Home > Internet > Back to the Future: From the “Death” to the “Birth” of the Music Industries

Back to the Future: From the “Death” to the “Birth” of the Music Industries

Not only should we be circumspect of claims that the Internet, P2P networks and rampant piracy are leading to the demise of the music industry, we must remember that the music industry itself is the child of the ‘network infrastructure’ industries going back to the late-19th century.

As I noted in my last post, the “death of the music industries” only makes sense if we focus on just the ‘recorded music sales’ segment of the business rather than the “total music industry”: 1) recorded music sales; 2) online digital music sales (Internet, ringtones, etc.); 3) concerts and 4) publishing. I have provided the details for this argument in a previous post; my column for the Globe and Mail this week (May 17) will consider the specific case of Canada.

Here I want to make a different case: namely, that claims about the impending demise of the music industry is especially strange once we consider that network technologies gave rise to the music industry to begin with.  In fact, the music industry was the direct offspring of  ‘network infrastructure’ competition between the Western Union Telegraph Company and the Bell Telephone Company in the U.S. and Canada in the late-1870s and 1880s.

To be sure, there is more to this than just corporate rivalry over new technologies and markets. For instance, innovations in architecture — the use of iron girders, in particular — allowed music concerts halls to be built much bigger and on smaller tracts of land in crowded metropolitan cities such as London and New York in the latter part of the 19th century. More seats in bigger halls meant economies of scale. That meant cheaper tickets and bigger audiences. The expansion of the concert side of the business was, according to the historian Gerben Bakker, a key component in the ‘industrialization of entertainment”, and these processes were replicated throughout the world.

The ‘recorded music’ side of the business was ushered into being as an unintended outcome of “network infrastructure competition” between Western Union and the Bell Telephone Company in the United States. As Richard John notes in Network Nation, as part of this competitive rivalry, Western Union and the Bell Telephone Company threw vast sums of money at the leading technological geniuses of their time – Thomas Edison, Elisha Gray, Alexander Graham Bell and Emile Berliner.

The results produced several cutting-edge innovations that shaped the communication and entertainment industries into the 20th century: (1) quadraplex technology that doubled the speed of telegraphs, (2) the telephone, and (3) the phonograph.

Thus, in addition to their key role in the development of and competition between the telegraph and telephone, all of these figures, Bell, Edison and Berliner, except Gray, also became primary early movers behind the development of the phonograph and ‘recorded music’ industries as a direct result of unintended discoveries stemming from their role in the corporate rivalry between Western Union and the Bell Telephone Company between, roughly, 1876 and 1881.

Edison set up his Speaking Phonograph Company in 1877. Bell and the Bell Telephone Company patented their innovations for the graphophone and commercialized it through the creation of the Volta Graphaphone Co. in 1886, a company that, through mergers and acquisitions, would be transformed into Columbia Records over time.

Berlinger’s work at the Bell Telephone Company until 1883 led directly to his own patents for the gramaphone machine in 1887. He created the Gramaphone Company two years later, and set up international branches in London (the Gramaphone Company), Hanover, Germany (Deutsche Grammophon) and Montreal (Berliner Gram-o-Phone Company) over the next decade.

Not suprisingly, these three companies came to dominate the music industries that Edison, Bell, and Berliner had played such a primary role in creating. Remnants of Berliner’s Gramaphone companies are still with us today, having been progressively absorbed in one way or another into the operations of Universal, EMI and Sony over time.

In short, network infrastructure competition drove the development of the music industries.

There are several other important dimensions in these developments that need to be unpacked and discussed.

Cont’d on Page 2 . . . . . . . .

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