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

First, lurking in the background in the competition between the ‘old’ telegraph and ‘new’ telephone industries that gave rise to the music industry was the rapacious robber baron, Jay Gould who led a seven year attempt to take over Western Union between 1874 and 1881. He accomplished that goal in 1881. There were innovators and speculators throughout the ‘media industries’ during this period and if Edison, Gray, Bell and Berlinger epitomized the innovators of their time, no one better cut a better figure of the robber baron in the Gilded Age than Jay Gould.

As Richard R. John observes Network Nation, Western Union’s bid to avoid the hostile take-over mounted by Gould and to meet the rising threat of the Bell Telephone Company played out on the frontiers of technological innovation. The results, as we saw above, led to an impressive doubling of the speed of the ‘old’ telegraph, was fundamental to the development of the telephone, and the birthplace of the phonograph and recorded music industries (see here for my review of Network Nation).

Historians often point to Western Union’s decline of an offer to buy all of Bell’s telephone patents for $100,000 in 1876 as proof of Western Union’s status as a stodgy monopolist adverse to technological progress. However, John’s remarkable account turns prevailing wisdom on its head by explaining that Orton initially spurned Bell only because he was backing Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison in a far bigger struggle over the telegraph and telephone industries. Far from shying away from the telephone business, Western Union rushed headlong into it.

In fact, by late 1879, Western Union’s municipal telephone exchanges were competing head-to-head with, and even growing faster than, those of the National Bell Telephone Company in several major U.S. cities as well as Montreal, Canada. The competition was set aside, however, in favour of a deal signed in November 1879 between the two companies intended to prevent ‘ruinous competition’ from driving both of them into the ground and into the waiting arms of Jay Gould. Consequently, all of Western Union’s telephone patents and municipal exchanges were given to Bell in return for annual royalties and mutual pledges to stay out of one another’s turf.

Alas, it was all for not. Western Union was commandeered by Gould in 1881 (in addition to Network Nation, also see here). Herein, then, lay the origins of the separation of the telegraph and telephone industries, while the music business evolved out of the complex and competitive interactions between each of those two media — despite much nonsense to the contrary in our time that see ‘media convergence’ as a consequence of technological forces, especially digitization.

The intertwined history of network infrastucture technologies and music, or between the medium and the message, was also evident in another way. Early telephone subscribers in cities around the world not only got to talk to one another by way of the telephone but to receive a surprisingly broad range of services — and music among them — broadcast over the telephone network.

Indeed, sermons, songs and speeches were a staple of telephone subscriptions from the get-go. As a journalist for the Ottawa Citizen related to his readers in 1881

“Pursuant to a invitation from  . . . the Bell Telephone Company, a Citizen reporter found himself, with a number of ladies and gentlemen, . . . enjoying a concert by telephone. . . .  A telephone-transmitter had been placed upon the front of the Grand Opera House stage, and connected by wire with the Telephone Exchange. A number of telephone receivers were then attached at convenient intervals . . . , each one of the audience being furnished with a telephone and programme of the concert. . . . If any doubts existed as to the capabilities of the telephone, last nights test has almost completely dissipated them.”

And the same experience was replicated from Boston to Budapest, and London and Paris, for decades to come as historians such as Asa Briggs, Ithiel de Sola Pool and my own work tells us. Indeed, in London, for five pounds a year, subscribers got “music . . . on demand”, but without the capability of selecting particular songs, sermons or speeches from the steady stream of stuff flowing over the network. For an additional fee of 3 pounds, subscribers got to choose their own music, theatre, church and other programs.

There is much more than this, and indeed one might go backwards further in time to the 1860s when a German engineer, Johann Philipp Reiss sent sound and songs over wires at a distance. In other words ‘tele’ (at a distance) and phone (sound) has married wires and music from the start.

Returning to the companies that Edison, Bell and Berliner created, we can see that they used complex licensing agreements that, in essence, separated the innovators from the marketers. Licensing agreements also established ‘local operating companies’ around the world, from Boston, to Berlin and Bombay. In other words, technology and business practices co-evolved in the music and telephone business. These arrangements also subsequently became the basis of the licensing arrangements that Marconi used to set up branches for his wireless (radio) company around the world — i.e. Marconi Company of America, in Russia, Canada, Germany, Italy, China, etc.

Those arrangements, in turn, underpinned the coordinated control of the radio industry and the Marconi company’s dominant place in it, just as had been the case in the music business under Edison, Berliner and successors to Bell. Integration and dispersal of operations, thus, were but two sides of the coin of control in the media and cultural industries from an early stage of their development.

These, of course, are also the business arrangements that persisted as the basis of the music industry into the 20th century and which remain with us in the 21st century. Overall, the ‘thick history’ of the media industries shows that different aspects of the network infrastructure, music and other media industries have been fused at the hip since electricity, culture and commerce were conjoined over a century-and-a-half ago.

To be sure, those arrangements have been periodically scrambled and set atop new footings from time to time. And this is what is happening today as old models are disassembled and new ones erected out of both the building blocks of the past and new elements recently introduced. That this is bewildering and indeed a substantial challenge for existing players, laws and observers there is no doubt.

That it spells the deathknell of the music biz, or any other sector of the media industries, however, there is and should be an incredible amount of doubt. And even if it did mean that, the response to such prospects ought not necessarily cause us to shed a tear, or marshall the resources of government and law to prevent whatever may come from happening.

The last thing, however, that I think we should assume is that developments in the ‘digitally networked infrastructure’ of the 21st century will somehow turn around and devour the offspring that its predecessors did so much to create and sustain in the 19th and 20th centuries.


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