Today technology lets you enjoy and discover all sorts of music far easier than ever before. The choices are endless, with pretty much any type of music you want, at the click of a button away. Things like the latest music releases from our favourite artist, to music interviews or even watching them recording their newest tune live – all at our own time. The days of waiting in line at a music store to score the latest record or CD release are out of sight.
Such innovations are only the latest in a whole history of technology changes, that have brought music to our ears in ever more convenient ways over the last 150 years or so. Music and the tech that’s brought to us have both expanded ever since, at an ever-increasing pace. If we time-warp way back to the past, there were only 2 options – the live ‘gig’, where you had the chance to hear musicians perform live, or if you were lucky enough to be able to afford an instrument and play it yourself.
To hear music performed on instruments was a rare privilege, not part of our everyday lives as it is today. Songs were mostly localised within cultures, passed down from parent to child, so different musical styles were very much restricted to different parts of the world. When hit songs were first ‘published’ and the Top 40 emerged, they were literally notated on paper, so you would buy the latest ‘sheet music’ and take it home to perform yourself.
The key change of course was being able to record and playback music, with inventions like the phonograph (using wax cylinders), the gramophone (with vinyl records as we know today) and radio, which were technology revolutions at the end of the 19th century – they were the iTunes and Spotify’s of their time. Suddenly you could listen to different music in the comfort of your own home.
Radio became the key, with disc jockeys (DJs) playing the latest vinyl discs, providing news and gossip on the latest cool artists and bands, as we still have today. At the time, it was as transforming as the Internet has been to us 100 years later, with almost instant live information available, compared to previously waiting for the morning newspaper the next day, or hearing via word-of-mouth from the village elder. Of course we could only hear what the DJs wanted to play, but for most people it was eye opening to be exposed to so many different musical styles. Just think how many of the famous rock and pop stars say that they were influenced by first hearing other artists on the radio.
Recordings have had a massive impact on cultures, most importantly by allowing them to preserve traditional and classical music to pass on to the next generation, especially while instruments have also transformed over the past century. Traditional instruments such as our gambus (the ‘oud’ or ‘lute’ from centuries past) have now been replaced by the electric guitar, or the rebana, gendang and kompang rhythms (traditional drums), which can be played with a modern drum kit.
The Pop culture phenomenon of the 1950’s and 60’s really brought recorded music into the mainstream and made the first worldwide musical superstars, from Elvis to the Beatles, the Stones and beyond. We didn’t care about the crackle and skip of our most played record, or the ‘S’ hiss when the radio went out of range, it was all about the freedom to listen to what we wanted, when we wanted. Of course compared to today, it was very restricted, but as cars became ever more affordable with on-board radio (and even portable record players), then we could listen to our favourite tracks at our convenience.
Vinyl records were the mainstream, but let’s face it is not the most convenient medium to use on-the-go, so innovations such as the 8-track and the portable cassette became popular alternatives, but were never serious contenders due to the poor sound quality compared to records. We did get the Walkman in the 1980s, the first personal cassette player, finally freeing us to take music with us out in the open with no limitations – free to listen to our favourite tunes, as long as the batteries lasted. And with MTV, music videos were all the rage, though the prediction that “video killed the radio star” for the 1980’s was short-lived. Plus you can’t watch a video while driving, so radio will always have that special place to keep us entertained when on the road.
The Digital Revolution came and shortly after that, the compact disc (CD) arrived and a new generation of portable listening pleasure was with us. Promising to fix the ‘crackle and hisses’ of overplayed vinyl, we entered the digital age when crisp noise-free recordings came about, just as we enjoy today. But CDs could get scratched and then we had ‘skips’, so the hype didn’t always match the ‘latest technology’ promises, plus there were quick-lived other formats such as MiniDisc and DCC that never really caught on in the long run. And they could never replace the many concept albums that gave us different ‘Side A’ and ‘B’ experiences. Or the fact we had to get off the sofa to turn over the record.
Enter: the age of MP3 players, iPods and then iTunes and Google Play, which came on our smartphones, with millions of music tracks available on demand, then the true revolution arrived and we are now almost swamped with too much choice. Just think, in your hand, on your smartphone, you now have more music available to you than most people previously have even heard in history.
Combined with social media that has completely altered the way we interact with each other, even our relationship with music and the artists that create it has changed, so we can always be in touch with the latest developments. No more press releases and waiting for replies to fan club subscriptions, we can now keep tabs on our favourite stars in real-time.
So as you discover your new favourite track, artist or band, stop for a moment to think if there’s a chance to go see the artist live, or listen with the warmth and hiss of a vinyl recording, or find that exclusive old radio interview – as the saying goes “real music never dies” – and the same can be said for the different technologies that were originally published on over the years.