According to the BPI’s own ‘2018 – All About The Music’ yearbook, the equivalent of a thousand music streams were served for every person in the UK last year. That’s an astonishing statistic: 68 billion audio streams in the space of a year. It demonstrates the revolution that the music industry is going through.
Music has never been this accessible. We can now listen to any song we choose at the touch of a button. It seems crazy to contemplate. I bought my last cassette in 1997 (The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land for a road trip, if I recall). Eleven years later, Spotify launched. That’s an almighty leap: from analogue magnetic tape to streaming in around a decade. Although the medium of streaming is still in its adolescence (and has experienced some of the growing pains associated with that tricky life stage), we are witnessing a period of almost unprecedented change.
I say ‘almost’. This is because despite current shifts in music consumption habits, an even greater period of disruption occurred 140 years ago when Queen Victoria was still on the throne and the world was on the cusp of the 20th century. I am referring to the ‘year zero’ of recorded music: the ability to capture and reproduce sound itself.
You’ve got to feel sorry for Charles Cros. In 1877, the French bohemian and inventor wrote an academic paper about reproducing sound. He took the idea of the telephone, then in its infancy, and ran with it. Cros believed that if sound could be transported down a wire as vibrations then there was no reason why it couldn’t somehow leave a physical trace that could be stored and reproduced. He was right. But his paper got lost in Paris’s Academy of Sciences and Cros was pipped to the post as the inventor of recorded sound by the American Thomas Edison. Edison’s phonograph machine scratched sound waves onto a rotating foil-wrapped cylinder. Ten years later, Emile Berliner invented the flat disc gramophone. The world changed forever thanks to these pioneers and dreamers.
This sounds blindingly obvious now. But before recorded sound, you had to be in the same room as the music in order to hear it. The experience of listening to music was unique and fleeting. It was a one-off. Unrepeatable. This changed overnight. People could take music home and listen whenever they liked. I am so fascinated by this period in music history that I’ve used it as the backdrop for my debut novel, The Industry of Human Happiness, which comes out on 24 May.
The early days of recorded sound were like the Wild West. A raft of speculators piled in for what was a chaotic land-grab. Format wars, trademark disputes and bankruptcies were commonplace. A dizzying array of so-called ‘talking machines’ were launched onto the market. Between 1900 and 1914, 60 varieties of disc – all manufactured in slightly different ways – were available to buy. French firm Pathé introduced a record that was a whopping 20 inches in diameter. A German company called Stollwerck sold discs made from chocolate, so you could eat them after listening. No one was right, no one was wrong. Everyone was feeling their way.
Arguably one of the most successful of the early recording experts was Fred Gaisberg, who was sent from New York to London by Berliner in 1898 to launch The Gramophone Company. Setting up in a dank central London basement, Gaisberg oversaw a dizzying array of recordings from a madcap cast of characters consisting largely of music hall stars of the day. But if the early recordings were crude affairs, Gaisberg’s perseverance paid off. In 1902 he recorded world-famous opera tenor Enrico Caruso. He also travelled to India, Russia and Japan to record, firing the public’s imagination wherever he went. The Gramophone Company went on to become known as His Master’s Voice and, following a merger with Columbia in 1931, EMI. So you can trace a direct line from the Beatles and Gorillaz, or Pink Floyd and Kylie Minogue, back to that grotty basement in Victorian London. As origin stories go, it’s pretty special. I have tried to replicate both the sense of humble beginnings and the giddying feeling of wonder at recorded music’s potential in my novel.
There is no question that streaming has changed people’s relationship with music. It has wiped out the scarcity that existed when music lovers had to get a bus into town to buy a Prodigy cassette, for example. Some would argue that with this scarcity came a greater sense of the value of music. I used to agree with this. I don’t any more. Streaming is just wonderfully convenient, in precisely the same way that those strange 'talking machine' gramophones were in the 1890s. However streaming is merely the latest alighting point in music distribution's ongoing journey. The real game-changer happened way back in the late 19th century when Cros, Edison, Berliner and Gaisberg baffled people with their new-found ability to capture and reproduce sound.
Their impact on all of our lives has been utterly incalculable. We have an awful lot to thank these pioneers and dreamers for.