Music Has Not Always Been For Sale

Sounds obvious if you get to think about it. But we seldom realize it.

There was a time when the idea of charging a price for something as primal as water sounded preposterous. Yet there you are, Evian, Fiji, Perrier and such are a frequent sight at your local grocery store. And that is the thing with capitalism, it is insidious. It was not always there, still you cannot picture the world without it.

When a friend of mine suggested that I cover this topic, I instantly thought about a TV show — Little House On The Prairie. Yes, Little House On The Prairie. Set in the 19th century American West, this TV show was full of nice morals and utopic messages. If Charles Ingalls thought us something, was that the best things in life are free. Family, love, nature. But hey, the Ingalls liked to party too. On no-school-no-church nights, the pater familias Charles would pick up his violin, and the remaining Ingallses would dance as if there were no tomorrow. Way to go Charles!

Charles Ingalls portrayed the paradigm of a revenue-free life. More even so, of an everything-free life. He did live in a capitalistic world, but his was the spirit of the resistance.

These were the times before any music playing device was invented. The phonograph appeared in 1877, and became standard many years later. When it first appeared, it was also called gramophone — a word that became trademark only in 1887. In a way capitalism hit music full-force only in the early 20th century. The radio, as we know it, was inventend in 1880. This was the second milestone towards a modern world — a world where people could play music, any music, at home.

Even though it was possible to make a living out of music before the invention of home devices, the true commercial music era started with the aid of technology. Companies actually started producing and manufacturing records, first as a niche/luxury product and then on a massive scale. So, what were the first commercial uses exactly like?

As with the early days of videotapes — when they were mostly just rented, not purchased, by consumers — record companies set very high prices for records, but the owner of a “coin-slot” would then get to charge people each time they wanted to hear a song. These post Victorian jukeboxes were incredibly popular.

Let us take a moment just to imagine how groundbreaking it must have been for people at that time. Most of them may have never even fathom that it was possible to listen to music, in a way other than live. Back in the day, families could enjoy music in their very living rooms only if they happened to own a piano. But now technology made it possible for the poor to get a glimpse of art, that is, if they could spare a dime. Or a nickel.

It is true, the first gramophones and records were incredibly expensive. But the invention of the gramophone brought music closer to people, at least in time. Remember, those were the post Industrial Revolution times. Mass production was now the way things got done, and producing a zillion units per minute really cheapened the costs the industries had to face. The first gramophones were beautifully hand crafted, but quickly technology made it possible to assemble the same high quality units inside the factories. In time, gramophones became more and more affordable.

Europe and the ascending world power, the United States, were head over heels in love with this new technology. In the then nascent spirit of capitalism, modern societies were eager to fill their households with every new invention there was. This is the seed what we would later acknowledge as ‘the American Dream’: the car, the house, the smiling wife whose life was made much easier by the acquisition of marvelous gadgets such as the dishwasher, the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner (kids not included).

But let’s go back to the 1890s. The record was a very successful invention and, in time, almost everybody had access to it. However, this is very curious — live bands, not records, kept on playing at parties for almost seven decades. Maybe with the exception of brothels and speakeasies, but that has to do with the ‘secretive’ nature of said establishments. Imagine a jazz band entering the building, carrying bass guitars and drums. That would have looked a tad suspicious, wouldn’t it?

With the advent of radio and radio sets, live bands did not lose relevance either. Live orchestras performed on what we now would call ‘the prime time’, a practice that was only disrupted by the invention of television. Maybe video killed the radio star, but the recorded material did not replace ‘the real thing’. At least not entirely.

And this is where we bump into a very peculiar paradox. In the beginning, records were so expensive that it was actually cheaper to listen to a live performance than to own a copy. Isn’t it bananas? Well, not quite.

Last year, when Rebel Heart was released in my country, I sprinted to the nearest store to get a copy because MADONNA IS MY RELIGION. Facts aside, little did I expect that it would be the most expensive item in the store: 500 Argentinian Pesos — about 42 American Dollars at that time. That is not only an obscene amount of money here, but also three quarters of what I paid to see the very Madonna performing live the year before. This might well be another reason why record stores are disappearing. I know many people who just stopped buying records altogether, because they know the artist will be performing in town sooner or later. And they would rather see ‘the real thing’.

Technology was expensive back then, because it was new. So now it is expensive, why, because it is obsolete? That does not make sense, from a ‘philosophical’ point of view. It does not add up, either. Going back to Rebel Heart, I ended up buying the album from an overseas retailer for 15 Dollars. And wait, there is more lunacy. I pulled the iTunes page and checked how much the digital version is: as of today, 11.99. How come a physical record, made of plastic, paper and such, which was also packed, shipped, carried and distributed by people — how come this tangible object is only 3.01 bucks less than its digital version?!

What I am trying to say is that the record industry soared when records were sold at a sensible price. The digital format promised to be cheaper than physical records, but it is still not that affordable. There is no denying that artists should get properly rewarded for what they do, and I would not raise any objection if 10 out of those 11.99 went straight to Madonna’s purse. Thing is, they do not. And it gets much worse when it comes to indie artists.

Should we expect a future where, once again, going to concerts will be more affordable than buying a compact disk? Will we still be able to own any music, any at all? Or will it all just be ‘Radio This’, ‘Play That’ and ‘SpotySuch’? Maybe none of the above. Maybe it will be something entirely different.

You never know with technology.