How the Phonograph Changed Music Forever

Much like streaming music services today are reshaping our relationship with music, Edison's invention redefined the entire industry

(Simone Massoni)
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These days music is increasingly free—in just about every sense of the word.

Right now, if you decided you wanted to hear, say, “Uptown Funk,” you could be listening to it in seconds. It’s up free on YouTube, streamable on Spotify or buyable for about two bucks on iTunes. The days of scavenging in record stores and slowly, expensively building a music library are over. It’s also become easier than ever to make music. Every Mac ships with a copy of GarageBand, software powerful enough to let anyone record an album.

Are these trends a good thing—for musicians, for us, for the world of audible art?

Now the arguments begin. Some cultural critics say our new world has liberated music, creating listeners with broader taste than ever before. Others worry that finding music is too frictionless, and that without having to scrimp and save to buy an album, we care less about music: No pain, no gain. “If you own all the music ever recorded in the entire history of the world,” asked the novelist Nick Hornby in a column for Billboard, “then who are you?”

Artists fight over digital music too. Many say it impoverishes them, as the relatively fat royalties of radio and CD give way to laughably tiny micropayments from streaming companies, where a band might get mere thousandths of a penny from their label when a fan streams its song. Other artists disagree, arguing that giving away your music for free online makes it easier to build a global fan base avid for actually giving you money.

A confusing time, to be sure. But it’s certainly no more confusing than the upheaval that greeted a much older music technology: the phonograph. Back in the 19th century, it caused fights and joy too—as it forever transformed the face of music.


It’s almost hard to reconstruct how different music was before the phonograph. Back in the mid-1800s, if you wanted to hear a song, you had only one option: live. You listened while someone played it, or else you played it yourself.

That changed in 1877 when Thomas Edison unveiled his phonograph. It wasn’t the first such device to record and play back audio, but it was the first generally reliable one: scratchy and nearly inaudible by modern standards, but it worked. Edison envisioned a welter of uses, including for business, “to make Dolls speak sing cry” or to record “the last words of dying persons.” But in 1878 he made a prediction: “The phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music.”

He was right. Within a few years, entrepreneurs began putting phonograph recordings—mostly on wax cylinders—into “coin-in-slot” machines on city streets, where passersby could listen to several minutes of audio: jokes, monologues, songs. They were an instant hit; one machine in Missouri hauled in $100 in a week. The next obvious step was selling people recordings. But of what?

At first, nearly everything. Early phonography was a crazy hodgepodge of material. “It was all over the place,” says Jonathan Sterne, a professor of communication studies at McGill University who wrote The Audible Past. “It would have been vaudeville stars, people laughing, people telling jokes and artistic whistling.” An example was “Uncle Josh Weathersby’s Visit to New York,” a skit that poked fun at urban mores by having a country hick visit the big city. Meanwhile, in the wake of the relatively recent Civil War, marching music was in vogue, so military bands recorded their works.

Soon, though, hits emerged—and genres. In 1920, the song “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith sold one million copies in six months, a monster hit that helped create blues as a category. Jazz followed, and “hillbilly” music, too. If people were going to buy music, producers realized, they’d want some predictability, so music had to slot into a known form. One surprise hit was opera. In 1903, in an attempt to eradicate the phonograph’s working-class vaudeville associations, the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded the European tenor Enrico Caruso—so successfully that labels began frantically cranking out copies. “Why has this great interest and enthusiasm for Opera so suddenly developed?” asked one journalist in 1917 in National Music Monthly. “Almost every layman will answer with the two words, ‘the phonograph.’”


But the nature of a “song” also began to change.

For one thing, it got much, much shorter. Early wax cylinders—followed in 1895 by the shellac discs of the inventor Emile Berliner—could hold only two to three minutes of audio. But the live music of the 19th and early 20th centuries was typically much more drawn out: Symphonies could stretch to an hour. As they headed into the studio, performers and composers ruthlessly edited their work down to size. When Stravinsky wrote his Serenade in A in 1925, he created each movement to fit a three-minute side of a disc; two discs, four movements. The works of violinist Fritz Kreisler were “put together with a watch in the hand,” as his friend Carl Flesch joked. Blues and country songs chopped their tunes to perhaps one verse and two choruses.

“The three-minute pop song is basically an invention of the phonograph,” says Mark Katz, a professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music.

What’s more, the early phonograph had terrible sound fidelity. Microphones weren’t commonly in use yet, so recording was a completely mechanical process: Musicians played into a huge horn, with the sound waves driving a needle that etched the audio into the wax. It captured little low end or high end. Violins turned into “a pathetic and ghostly murmur,” as one critic sniffed; high female voices sounded awful. So producers had to alter the instrumentation to fit the medium. Jazz bands replaced their drums with cowbells and woodblocks, and the double bass with a tuba. Klezmer bands completely dropped the tsimbl, a dulcimer-like instrument whose gentle tones couldn’t move the needle. (Caruso’s enormous success was partly due to the quirks of the medium: The male tenor was one of the few sounds that wax cylinders reproduced fairly well.)

Recording was physically demanding. To capture quiet passages, singers or instrumentalists would often have to stick their face right into the recording horn. But when a loud or high passage came along, “a singer would have to jump back when hitting a high C, because it’s too powerful, and the needle would jump out of the groove,” says Susan Schmidt Horning, author of Chasing Sound and a professor of history at St. John’s University. (Louis Armstrong was famously placed 20 feet away for his solos.) “I got plenty of exercise,” joked the opera singer Rosa Ponselle. If a song had many instruments, musicians often had to cluster together in front of the cone, so tightly packed that they could accidentally smack an instrument into someone else’s face.

Plus, perfection suddenly mattered. “On the vaudeville stage a false note or a slight slip in your pronunciation makes no difference,” as the hit singer Ada Jones noted in 1917, whereas “on the phonograph stage the slightest error is not admissible.” As a result, the phonograph rewarded a new type of musical talent. You didn’t need to be the most charismatic or passionate performer onstage, or have the greatest virtuosity—but you did need to be able to regularly pull off a “clean take.” These demands produced unique stress. “It is something of an ordeal,” admitted the violinist Maud Powell. “Does your finger touch by accident two strings of your fiddle when they should touch but one? It will show in the record, and so will every other microscopic accident.” Plus, there was no audience from which to draw energy. Many performers froze up with “phonograph fright.”


Even as it changed the nature of performing, the phonograph altered how people heard music. It was the beginnings of “on demand” listening: “The music you want, whenever you want it,” as one phonograph ad boasted. Music fans could listen to a song over and over, picking out its nuances.

“This is a very different relationship to music,” as Sterne notes. Previously, you might become very familiar with a song—with its tune, its structure. But you could never before become intimate with a particular performance.

People started defining themselves by their genre: Someone was a “blues” person, an “opera” listener. “What you want is your kind of music,” as another advertisement intoned. “Your friends can have their kind.” Pundits began to warn of “gramomania,” a growing obsession with buying and collecting records that would lead one to ignore one’s family. “Has the gramophone enthusiast any room or time in his life for a wife?” one journalist joked.

A curious new behavior emerged: listening to music alone. Previously, music was most often highly social, with a family gathering together around a piano, or a group of people hearing a band in a bar. But now you could immerse yourself in isolation. In 1923, the writer Orlo Williams described how strange it would be to enter a room and find someone alone with a phonograph. “You would think it odd, would you not?” he noted. “You would endeavor to dissemble your surprise: you would look twice to see whether some other person were not hidden in some corner of the room.”

Some social critics argued that recorded music was narcissistic and would erode our brains. “Mental muscles become flabby through a constant flow of recorded popular music,” as Alice Clark Cook fretted; while listening, your mind lapsed into “a complete and comfortable vacuum.” Phonograph fans hotly disagreed. Recordings, they argued, allowed them to focus on music with a greater depth and attention than ever before. “All the unpleasant externals are removed: The interpreter has been disposed of; the audience has been disposed of; the uncomfortable concert hall has been disposed of,” wrote one. “You are alone with the composer and his music. Surely no more ideal circumstances could be imagined.”

Others worried it would kill off amateur musicianship. If we could listen to the greatest artists with the flick of a switch, why would anyone bother to learn an instrument themselves? “Once the talking machine is in a home, the child won’t practice,” complained the bandleader John Philip Sousa. But others wryly pointed out that this could be a blessing—they’d be spared “the agonies of Susie’s and Jane’s parlor concerts,” as a journalist joked. In reality, neither critic was right. During the first two decades of the phonograph—from 1890 to 1910—the number of music teachers and performers per capita in the U.S. rose by 25 percent, as Katz found. The phonograph inspired more and more people to pick up instruments.

This was particularly true of jazz, an art form that was arguably invented by the phonograph. Previously, musicians learned a new form by hearing it live. But with jazz, new artists often reported learning the complex new genre by buying jazz records—then replaying them over and over, studying songs until they’d mastered them. They’d also do something uniquely modern: slowing the record down to pick apart a complex riff.

“Jazz musicians would sit there going over something again and again and again,” says William Howland Kenney, author of Recorded Music in American Life. “The vinyl was their education.”


Records weren’t terribly profitable for artists at first. Indeed musicians were often egregiously ripped off—particularly black ones.

In the early days, white artists often sang “coon songs” in the voice of blacks, lampooning their lives in a sort of acoustic blackface. Arthur Collins, a white man, produced records ranging from “The Preacher and the Bear”—sung in the voice of a terrified black man chased up a tree by a bear—to “Down in Monkeyville.” When black artists eventually made it into the studio, the labels marketed their songs in a segregated series of “race records” (or, as the early label executive Ralph Peer called it, “the [n-word] stuff”). Even in jazz, an art form heavily innovated by black musicians, some of the first recorded artists were white, such as Paul Whiteman and his orchestra.

Financial arrangements were not much better. Black artists were given a flat fee and no share in sales royalties—the label owned the song and the recording outright. The only exceptions were a small handful of breakout artists like Bessie Smith, who made about $20,000 off her work, though this was probably only about 25 percent of what the copyright was worth. One single of hers—“Downhearted Blues”—sold 780,000 copies in 1923, producing $156,000 for Columbia Records.

When “hillybilly” music took off, the poor white Southern musicians who created that genre fared slightly better, but not much. Indeed, Ralph Peer suspected that they were so thrilled to be recorded that he probably could pay them zero. He kept artists in the dark about how much money the labels were bringing in. “You don’t want to figure out how much these people might earn and then give it to them because then they would have no incentive to keep working,” he said. When radio came along, it made the financial situation even worse: By law, radio was allowed to buy a record and play it on the air without paying the label or artist a penny; the only ones who got royalties were composers and publishers. It would take decades of fights to establish copyright rules that required radio to pay up.


Last fall, Spotify listeners logged on to discover all of Taylor Swift’s music was gone. She’d pulled it all out. Why? Because, as she argued in a Wall Street Journal article, streaming services pay artists too little: less than a penny per play. “Music is art, and art is important and rare,” she said. “Valuable things should be paid for.” Then in the spring, she hit back at Apple, which launched its own streaming service by offering customers three free months—during which time artists wouldn’t be paid at all. In an open letter to Apple online, Swift lacerated Apple, and the company backed down.

Technology, it seems, is once again rattling and upending the music industry. Not all artists are as opposed as Swift is to the transformation. Some point out an upside: Maybe you can’t make much by selling digital tracks, but you can quickly amass a global audience—very hard to do in the 20th century—and tour everywhere. Indeed, digital music is, ironically, bringing back the primacy of live shows: The live-music touring market in the U.S. grew an average of 4.7 percent per year for the last five years, and it brings in $25 billion per year in revenue, according to IBISWorld.

It’s also changing the way we listen. Nick Hornby may worry that young people aren’t committed to their music because it costs them less, but Aram Sinnreich, a professor of communications at American University, thinks they’ve simply become more catholic in their interests. Because it’s so easy to sample widely, they no longer identify as a fan of a single genre.

“In the age of the iPod, and the age of Pandora, and the age of Spotify, we’ve seen the average college student go from being a hard-core ‘rock fan’ or a hard-core ‘hip-hop fan’ to being a connoisseur of a lot of different genres, and a casual fan of dozens more,” he says. “It’s very rare to come across someone of college age or younger who’s only invested in one or two styles of music,” and they’re less likely to judge people on their musical taste.

One thing is true: While the recording medium may constantly change, one thing won’t—our love of listening to it. It’s been a constant since Edison first produced his scratchy recordings on tinfoil. Even he seems to have intuited the power of that invention. Edison was once asked, of your thousand-fold patents, which is your favorite invention? “I like the phonograph best,” he replied.


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