Friday , March 5 2021

Only Change Is Constant

From the way the RIAA is responding to the current digital challenge, you’d think the recording industry had never faced a threat from technological innovation before. That is hardly the case, as an interesting article in the NY Times today brings up:

    Since Thomas A. Edison recorded the human voice in 1877, the music industry has grappled with the uncertainties wrought by new technologies.

    “The form changes, but the issues – who owns the music, what rights pertain to artists, what rights pertain to the companies – these are issues that go way back into the 19th century,” said Larry Starr, professor of music history at the University of Washington in Seattle and co-author of “American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MTV” (Oxford University Press, 2002).

    The initial race to create a low-cost way to record and play back sound resulted in a number of competing companies. Many wound up merging forces around the turn of the 20th century, forming a stronghold that for the most part has been the locus of industry power for a hundred years. The RCA Music Group, part of the BMG unit of Bertelsmann; the EMI Group; and the Columbia Records unit of Sony are among the current music companies that have long, historic roots in the business.

    ….Recorded music shifted the balance of power from sheet music publishers, which dominated the early music business, to record producers. But the reaction to technical innovation – whether radio in the 1920’s, cassette recorders in the 1960’s or MP3 players in the 1990’s – has been consistent. “It’s nothing new to say the recording companies are scared,” Professor Schoenherr said. “They’ve always been scared.”

Here is a brief look at the beginning of sound recording in the last quarter of the 19th century, which created a philosophical challenge that has now come full circle with the digital music revolution. Recording made music a “thing,” a physical product, MP3’s and the Internet turn music back into something intangible – what goes around comes around.

Music is sound, and sound came and went – evaporating into the ether as it was heard – prior to the invention of recording and playback devices. Before the phonograph music was a fleeting, singular experience shared subjectively by one or more persons. Music could be recreated from its only tangible form, written notation, but once completed, a given musical performance existed only in the memory. Prior to the 1890’s only a small percentage of the population had ever heard a professional musical performance.

With the advent of recording, music became a “thing,” a thing that could be possessed, and, with the proper equipment, reproduced, exactly the same way over and over again by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Our egalitarian culture of entertainment-on-demand-for-all began with the availability of recorded music.

The first sound recording instrument, the “phonautograph,” was created by Frenchman Leon Scott de Martinville in 1855 using a horn and membrane affixed to a stylus that recorded sound waves on a rotating cylinder wrapped with blackened paper. There was no playback device. In 1877, Thomas Edison, aggravated by the fact that his telegraph tape kept slipping out of alignment (a man who sleeps only four hours a night gets aggravated easily), rigged up a steel spring to keep the tape aligned and noticed that when the tape was run at high speed, the indented dots and dashes made a “light musical, rhythmic sound, resembling human talk heard indistinctly.”

Edison reasoned that if he could record a telegraph message, he could also record a telephone message. Edison, who was hard of hearing, hooked up a short needle to the diaphragm of his telephone receiver and rested his finger against the needle; the pricks against his finger told him how loud the voice was being received. Edison realized that he could record a series of loud pricks.

By the end of ’77 Edison had invented the phonograph, consisting of a hand-cranked cylinder wrapped in tin foil and mounted on a threaded shaft, and a horn-like mouthpiece connected to a diaphragm and a steel stylus that indented sound patterns from a sound source on the rotating foil. For playback the stylus tracked the indented foil, whose vibrations were reproduced using a more delicate diaphragm. Edison’s version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was the first recorded performance.

In 1878 the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was created to manufacture and exhibit the talking machines, of which the first commercial applications were live stage demonstrations. James Redpath, the founder of a successful speaker’s bureau in Boston, was put in charge of presenting the curiosity to the public. He assembled a staff of actors, carnival barkers and others fleet of tongue, trained them in the care and feeding of the phonograph, and sent them out to assigned territories.

“Ladies and gentlemen, for your edification and amazement, I present to you a machine that speaks like a man, quacks like a duck and sings like a trumpet. This is Thomas Edison’s miraculous phonograph. By the wizardry of modern art and science, this machine will now greet you in tongues gathered from the four corners of the globe.”


The Boston audience, sophisticates all, gasped as one. The cylindrical body turned and a voice came out of a cone above the cylinder.


“Having greeted you, the phonograph will now recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.”


The address was completed to thunderous applause and more than one tear.

“Meaning no disrespect, it is now time for a tour of the barnyard.”


Howls of delight and a chorus of animal sounds echoed from the audience.

“Now, some of you ladies and gentlemen may think that some form of trickery is afoot in this demonstration. There’s nothing up my sleeve. There’s nothing hidden on this theatrical proscenium and I am not possessed of the ventriloquist’s art. It is the machine that speaks. To certify the authenticity of his demonstration, may I importune the audience for a volunteer? Is there a doctor in the house?”

An impressively mustachioed man in the front row shyly raised his hand.

“Thank you very kindly, sir. Don’t be shy, just step right up here. And you are Dr…?”

“Ah, Edison. No relation.”

Much laughter.

“Now Dr. Edison, if you would be so kind. What is your specialty, sir?”

“I’m an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.”

“How fortuitous, sir! Now Dr. Edison, Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, will you be so kind to look around, behind, and under the table for any foreign bodies?”

Dr. Edison tentatively poked around, finding nothing untoward, meanwhile the showman gave the phonograph a surreptitious crank.


The doctor jumped nearly out of his skin. The audience guffawed, then returned a chorus of coughs. The phonograph sneezed. The showman handed the doctor a stethoscope, bringing down the house.

“Please forgive my little jest, Dr. Edison. Thank you so much for your patience, but you will no doubt confirm that our ‘patient’ is the genuine article, though there is no need to write him a prescription.”

The show concluded with a musical demonstration including the sounds of a harp, a violin, a piano, and wrapped with “America the Beautiful” played on a trumpet.

Demonstrations of this sort generated up to $1,800 per week. Edison took 20% of the take, Redpath 60%, and the showman 20%. The phonograph was off and running as a moneymaker.

Unfortunately, Edison turned his prodigious attention to the electric light bulb, and the phonograph remained little more than a novelty for the next ten years. By 1887, a team led by telephone-inventor Alexander Graham Bell had improved the device by replacing the tin foil with a wax cylinder (which improved sound, durability, and lengthened recording time to around 2 minutes), and the hand crank with an electric motor (which unified pitch). Edison responded with similar improvements of his own and law suits, which were followed by countersuits. Both Edison (“phonograph”) and the Bell team (“graphophone”) perceived their devices as dictation equipment for business.

Music entered the picture in ’89 when Edison’s California franchise developed a coin-operated attachment to the phonograph and installed it in a San Francisco saloon – where very little dictation took place – helping to create a demand for recorded music.

By ’91 coin-operated machines (2 minutes for a nickel) were common in bars, cafes and drug stores, earning an average of $200 per month each. Parlors specifically for listening to music through tubes in private booths (where moving pictures could also be seen) arose, further driving demand.

Because the wax cylinders were not a subtle software medium, loud and clear instruments and vocalists translated best – brass bands best of all. Columbia, originally the Washington DC Edison phonograph franchise but now a rival linked with Bell’s graphophone, recorded John Philip Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band in 1890 and had the first No 1 record, “Semper Fidelis” (it sounds like an AM transistor radio from under a pillow).

Victor Emerson, Columbia recording director from 1896-1916, was the producer of that first No. 1, shouting the name of the band and the song into the recording horn before ducking out of the way of the brassy blast. Also popular at the time were “artistic whistlers,” minstrels, vaudeville acts, ethnic tunes and various orations.

The next major recording development was Emile Berliner’s flat hard-rubber disc gramophone, introduced in 1893. The first “records” were cheaper to reproduce than cylinders, and as opposed to the cylinder brute force reproduction method (originally cylinders were recorded literally one at a time forcing the artist to sing or play the same song thousands of times! Later, several machines were linked together to record a performance simultaneously. Edison developed a mass-duplication molding process by 1902, but it was still relatively expensive and the wax remained brittle), they could be reproduced from a zinc master an unlimited number of times with no reduction in quality.

The first great record producer, Fred Gaisberg, went to work for Berliner in 1894 as a talent scout/piano accompanist, and in ’95 discovered that shellac worked better than hard rubber for the discs. Gaisberg met an inventor named Eldridge Johnson in ’96 whose spring motor failed to run sewing machines but was perfect for records, creating the standard of 78 rpm. Berliner’s and Johnson’s companies merged in 1901 to form the Victor Talking Machine Co. with the famous dog-with-his-head-in-the-horn as trademark.

And that’s just the first 25 years of recording.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected],, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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