“It’s the latest popular song,” declared the phonograph, speaking in a sulky tone of voice. “A popular song?” “Yes. One that the feeble-minded can remember the words of and those ignorant of music can whistle or sing. That makes a popular song popular, and the time is coming when it will take the place of all other songs.” – L. Frank Baum
Before the late 1800s the only way you heard music was if you went to hear it live, or someone was playing the piano in the home. So you actively went to hear chamber music, or opera, or other live events to hear the newest music. It was very much the same as when a new movie comes out. We are going to consume something new and we hope exciting. (More on that in a minute.)
But with the invention of the phonograph, suddenly you could have a recording of a song you loved and play it over and over. Thus the first century of recorded music was born, and so was an industry. Phonographs, and then the radio brought music to listeners so they could hear their songs all the time and fall in love with tunes.
“As recently as the late nineteenth century, even the most devoted music lover might hear his or her favourite piece just three or four times in his or her whole life. Unless you happened to be a virtuoso musician with access to both sheet music and instruments, it was almost impossible to bring large-scale forms of music into your own home. Not until the dawn of recording and radio technology did our ancestors have any great choice as to what they listened to and when.” – Howard Goodall
With so much recorded music available for people to consume, the tastes changed for what they wanted to hear at live concerts. No longer were they going to hear a concert to hear new music. Now they were going to hear their favorite recorded song.
Audiences began to (and still do) demand these favorites in concert, rather than new, original pieces by artists. This changed the way new music was introduced forever, and still holds today.
Amazing popular composers like Billy Joel, Elton John, and the Eagles aren’t actively writing and recording new songs because they know fans don’t really want to hear new songs when they go to their concerts. It’s not much different for current artists like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, big bands or cover bands. Modern concert audiences want to hear what they’ve already heard recorded, not the newest thing the artists are working on.
To be honest there is much more money in live performance for artists, especially today. Why spend time writing, recording, and marketing new material that will bring in little in royalties, if you can just hook a tour, repackage, and keep selling the old stuff while making a tidy profit?
This Ain’t the Movies
“There’s no business like show business!” – Irving Berlin
The film industry has worked out a unique strategy that keeps money flowing quite well. It releases its newest movies mainly in stages. They start with a big blowout, large theatrical release, then it goes to smaller screen theaters, then to pay per view, then DVD/Bluray, then Netflix, cable, broadcast, etc). It’s an amazing cycle of marketing opportunities and makes money every step of the way.
New music has been introduced for more than a century as a recorded form that people are inundated with first. Sure there still may be some orchestral works that have live premieres, but popular music by and large is blasted out to ears whether they want it or not. And those that have the deepest pockets get their music heard the most.
Don’t think people haven’t tried to think of ways of doing this “windowing” technique and trying to release music to CD then downloads then streaming. It just hasn’t and won’t work. People now want to stream it the minute it is released. It’s not about convenience for the artist or label, it’s about the wants and needs of the consumer.
The funny part of all this is that recorded music had an unparalleled run through the last century, due in part to technology starting with the phonograph through the CD. But the tech of this century has now put us in a quandary on the future of the whole recording industry.
Will we ever go back to hearing (or wanting) new music live again? Or will we continue to depend on media tastemakers to tell us what the best new music is?
Your thoughts (and best guesses!) are welcome.
“So people will come along and do new things and sometimes return to the spirit of an earlier age.” – Norman McLaren
Have a great week!
John Eric Copeland is not a musicologist, or a fortune teller, but through the writings and community of Music History Matters, he can look back and see the parallels and lessons of the past in music today.