Record Revolution?

Has the invention of recording completely revolutionized music? Reproducing recorded sound is a recent invention, dating from 1877 with Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) and the invention of the phonograph (Chew, 1967 p.2). The idea of listening to recorded music would probably be inconceivable to people from earlier cultures. Recording has changed the way people consume music, whether through buying a CD, a digital download or through the radio; and this change has itself affected the way composers create music.

Recording separated a sound from its original place in both time and space; and sounds became isolated from the mechanisms that made them. Because recording separated sound from visual stimulus, a huge change occurred in the customs surrounding the consummation of music. This also consequentially reduces the importance of the physicality and visual appeal of performers. Musicians with a strong sense of character and stage presence have to sacrifice these aspects of their performance when recordings are made, and the visual drama created in music is lost in recordings. Some musicians took this as a liberating starting point, and invented acousmatic music. While the separation of visual from audio is very evident in recordings, it is not something new; music played on church organ usually hides the organist from the view of an audience.

Because recording allowed music to migrate from the place of the initial recording, music was freely available in a much larger range of environments. This leads to a re-contextualization for music not originally intended for recordings.  Re-contextualization changes the purpose for a piece of music, for example an aria intended for listening within an opera might be removed from this context and performed as a football chant. This is a developed form of the separation a score could provide from initial purpose, which can be seen with Henry Purcell’s (1659-1959) Funeral Music for Queen Mary, which was intended for performance at a specific point in time, but has been subsequently performed in other contexts, such as concerts. This is exaggerated in contemporary society, where many people listen to music, using personal music players like mp3 players, listening to music in cars with CD players common place. Many shopping complexes use recordings simply to create an atmosphere; music is no longer restricted to the domain of the concert hall. As such the values held in concert halls are consequently less important within an equivalent contemporary listening environment. Allan Moore echoes this view:

“The physical response called up by some Mozart will depend far more on its performance situation, and is thus a reaction to the performers rather than the music. The applause given it in a concert hall would normally be out of place when listening at home to the recording” (Moore, 2000 p.163).

The change in performance customs also mark a change in the way we approach music; in a western concert environment the audience are encouraged to remain silent throughout a performance, while when listening to music at home, listeners regularly talk over recordings. Music can be skipped and ignored using media, but not in a concert situation:

“Radio, gramophone, and film have made available a) boundless surfeit of music. Here, perhaps the frightful expression “consumption of music” really does apply after all. For perhaps this continuous tinkle, regardless of whether anyone wants to here it or not, whether anyone can take it in, whether anyone can use it, will lead to a state where all music has been consumed, worn out.” (Schoenberg, 1975 p147)

The widespread reliance on recordings could be interpreted as causing a decline in the number of amateur musicians. Before recording, the main way for music to be heard was live performance, which required either hired musicians or amateur players to perform at the venue.

“It wasn’t until the invention of the player piano and, more importantly, the gramophone in the late nineteenth century that production, storage, and portability were once again greatly altered” (Taylor, 2001 p.1).

Recording has since removed this need. The social environment surrounding amateur music making has consequently been changed, musicians are not a necessity for hearing music.

Because a recording has an inherent facility to be duplicated, the access available through a recording is greater than that through a concert. And because a recording is abstracted from a fixed point in time, and inherently can be stored and recalled later as more recordings are made the total number of recordings in the world is growing exponentially, leading to an abundance of music and a plethora of choice. Recordings facilitate a re-listening of music unavailable to people before its invention. This re-listening allows a listener to become intimately acquainted with a recording, and pick up specific nuances that could go unnoticed with a single listening.  Because every performance is intrinsically unique, this can have negative impacts for performers; as no single performance can be perfect, mistakes and misjudgments made on the recording are documented within the audio; on the other hand recording allows music that is performed well only once, through fortuity, to be stored, implying mastery of the techniques involved, and that the performer is more capable than they actually are. Re-listening has also changed the way people approach learning music. Many jazz musicians, brought up with recordings, would slow down records to learn notes and to better analyze the technique of the top performers (Lines, 2009, Lecture). Recording provides these musicians a better transcription of the music than a score would give, and provides a better ground for learning new compositional ideas and performance techniques. This view can also be seen in Eisenberg, “Live music and paper-composed music would now mimic records” (Eisenberg, 2000 p.199).

The development of records into salable items further transitioned music as a commodity into new depths. In a commercial environment, music is grouped into genres to help consumers identify and select appropriate recordings to buy without first requiring the consumer to listen to them; because the consumers can have expectations of the musical content of a recording based on the genres it is labeled with. Because of the increasing quantity of music available, a greater distinction is made to help better classify the stylistic variations between music, which leads to the creation of a wide variety of genres. The application of genres is a relativistic concept; music is labeled by the music it is contrasting, a recording might be labeled simply pop if contrasted with a classical piece like a Mozart aria, but then labeled bubblegum if contrasted with a piece of sophisti-pop. This has significantly influenced western culture, as many people associate their musical tastes with their personality and lifestyle as a whole:

“Not only is rock music an integral part of the life of many people, but it is also a cultural initiator: to like rock, to like a certain kind of rock rather than another, is also a way of life, a manor of reacting; it is a whole set of tastes and attitudes” (Boulez & Foucault, 2000 p.164)

Recordings limit the spontaneity of music. This is particularly evident in jazz where solos that were originally improvised have been recorded and now become fixed objects.  Many jazz performers used well-known standards to improvise on; recording provides the best way of archiving the spontaneous changes within the music, which would go unrecorded in notated scores; Improvisers “knew what to put between the written notes” (Eisenberg, 2000 p.200).

The increased quantity of music correlates with the reduction of cost and space required for storing recordings. This trend is helped by the continual improvement of recording technology, which is itself indicative of the importance of recordings within society. The amount of time spent listening to music has changed dramatically since the invention of recording. Since the invention of recording music has become increasingly accessible. To hear a piece of music requires less of an investment in time and money, and the abstraction of a recording from its original point in time also means it can be heard whenever and wherever.

This has implications on the way we as a society listen to music; today people carry around large catalogues of music on mp3 players and in general people listen to music for a longer period of time than before the invention of recording. At the time of writing the market leading mp3 player; the Apple iPod Classic holds 40,000 songs (Apple Inc. Online). Another cultural implication of this is the emergence of the concept of an artist; with larger numbers of recordings of the same music, preferred aspects of a performance contribute to the value of the music.

“Broadcasting, the BBC argued, was the final step in the ‘true democratization of music’ – the means through which ‘the shepherd on the downs, or the lonely crofter in the farthest Hebrides and, what is equally important the [laborer] in his squalid tenement in our but too familiar slums, or the lonely invalid on her monotonous couch, may all, in spirit, sit side by side with the patron of the stalls and hear some of the best performances in the world’” (Scannell, 2000 p.193).

While this statement was originally made in reference to radio; it holds equally well with recorded music, as recording has made it increasingly possible for those away from thee best performance venues to consume music performed to high standards.

Live performances were constrained by a number of limiting factors, which are alleviated by the widespread introduction of recording. These include the logistics of getting musicians together, capable of performing to an acceptable standard of playing at the same time and place as the audience, the cost of paying performers for every performance, cost of venue hire and maintenance, the singularity of that performance; a good performance on one occasion does not necessarily mean that a subsequent performance will be good, and vice versa.

“In 1927 the BBC took over responsibility for sponsoring and financially guaranteeing the Promenade Concerts” (Scannell, 2000 p.195).

It is no coincidence that arguably one of the most accessible series of concerts in Britain is run by a broadcasting company; indeed a large number of the orchestras in the country have ties with broadcasters and recording companies. It is also important to emphasize that the majority of people will listen to a recording of a piece of music before they see that music performed live.

“The decreasing cost of technology to the average consumer has resulted in the last decade in entirely new kinds of musics that rely heavily on personal computers, synthesizers, drum machines, and other electronic gear. These new musics can be performed “live,” in public but they are just as frequently never heard live at all, the musician sitting alone in his (it is usually a he) studio cranking out tunes.” (Taylor, 2001 p.139)

“Music as social activity is becoming a thing of the past for most musicians” (Taylor, 2001 p.139). While this broad statement is generally true, indeed most people consume music as an event isolated from the production of music, people to congregate socially to listen to recordings. This statement is supported by contemporary ideology;

“Some of the changes in contemporary America: public spaces are increasingly thought to be uninhabitable, intolerant and intolerable, even monstrous; being in public is like being in prison, or in a police state” (Taylor, 2001 p.136).

A counter to this statement is the development of dance culture; with events drawing in large numbers of customers for what is a largely musical experience. Modern audio equipment means loud, hall-filling sounds can be produced without taking up a large volume of space, which would previously require a large number of musicians. “Everything about a dance club is designed to alter your senses and focus them on the music and dancing” (Taylor, 2001 p.171). The music commonly played at such venues is possible through technological advances that stem from the invention of recording, including changes to the audio in a post-recording stage. Post-recording editing has influenced our music, with new sounds and possibilities created, music can be played back at different speeds to that at which it was recorded, resulting in timbral changes as well as providing a way to perform impossibly fast music. It has facilitated the creation of multi-tracking, which enables new sound worlds, and the creation of music with textures previously unavailable by small groups of performers. This technique was explored in detail in the early twentieth century with music concrète. These are only a few examples of the changes to music that have occurred as a result of recording. Recording has influenced music itself to the point that it is impossible to chronicle in this essay.

The record industry can be seen as either a competitor or a development of the earlier music publishing business. The shift in the listening environment of most consumers, from live venues to recorded media has changed the power of those working in the music industry. Records threatened the all aspects off the traditional music industry, including:

“piano-makers and retailers, music teachers, sheet music publishers, music hall and vaudeville artists, proprietors and so on”. (Martin, 2000 p.209)

The financial power of concert planners and scored music publishers has declined since the record industry emerged. This has changed the financial pressure upon musicians, as recording provides the medium for most financial capital. Media’s dominance in the distribution and access to music is highlighted:

“the economy is there to remind us, in case we get lost in this bland utopia: there are musics which bring in money and exist for commercial profit: there are musics that cost something, whose very concept has nothing to do with profit. No liberalism will erase this distinction.” (Boulez & Foucault, 2000 p.165)

This view is echoed in the film ‘Before the Music Dies’,

“Never have so few companies controlled so much of the music played on the radio and for sale at retail stores. At the same time, there are more bands and more ways to discover their music than ever. Music seems to have split in two – the homogenous corporate product that is spoon-fed to consumers and the diverse independent music that finds devoted fans online and at clubs across the country.” (Rasmussen & Shapter, 2006)

The film throughout demonstrates an uneven balance of power due to the clout held by the biggest commercial record companies.

“What is put at the disposition of the public is what the public hears. And what the public finds itself actually listening to, because it’s offered up, reinforces a certain taste, underlines the limits of a well-defined listening capacity, defines more and more exclusively a schema for listening.” (Boulez & Foucault, 2000 p.165)

The record industry has power over the general publics choice in music, as it controls the distribution of music. The record industry is an industry and as such its inevitable goal is profit. This places value on sales and as such the most salable music is the most valuable. This is no different to the music publishing business.

(International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, Online)

Music videos are a later example of technology helping to define an ideology. Of the technology available to consumers, particularly the shift in economic power within middle class teenagers during the 80s: “in this social group television also plays a dominant role in involvement with music” (Wicke, 2000 p.205).

The modern music business today is the synonymous with the record industry. The modern music industry originated in the early twentieth century, reflecting technological advances in the late nineteenth century.

“The music business began to assume its modern form as an unanticipated consequence of the development of recording in the 1880” (Martin, 2000, p256)

Overall recording has changed not just the way music is consumed, but provided the facilities to change how we perceive as music. It has contributed to the development of both new types off music and scenarios for the appreciation of music. Music has changed since the introduction of recording and has given music greater cache within society; recording has revolutionized both music and the sociological environment it influences.


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