8 March 02005

Notes on Playback (Mark Coleman)

The subtitle of Mark Coleman's book, Playback is "From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years Of Music, Machines, and Money". It's a story that moves to and fro, from technology (the format wars over cylinders and discs in the days of Thomas Edison) to culture (the role of the DJ in disco, reggae and rap) and back to technology (Napster, iTunes and piracy).

Along the way, Coleman mixes anecdote and analysis, covering key personalities and broad social trends, as well as the power relationships in the music and technology industries. His century-long overview offers some perspective on the current tribulations, by showing that tribulations and turmoil are almost the norm — so the current impasse is in many ways 'business as usual'. The history of music and playback technology is a history of old wars and reconciliations, of markets contracting and expanding again.

Coleman's century covers the rise and fall of records as the primary music reproduction technology. Records first competed with live music, and with wax cylinders: they won. They competed with radio, skirmished for a while, but ended up in peaceful co-existence. Finally, records competed with cassettes and CDs, and, DJ culture notwithstanding, they lost.

What follows is not a review of Playback, but my notes of the points I found most salient.

The music industry has seen slumps before. Record sales in the US hit 110 million units in 1922, but ten years later, the figure had fallen to six million (the figures didn't start to take off again until the late '30s). That drastic decline may have been partly a side-effect of the Depression, but record sales were hit much harder than radio, which had the advantage that, once the 'hardware' was bought, it was free. Radio featured a lot of live performances then — it wasn't until radio scaled up that it became almost totally dependent on records — and the musicians' union wanted to keep it that way. However, economic pressures to keep radio production costs down gradually saw the use of recordings spread.

In the early days, many records were consumed in public rather than private settings. Half of all records produced in 1936 were destined for jukeboxes, and half the jukeboxes were in the South of the US.

The Second World War played a big part in recording R&D, and Germany led on tape recording. Meanwhile Peter Goldmark at Columbia Records led the introduction of the 33⅓ LP in 1948. RCA, though invited to collaborate on the new format, initially chose to compete against it with their introduction of the 45rpm single. For some years, you could not get record players that played both formats, though eventually both the labels and the hardware manufacturers embraced both formats so that consumers didn't have to chose between them.

In Coleman's analysis, it was catchy 45 rpm singles and cheap transistor radios that gave birth to rock'n'roll. Both developments made music more 'mobile' and more accessible to the 'baby boom' post-war youth. As described in my essay on musical youth and middle-age spread", the combination of technical, cultural and demographic factors led to an explosion of interest in recorded music: record sales jumped from roughly $100 million in 1945 to $500 million in 1958.

At around this point in the book, Coleman interrupts his narrative for a diversion into the cultural applications of turntables and DJing. In well-established (if slightly US-centric) terms, he rehearses the development of disco, including the excesses of Studio 54 and Donna Summer's partnership with Giorgio Moroder, to Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and those that followed them with samplers. He also explains how dub reggae grew out of an environment where, in Jamaica, there was no copyright law affecting recordings until 1993.

What this part book reinforces is a quote that Coleman cites from Andre Millard in America on Record: "The single most important cultural accomplishment of the industry of recorded sound in the twentieth century was to make black US music the popular music of the world". In the twentieth century, the rise of recorded music led to the dissemination first of jazz and ragtime, through the blues to rock'n'roll, and then on to disco and hip-hop.

The book then returns to the story of format wars and the combination of industry politics and market pressures that fuelled them. The statistics Coleman quotes tell interesting stories by themselves.

  • In 1981, 100 million cassettes and 308 million LPs were sold (it's not stated, but presumably these are all US-only figures).
  • Just five years later, in 1986, the proportions had switched completely, with 350 million cassettes and 110 million LPs sold, plus 50 million CDs.
  • Next, CDs overtook vinyl in 1988. Cassette sales fell in 1989 and each year thereafter.
  • Legislation in 1996 abolished limit of 40 radio stations per owner (again in the US); seven years later, one company, ClearChannel, owns thousands of stations.
  • Over-35s accounted for 28% of sales in 1989, but 35% in 1999.

Coleman's interpretation of some of the figures seems a little hit-and-miss. For example, he covers the growth of Rhino and their licensing of material from other labels for re-issues, but suggests that the market for these 'catalogue' sales is saturated, and that they are now drying up. I'm not so sure. Just by way of anecdote, I heard on the radio today that Jimi Hendrix is selling four million albums a year these days, and I bet he hasn't been selling that well consistently since he died 35 years ago.

Also I'm not sure how right Coleman is to suggest that the increasing proportion of CDs bought by over-35s means that "the young are hungering for their own format" — as opposed to just showing that buying popular music is no longer a hobby restricted to young people, who invariably 'grow out of it' (for more on this, see my middle-age spread article again).

On the other hand, his contention that CDs have "stretched the album concept out of shape" — they hold too many songs, more than listeners can easily offer sustained attention — is persuasive.

If you look at the history of recording format, you might expect to see a trend of increasing standardisation. That happens in short spells (e.g. the collaboration between Phillips, Sony and others in getting behind the CD format when it was new). But what seems to happen is that, once a format has become established, competitors tend to try and extend it in different directions. So 78rpm records bifurcated into 33s and 45s; CDs led to SACD and DVD-Audio; and cassettes to MiniDisc and DAT.

Several points from Playback apply directly to the current trials of the recorded music industry. For example, Coleman suggests that home taping was the first technology to give listeners "the power to program" their own listening experience; and MP3 players with their playlists are clearly an extension of this (Yahoo's music supremo is one of the people who sees playlists as the "killer application" for the next generation of recorded music).

The big difference this time round is that — whereas with the introduction of 33⅓ and 45rpm formats, the record companies developed and owned the technology (the means of distribution) — in the current market they mostly do not. The possible exception to this is Sony BMG, but since Sony was a technology company before it was a record company it has not been able to exploit this combination to the advantage of selling more music. If anything, its concern over digital music distribution has held back its technology business [update 14 March 02005: here's a great New York Times article that tells exactly that story].

I'll finish with what I think was a wise, prescient quote from Peter Goldmark in 1973. He's talking about how he thinks discs and tape will exist side by side, rather than one 'winning', but, as I've suggested previously, I think this could also apply to alternative models of digital music distribution:

Neither one of them seems to be replacing the other one. The disk is convenient for choosing a certain selection — which a lot of people prefer. There are ways you could put a whole library on laser disk [sic]… laser beams. The only problem is, it wouldn't be profitable. People will expect to pay the same for a laser disc that they do for a single piece of music. (Quoted on page 63)

For a more critical assessment of Playback, see Douglas Wolk's review.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Future of Music, Music and Multimedia, Reviews on 8 March 02005 | TrackBack
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