Innovation or bust - an industrial history of recorded music (notes)
The amended painting was commissioned by William Barry Owen, head of The Gramophone Company, the British company formed to exploit Berliner’s European patent rights.
‘Just who coined this phrase has never quite been determined. An English electrical engineer, Harold A Hartley, is the strongest contender; he claims to have invented the phrase about the end of 1926.[ ] If this be so, ‘high-fidelity’ lay fallow for some time. Not until late 1933 or early 1934 did the phrase come into general use, but then it was exploited with a vengeance’. (Gelatt, 1955, p.207).
The practice of record companies giving incentives to DJs to promote their records, has been subject of repeated state investigation over the decades, the most notable being the ‘payola’ scandal of the late 1950s and early 1960s involving the DJ Alan Freed.
The actual peak year varies depending on whether the US, UK or global market is measured, and depending on whether units or value are considered. For current purposes, these details would distract from the overall narrative. IFPI total global unit data for all formats indicates that 1981 was the peak year with almost 2.2 billion units, but the US and UK peaked earlier than this.
The anecdotes centred on PolyGram’s colourful but financially disastrous relationship with the infamous Casablanca Records and its head, Neil Bogart. Casablanca was the label responsible for the success of Donna Summer and the Village people, aided by extravagant business practices which fuelled what Mark Coleman (2005) calls the ‘Roman candle flameout’ not only of Casablanca Records, but the disco movement itself.
There is a counter-argument that home-taping and sharing resulted in the promotional dissemination and wider discovery of music at a time when radio channels were quite limited in their coverage of new music. Whilst some sales are lost, a wider audience and new fans are gained virally. Also, a market with multiple formats (LP/MC/CD) leads to greater consumption than a single format market, as more affluent consumers buy the same product in different formats. Whilst there has been much rhetoric on the home-taping topic, there is, to my knowledge, no definitive data which determines the net impact of these opposing phenomena.
On its 20th anniversary in 1999, Sony had sold 186 million units of the cassette Walkman. Other brands, notably Panasonic, also had huge success with portable cassette players on the back of Sony’s pioneering success.
Am internet search on 'vinyl versus CD' illustrates the long and unresolved debate about whether CD has a higher sound quality than vinyl. Whilst some countries have seen spectacular growth (in percentage terms) in vinyl over recent years, it remains a nich format. In 2002, vinyl overtook CD sales for the first time, though this was in value, not units, and helped by the fact that vinyl albums are aound twice the price of CDs.
The European Competition Commission approved Universal’s acquisition of EMI subject to conditions including the disposal of certain assets, notably Parlophone (the label of the Beatles, Queen, Coldplay and Radiohead amongst many others) which was subsequently acquired by Warner Music.
With hindsight, Philips had a lucrative exit from its 75% PolyGram holding. By contrast, Bronfman is often criticised for losing US$ billions of his family’s shareholder value through his entertainment industry transactions.
In a classic case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, the industry experimented with copy-protected CDs. After much public criticism, culminating in the 2005 outrage at Sony-BMG’s products which rendered Windows PCs vulnerable to malware, copy protection was effectively abandoned, recognising that it would only accelerate the demise of the CD format.
A great deal of work was done to assess the tolerance of the 'public ear' and how far files could be compressed. Tom's Diner by Suzanne Vega is cited (by Karl-Heinz Brandenburg, one of the Franunhofer developers of MP3) as one of the key tracks to test the retention of warmth and texture in the human voice.
MPEG was established by Italian Leonardo Chiariglione with Japan’s Hiroshi Yasuda, and the early network involved scientists and technologists from Germany, USA. UK, Canada, France, and the Netherlands.
About 20% of the 350 million iPods sold were the iTouch models, which arguably were not simply bought as music devices. However, I have included no revenues from iPhones and iPads which have certainly benefited to some extent from customers who feel committed, or tied, to the Apple platform through their music collections.
Calculating market shares in the new millennium is notoriously difficult given the multiple sources of revenues. This approximate illustrative calculation is based on Spotify’s gross revenues assuming 5 million users paying $9.99 per month, and iTunes payments to record companies, reported on cultofmac.com (February 27th, 2013), grossed up by 10/7 to make them comparable with Spotify’s sales.
This anti-subscription sentiment was clearly expressed in Steve Jobs’ interview with Rolling Stone magazine, December 3rd, 2003.
A popular analogy of music being supplied as a commoditized public utility, like water or electricity, was coined by David Bowie in a New York Times interview (June 9th 2002, nytimes.com). This same concept of ‘music like water’ was central to Kusek & Leonhard’s well known polemic book, The Future of Music: Manifesto for a Digital Music Revolution (2005).
Sony Music and BMG merged through a 50:50 joint venture in 2004. An EU competition commission investigation into the merger spoilt the chances for a long-desired similar merger between EMI and Warner Music in 2006. EMI was subsequently acquired by Universal in 2012, though the EU required Universal to divest some of the EMI assets. Consequently EMI’s best known label (Parlophone) was acquired by Warner Music in 2013. SonyBMG ceased to exist when Sony bought out Bertelsmann’s share of the joint venture in 2008, rebranding as Sony Music Entertainment.
Data from the UK collecting society PRS shows that whilst recorded music consumption, as a percentage of total consumer wallet-share, dropped by more than half since 1999, live music increased more than fourfold by the same measure. In the 10 years from 1999 to 2009, aggregate music consumption has therefore grown in absolute terms, and lost only 15% of its value measured by share of the total consumer wallet.