If we could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements."--Edward Bellamy on happiness in the year 2000
The 19th-century essayist was not referring to CDs, DAT, digital downloads or any other music distribution system that we take for granted right now. Edward Bellamy was speaking to us from a time when there was no such thing as recorded music, the greatest single musical innovation of the 20th century.
Bellamy's fabled utopian fantasy, "Looking Backward," was published in 1887, the same year that the American Graphophone Co. began manufacturing primitive talking machines whose imagined uses went no further than dictation. In Rip van Winkle fashion, the book's narrator falls asleep for 113 years and wakes up in the year 2000. What Bellamy might find would boggle his mind--the strides music culture has made during this century have been astonishing.
Bellamy anticipated the retuning of the world after turn-of-the-century technologies made possible the preservation and dissemination of music. Before Thomas Edison, Emile Berliner and others began tinkering with those clumsy, sonically limited talking machines, music was transitory, gone as soon as its performance was completed. Now, it's with us forever and we are saturated with sound.
Between the Civil War and the early years of this century, the music business in America consisted mainly of sheet music and piano rolls, and the pianos and organs they were played on. While sheet music conferred immortality on composers in the same way books did for authors, it only captured composition, not interpretation or performance. Music's basic code, or operating instructions, was represented by sheet music and song books, but music-as-sound existed only in the memory of the few who experienced it live. And until the end of the 1800s, few people actually heard live music performed by professional musicians. Most music was performed by amateurs--at home, in churches, in saloons.
Sheet music also demanded musically literate consumers. The much larger listening public had no way of collecting music. By the early 1900s, however, that listening public was finally able to purchase inexpensive copies of performed music and song. Better yet, those recordings could be used at the owner's convenience--at any time, in any place, as often as desired. It was no longer necessary to be present at a specific performance to experience it.
The advent of recorded music totally changed the dynamics of exposure for musicians as well. They no longer had to travel to find an audience: Their recordings reached far more places than it would ever have been practical to tour. A single performance in a studio had an unending ripple of afterlives, crossing geographic and temporal borders in ways that Bellamy never imagined.
Little wonder that the phonograph became the leading entertainment medium of this century's first 30 years, until radio arrived and broke its monopoly on the public's attention. Radio would rule between 1930 and 1950, eventually giving way to television.
The advent of recorded music also helped lessen the dichotomy between high art and populist art, broadening forms of popular music as marginalized members of society--African Americans, European immigrants, people in rural communities--entered mainstream culture, not through the front door but through the common ear. Walt Whitman wasn't the only one to hear America singing.
This was particularly crucial to early black music styles--ragtime, jazz, blues--which affected the majority white culture in ways that have shaped and enriched the fabric of American popular music and culture (just as hip-hop does today). The broad dissemination of those black styles, along with folk and country, made our musical canvas richer, more diverse, and began the democratization of American music, and, in many ways, American society.
Recorded music also represented an important alternative to notation and sheet music. Much of popular music was rooted in an oral tradition whose essentials could not be written and therefore could not be accurately preserved. In the new collection "Sony Music 100: Soundtrack of a Century," historian Dan Morgenstern notes the key role recordings played in the growing popularity of jazz: "Individuality of instrumental sound and conception, spontaneity and rhythmic complexity--all characteristics that defy musical notation--could not have been as rapidly and widely disseminated."
Technological advances in recording and manufacturing music have driven both art and commerce over the last 100 years. Smart as he was, Thomas Edison didn't really hear the potential for music on his early machines. Perhaps because he was partially deaf, he could imagine them being used only for dictation and the readings of great works of literature by elegant elocutionists. At one point he dismissed his own machine as "a mere toy, with no commercial value."
For a while, Edison was right. While the idle rich were amused by expensive (and unreliable) phonographs that only they could afford, most of the machines were massive, coin-operated novelties found in such public places as hotels, saloons and train stations. And what people heard there was always of poor fidelity, limited by primitive acoustic recording technology--usually loud instruments (brass bands, banjos) or singers with strong, projective voices. And there was plenty of business skulduggery--and a series of financial disasters--to stifle technological advances.
It wasn't until Victrola introduced the first affordable home phonograph machines in 1906--and designed them to look like furniture--that the roots of today's massive music industry really took hold. With more machines, there were more recordings, which, thanks to improved manufacturing systems, were now mass produced. With a wider consumer base, there was more populist fare. The introduction of microphones and electrical recording in 1925 changed vocal techniques, allowing for much greater naturalism, humanizing the voice. Once an artist had to be the operatic Caruso; now he could be the crooner Crosby.
In the late '20s and early '30s, the concurrent arrival of radio and the Great Depression almost wiped out the record industry. Why pay for music when you could get it free (an argument now being played out on the Internet)? And movies were just discovering sound with "talkies." While Hollywood was suddenly able to vastly improve its product, the music industry made no corollary great leap forward until 1948, when Columbia introduced the long-playing album. Magnetic tape had made it possible to record longer compositions without interruption--a boon for classical and jazz musicians and fans--but it really wasn't until the arrival of the LP, and stereo, that the notion of recording as a permanent and important part of musical culture emerged.
No one thought in such highfalutin terms during the first half of the 1900s, but whether it was by accident, circumstance or vision, this has been the only century with an accurate soundtrack. Humble as it may have been, the phonograph forever changed the role, and the import, of music in society.