Recorded History

5 min readJan 1, 2024

How Changing Formats Shaped DJing

A great DJ is two things:

🗃️ a Selektah: plays the right tunes.

🎛️ an Operator: mixes smoothly between those tunes.

(🕒 You’d be surprised how far showing-up and being professional will get you too!)

A DJ’s music collection is paramount. ⛰️ There is some equation that calculates the extent to which more famous DJs have greater flexibility in their music selection, but most DJs need to have the songs a crowd wants to hear.

Over the course of a 20-year DJ career, my music collection has shifted from crates of vinyl, to wallets of CDs, to a hard drive full of mp3s. I owned them all and could use them at my discretion.

Crate digging

But many of us have now moved from ownership to subscription. We don’t own the music we listen to, and if we stop subscribing, we can no longer access it. 🔓

This is significant for DJs. What digital streaming platforms (DSPs) connect to a serious DJ set-up? I’ve seen Beatport and Tidal access, but not Amazon Music or Spotify. Soundcloud? Sure, if you only want to play copyright-free tracks.

What happens to a DJ’s library if a DSP shuts down or removes certain tracks? Established DJs still buy their music, or get serviced with promos, but what about the nu-skool? Are they even in the habit of buying music? The charts suggest otherwise. 📉

Comedian John Robins has a bit in his Howl show about being grateful for the things we often take for granted. To distract himself from life’s daily annoyances, he decides to listen to some music. “What music have you got on your phone John?”, he muses. “All music!

As a veteran club DJ, I know that when punters approach the DJ booth with a request, they expect the DJ to have all music. People are used to having all of recorded music available to them, all of the time, and at the swipe of a finger.

Making a request at the DJ booth

🎙️ A Brief History of Recorded Sound

It wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to hear music, it had to be performed live. Sheet music was sold, but only became sound when somebody played it.

19th century
Sound was first recorded in 1877, when Thomas Edison captured the words “Mary had a little lamb” on a Phonograph; a tinfoil-covered cylinder with two needles. One needle was for recording and the other for playback.

In 1887, Emile Berliner invented the Gramophone, which recorded onto flat disks rather than cylinders. One of his early recordings was ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’. It was a pretty limited selection at this point, and these early examples were barely audible, and short, as recording time was limited.

However, in a clear demonstration of demand, both formats were quickly marketed. 💰 Tinfoil-covered cylinders were replaced by wax cylinders and sold. Flat discs came in two varieties: a 7-inch disc which could hold about three minutes of sound, and 10-inch version which held four minutes.

As well as music, early customers bought speeches from notable public figures, comedy sketches, or readings from literary works. Due to the time limitations however, these were often abbreviated versions of longer pieces.

20th century
Even today, recording time is limited by disc size. 12-inch discs can only hold about 20–25 minutes of audio per side because of the density of the grooves that can be cut into it. The longer the recording, the closer together the grooves are, and the lower the sound quality.

Magnetic tape allowed for longer recordings, but wasn’t widely used until the end of World War II, as it was a German invention and kept secret from the Allies until 1945.

Magnetic tape ruled the 1950s, but this was far from the end for the disc. The change from shellac to polyvinyl plastic in disc manufacture saw an improvement in the durability and quality of records. In the late 1950s, the 45rpm 7-inch single wasn’t just a technological innovation; it became a symbol of a cultural revolution, coinciding with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll 🕺 and (not coincidentally given the size of the disc) the 3-minute pop song. 💃

1950s teenagers

In 1962, Philips introduced the first compact audio cassette, which recorded onto 1/8-inch tape. This brought portability and convenience to the tape format, and within a decade, cassettes dominated the consumer market. Combined with Sony’s Walkman, the ways we could access music changed too.

The first all-digital music album (Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop) was released in 1979, and the 80s were the era of the compact disc. 📀 Initially marketed as indestructible, people soon realised that wasn’t the case, but did enjoy instantly skipping between tracks and improved sound quality.

Fast forward to the present day and digital remains the standard, but the methods of distribution have changed dramatically. DSPs have democratized access to an unprecedented variety of music, and an immense library of tracks is now just a click away.

However, for DJs this convenience comes with a trade-off. The shift from owning physical copies to accessing music via subscriptions means DJs have less control over their collections. If a streaming service removes a track, or if a DJ ends their subscription, access to that music is lost. This lack of ownership could be problematic for a serious selectah.

An anxious DJ

My own music collection ranges from the 1920s to about 2018 when, no longer able to ignore the advantages, I committed DJ sacrilege and subscribed to a DSP! Leave a comment if you have solved this ownership problem.

One more tune!
As is evident here, sound recording is constantly evolving. Formats come and go and we don’t want to get stuck in any era, no matter how fondly we romanticize that period. So, to all you crate diggers, vinyl purists, patch designers, and digital pioneers, remember… it’s all about the music! 🎵