How the Phonograph Changed Music Forever


via Smithsonian magazine

by Clive Thompson

These days music is increasingly free—in just about every sense of the word.

Right now, if you decided you wanted to hear, say, “Uptown Funk,” you could be listening to it in seconds. It’s up free on YouTube, streamable on Spotify or buyable for about two bucks on iTunes. The days of scavenging in record stores and slowly, expensively building a music library are over. It’s also become easier than ever to make music. Every Mac ships with a copy of GarageBand, software powerful enough to let anyone record an album.

Are these trends a good thing—for musicians, for us, for the world of audible art?

Now the arguments begin. Some cultural critics say our new world has liberated music, creating listeners with broader taste than ever before. Others worry that finding music is too frictionless, and that without having to scrimp and save to buy an album, we care less about music: No pain, no gain. “If you own all the music ever recorded in the entire history of the world,” asked the novelist Nick Hornby in a column for Billboard, “then who are you?”

Artists fight over digital music too. Many say it impoverishes them, as the relatively fat royalties of radio and CD give way to laughably tiny micropayments from streaming companies, where a band might get mere thousandths of a penny from their label when a fan streams its song. Other artists disagree, arguing that giving away your music for free online makes it easier to build a global fan base avid for actually giving you money.

A confusing time, to be sure. But it’s certainly no more confusing than the upheaval that greeted a much older music technology: the phonograph. Back in the 19th century, it caused fights and joy too—as it forever transformed the face of music.

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