Fast Forward Rewind: The Fluctuation of the Musical Format

a report on changes in the media landscape by Jordan Crinall

Various instances of music media. (Source: taken myself)

Listening to music can be done in a vast array of methods and, in more recent years, can be heard at essentially any part of the world. The past century has seen a surge in media used to play music back and the ways in which they are done can differ greatly from one another.

However, in a world where rapidly developing countries are introducing new models, versions and formats of media to listen to music on, it can be excruciatingly difficult to keep up with the quick advancement of technology to do so.

This report will highlight the history of the musical format but will also reveal the multiple challenges and opportunities such quick development brings.


Edison: The Introduction of Reproducing Sound

Prior to compact discs and even vinyl records, he phonograph cylinder was the first commercial medium used in order to listen to music. Invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, the cylinders would have an engraving of audio recordings on the outside of them and could only be played with a phonograph.

Phonograph playing ‘Listen to the Mockingbird’, recorded circa 1912.

The phonograph was evidently a breakthrough in terms of media with it being the first device to enable home listening. The fidelity of a sound groove is incredibly high on a cylinder due to its linear tracking, giving many households the pleasure of pre-recorded music.

Prior to the First World War, both phonograph cylinders and disc records were competing commercially for public favour — similar to how modern media is constantly fighting for the spotlight as it simultaneously advances. Edison introduced disc records in 1912; although the sound reproduction on the discs were impeccable for the time, the Edison phonograph was only designed to play Edison discs and cylinders, cutting Edison’s sales drastically.

Phonograph cylinders from Columbia and Edison, amongst others. (Source: Leo Reynolds, flickr.com)

The disc format would eventually win the battle once Columbia Records completely abandoned the cylinder format in the same year. However, this did not render the phonograph cylinder totally obsolete.

In 1996, duo They Might Be Giants recorded a handful of songs without electricity at the Edison National Historic Site in New Jersey… onto an 1898 Edison wax phonograph model. Without electricity, taking retro to an entirely new level.

Despite efforts to maintain the popularity of phonograph recordings, it was not long until vinyl records became the standard and most popular music medium.


In the Groove: Vinyl Becomes Commonplace (or the “Birth” of the Album)

Columbia Records would introduce the vinyl record — or LP (Long Play record) in 1948 and it was soon adopted as a standard by the entire record industry by storm. One of its most crucial factors was the ability to play more than twenty minutes of music on each side, thus allowing an “album” to be compiled — whilst it was previously commonplace for phonograph records to have just one song on each side, vinyl records helped introduce the motive of placing multiple songs on both sides.

Although the only new aspect of the vinyl record was the smaller needle and finer grooves, multiple opportunities for the media world were brought about due to the vinyl record’s introduction.

However, with the introductions of other media formats such as cassettes, compact discs and digital tracks and its distribution in the past fifteen to twenty years, vinyl records were seemingly forgotten about in the 2000s and the 2010s so far. Much to many people’s surprise, vinyl record sales have gone through the roof in the UK this year, as can be seen below:

A graph depicting the fluctuating popularity of the vinyl record

With a gradual fall in yearly sales from 2001 through to 2007 (and noting the sharp drop from 1995–98, perhaps due to the broader introduction of the portable CD format), figures begin to gradually increase once more in 2008 until a staggering increase in sales occurred in 2013, continuing to follow the same trend in this current year — the highest record sale figures in eighteen years.

It seems as if a larger number of people are beginning to turn to vinyl once more. Is home listening becoming popular all over again or area the public’s interests going backwards akin to current fashion trends?


The Importance of the Art of Disc Jockeying

One of the greater and still consistently used methods of using vinyl records as a music medium is disco jockeying. Present in nightclubs and countless other venues for decades, it has permitted DJs — or perhaps even musical architects — to carefully craft a selection of songs and mix songs to create almost entirely new melodies.

The introduction of the vinyl record has certainly had a profound impact on society — or at least in the UK. Almost every British town and city has some form of nightlife, and those nightlives would suffer greatly if the disc jockey ceased to exist.

Even today, more and more DJs are emerging — whether it’s today’s biggest DJ in an enormous tent at a festival or a bored teenager sat at their bedroom desk. The following video should depict how difficult a technique mixing vinyl records is — Detroit’s Jeff Mills was notorious for using more than two turntables during mixes, permitting him to alter melodies even more.

Of course, like the vinyl format itself, disc jockeys as talented as Mills above are just as commercially vulnerable to the introduction of digital music. On the other hand, there are even more DJs that choose to do it as a hobby or pastime out of sheer love of the music they are mixing and are protected from the dangers of digital media.

One example of a DJ hobbyist is James Henderson, a Preston native who plays DJ sets in nightclubs, houses, basements and other venues in both Preston and Manchester because of pure enjoyment. Although vinyl record sales have shot upwards in recent years, digital music is almost an imminent threat to the tangible music industry. Henderson answered a range of questions concerning the formats.

James Henderson in the middle of a DJ mix. (Source: Tom Harper Photography)

JC: Do you prefer vinyl records to other musical formats? If so, what opportunities would you say are (and were) brought about by it?

JH: I prefer them mainly from the point of view of DJing. I prefer them because they’re more reliable and sound better through the right sound system. They also force you to search for music that you might otherwise not play out which I’d probably say is the best opportunity that vinyl presents in and of itself.

JC: As someone who buys music on a regular basis, what are your views on legal and illegal digital downloading?

JH: Well I do download stuff illegally, I’ll admit, but I try to buy digital when I can. I don’t have a strong opinion either way on buying digital, I can see why labels (particularly smaller, independent labels) would choose to release all digital due to the lack of overheads like pressing costs and distribution.

JC: So when you illegally download music, does that often tempt you to buy the physical format of the release?

JH: Almost always. Usually I’ll only download a track (that I want to play out) illegally if it’s vinyl only and I’m going to have to pay stupid amounts on Discogs, etc. for it.

“Soon listening to music on tape might be “cool” and then people might jack in their wax and start buying tapes again, who knows?”

JC: In a society where the media landscape is constantly changing, do you believe vinyl will ever be abandoned for a wholly digital music market? Would that convince you to purchase more digital releases?

JH: I think the mainstream media is already 100% vinyl with most major releases never seeing a vinyl release. Or in limited numbers, anyway. For me, as long as there is vinyl to buy (new or old) I will continue to do so and definitely buy less digital releases. As someone with an ounce of tech savviness, I don’t struggle to turn my vinyl into digital, so I don’t really see the point in buying a release in both digital and physical formats unless the digital format comes free.

JC: This year vinyl sales have soared to an 18-year high. At the rate that labels are converting to releasing vinyl records, do you think this trend will continue to increase?

JH: I think it will continue to increase but I can’t really predict how long it will increase for. Owning and playing records is “cool” at the moment but soon listening to music on tape might be “cool” and then people might jack in their wax and start buying tapes again, who knows?

CD or vinyl doesn’t really make a difference in the end. I don’t think it’s detrimental that CDJs are more common now… vinyl is expensive and CDs and pen drives do the job

JC: So in terms of general consumption, what opportunities do you think these music formats bring respectively?

JH: Digital music is obviously much easier to distribute, legally and otherwise, so it’s easier for an artist/label to get the “product” on to the market making it easier to become “popular”. Vinyl, however, is a much more collectible thing owing to its inherited limited nature and tangibility, so whilst an independently released record might not become popular it will be listened to by active listeners.

JC: More people are using CD and mp3 files to mix with in venues now and many would argue there’s a prominent decrease in sound quality. Do you think the introductions of new musical media has become a notable threat to DJs nationwide? Do you have trouble finding places to play sets at all due to your preferred music medium?

JH: I don’t much care for format snobbery - if people want to play on CDJs then that’s fine with me! I play on CDJs in clubs more often than Technics [turntables], simply because most clubs these days don’t have a pair anymore and if they do then they’re very poorly looked after. I do have trouble playing records in clubs in that case, but any DJ should be able to show up and play with what’s there in my opinion. To be honest, most of the clubs I’ve played in have shit sound systems anyway, so CD or vinyl doesn’t really make a difference in the end. I don’t think it’s necessarily detrimental that CDJs are more common now, vinyl is expensive and heavy and CDs and pen drives do the job, so why not?

James Henderson also posts his own music on Soundcloud — a website that doubles as a platform for independent musicians to show their music to the public internationally — under the name Narm. Henderson’s remixes and produced music can be visited here.


Digital Files: The Takeover of the Impalpable Music Medium

In terms of the development of the media landscape, digital music has brought both vast opportunities and dire consequences — whilst many musicians are now able to share their music over means of the Internet with next to no boundaries, methods have been found to “rip” (make a digital copy of) music straight from CDs and vinyl records and distribute them online via peer-to-peer services (or p2p for short)… for free.

The introduction of mp3 players and iPods have enabled music fans to listen to their favourite music anywhere they wish (although U2 disregarded everyone’s preferences by leaving their latest album on near enough every iPhone — with no initial option to delete it); songs can even be downloaded straight from YouTube with sneaky website tools, rendering tangible formats of music media useless to a large portion of frequent music consumers.

In a survey carried out by myself, I asked fifty people questions concerning their preferred music format. After viewing the results, the responses were far from surprising.

A pie chart displaying the results from one of my survey’s questions.

Almost half of the people that took part voted digital music as their most preferred format. Leaving a comment box at the bottom of the survey asking said people to explain why, the responses covered a large range of reasons for choosing digital music.

“As much as I would love to buy music on CD, it’s really expensive so I buy mp3s instead.”
“It’s so much easier to use a docking station around the house or plug your iPod into your car as you drive… sorry, CD and vinyl!”

For the average illegally downloading music consumer, these explanations are perfectly normal, and the ability to grab whichever albums you wish from online is a privilege to cherish. However, this has naturally had a prominently negative effect on the fates of both record companies and its accompanying musicians alike.

Albums can potentially sell poorly, perhaps causing a musician or group to be cut from their record label altogether, and the labels themselves are also suffering from the nearly nonexistent profit. Furthermore, albums can “leak” online — an eager fan, for instance, can come across a copy of an album before its release date and distribute it to countless peers over networks, sometimes ruining the anticipation of the artist’s fanbase completely.

In comparison to today’s independent musicians, where lucrativity is scarce, The Beatles — a musical group in a time where digital media ceased to exist — are still making ludicrous amounts of money, despite splitting up 44 years ago. The fact that tangible media decades ago was essentially compulsory to purchase in order to hear the album’s content demonstrates how musicians and their labels will have helped in contributing to the profits of the music industry.

In other music media’s defence, the sound quality of digital media is controversial, even to the present day. The sound quality of a CD or vinyl record is notorious for being infinitely clearer and crisper than that of an mp3 file. When copied from a tangible music format, the digital copy is, or can be, compressed to the point where particular aspects of a song cannot be heard.

A spectrogram showing the differences between CD quality (left) and digital quality of the same file. (Source: Roberto Zingales)

As can be seen above, the sound quality of the CD is much more vibrant — some audiophiles could argue you do indeed get what you pay for (albeit an unsurprisingly steep price, of course).

Furthermore, there are even notable differences between a vinyl record and a CD; the below video uses David Bowie’s Hunky Dory to paint a picture of how different both formats truly are in sound.

Following the above video, a particular question is raised: do music consumers care about the quality of their songs? If so, are they aware of the evidently clearer sound qualities of digital music’s ancestors?

Digital media has engulfed various other music platforms at such an alarming rate that it puts other formats of media at risk of becoming obsolete in the decades to arrive. Digital music sports the danger of becoming entirely digitalised in the near future — will this mark the death of the tangible music format?

In contrast, digital media has brought many opportunities to the typical independent musician — their tracks are able to be freely distributed to anyone, essentially anywhere. Moreover, this enables the consumer(s) to constructively criticise the music in question without taking the price paid into account.


Will the Media Landscape Continue to Change?

To this present day, media formats have changed drastically since the turn of the twentieth century. These changes are accompanied by opportunities and privileges for many people in the general public but are also accompanied by multiple problems — particularly for musicians and record labels/companies.

Could music ever become wholly digital, leading to the death of the tangible record? Or will music enthusiasts and fanatics alike continue to pour their own money into the industry to save the artists producing their favourite sounds?

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