners are going to choose convenience over substance and gradually disconnect from the uplifting experience of great fidelity. I hate to see the migration of audio move downward. Afterall, as audio professionals, isn't our credo to continually strive to improve sound?
So if you are flabbergasted by all this change, remember, it sort of happened eighty years ago. And there is a silver lining. Phonograph records actually did survive the onslaught of radio and went on to become a better medium: the LP and then the CD. If we can weather this internet storm, maybe we will move on to something better. If it's not Blu-ray or another tangible format, then hopefully we can revamp the standards for downloaded music. Some smart computer people need to come up with more efficient lossless codecs and wider bandwidths. Some smart record people need to package their internet music in compelling and creative ways. In the meantime, as musicians and audio professionals, it's our job to continue to educate the consumer, to convince them that better listening is just around the corner.