How listening to music has evolved

Listening to music has changed so much over the last 100 years, and has become highly individualized.  Think of the evolution:

  1. Live performance was the only way to listen to music for centuries.  Print music publishing  was born.
  2. Audio and film recording made performances available for posterity. Sound recordings were first available after Edison’s invention in  1877, but weren’t widely adopted until about 1910.  Edison also effectively started the movie business in 1893. Recordings allowed people to buy or borrow performances, and listen repeatedly from their homes, whenever desired.  Music sharing was born.
  3. Radio brought performances to everyone in 1920, essentially for free, supported by advertising.  Television enhanced the experience in the 30’s.  Broadcasting was born.
  4. Stereo headphones allowed people to listen privately in 1943, without bothering others.  High-quality listening peaked.
  5. BASF developed modern tape recording in the 30’s, . Recorders were relatively expensive until the introduction of cassettes in 1963.  Cassettes made it easy for people to copy and share performances.  Recording companies started to complain about theft.
  6. FM stereo radio brought high-fidelity broadcasting to everyone in 1961.
  7. MTV started in 1981, one of the early cable TV channels, and made video a part of the music experience.
  8. Portable players allowed people to bring the performances everywhere.  In 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman, and individuals listening using headphones surged.
  9. Digital recording allowed performances to be captured as files, using expensive equipment starting in the late 60’s.
  10. Personal computers made it easy for everyone to capture and share performances as files.  Compression technologies like MP3 made the files small, and made it possible to send them over personal connections (dial-up phone lines) in minutes.  Computer disks could hold massive amounts of content.
  11. The Internet became ubiquitous in the 90’s.  Sharing music and video was now possible almost instantly across the globe using digital files.  Anyone who shared content without paying the owner was possibly a pirate. a criminal.
  12. Digital media players were introduced in the late 90’s, and Apple introduced the iPod in 2001. People could carry hundreds of songs in their pocket.
  13. Sharing and delivery systems like Napster (1999), iTunes, Spotify, Facebook, Youtube, and many many others were developed and available free to everyone.  The iTunes Store (2003) in particular legitimized the sale and delivery of recordings in completely digital form.
  14. Smartphones like the iPhone were introduced in 2007.  While previous cellphones had media playback capability, combining the seamless media management experience of the iPod with cellphone technology and a touch interface made the technology universally appealing.
  15. In 2021, most content publishing companies have adopted streaming technologies for nearly everything. For music, four major players (Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Tidal) have made nearly all music available on-demand for a “small” monthly fee of $10-20/month. At the same time, purchases of physical digital media have crashed, with most national chains selling only a very limited selection of music CDs.
  16. Oddly, the vinyl record has made a comeback as a preferred format for music fans!

Everyone became a content creator and consumer.  Music, movies, shows, books, news, training, correspondence, blogs, posts, tweets: it’s all content. Artists, authors, composers, recording companies, studios, publishers, teachers, universities: everyone has had to figure out how to stay relevant and get paid.

Personal computers, smartphones and today’s networks have made content creation and consumption completely personal and portable.  You can be nearly anywhere and read, write, watch, listen, talk, or perform.  AT&T’s 1993 commercials, “You will”, are fulfilled.

I focused primarily on music in this list, but most of the timeline holds for other forms of media as well: movies, books, news, art.