Recorded Sound

The first recorded music to sell a million copies was in 1907 - an aria from the opera Pagliacci sung by Enrico Caruso.  A century later, by 2007, leading artists were giving their discs away and music fans were downloading digital tracks for nothing.  In the 19th century, before recording, the only way for musicians to make money was by charging for tickets to their live performances.  Now in the 21st century they are being forced to return to the same approach. By some perspective it could be argued that the conventional record industry only lasted for about 100 years. But selling music started long before Caruso and will remain a major media channel long after the last disc is manufactured. The nature of recording technology had a major effect not just on the distribution of music but also on the type of music that could be created.

Inventor Thomas Edison was less than pleased when his rival Alexander Graham Bell produced the first working telephone in 1876 but his response was to look for ways to improve on the instrument. One of his ideas was to create a machine that could record the human voice so that telephone calls could be answered even when the recipient was not in.    He patented the phonograph or “talking machine” in 1877 and was subsequently surprised when it main use become for playing music.

The telephone and the radio transport sound over distance. Records preserve it over time, they make sound collectable.  Recording mediates sound and allows a live speech or a musical performance to be stored.  More than most other media the development of recoded sound has been driven by a series of new technologies which have had a significant effect on  production, distribution and creative possibilities.  The industry of recorded music has made fortunes for performers and record companies over the past century but now its economics have been transformed, and not for the better, by the digitisation.

Speech was translated into the permanent and transportable medium of writing some 5,000 years ago but musical notation is much more recent – having first developed around 850 AD. Before then music had to be remembered from having heard a performance.  The first experiments in recorded sound were in the 1850s and Edison’s cylinder phonograph was selling well by 1880. The first example of recording music on a flat disc - the familiar gramophone record was some 10 years later.