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Music Tech and Unintended Consequences

Photo of Zach Fuller
by Zach Fuller

Recent discussions over how music will look in the app economy, with services such as TikTok effectively ‘meme-ing’ the concept of music and emphasising its social context, has led me to reflect on the second-order effects of technology on the arts - those unforeseen and often unpredictable consequences of a new technology that changes the way people create.

To this end, we consult history. The following story is from Jared Diamond’s notable work Guns, Germs and Steel, discussing Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph, which in hindsight arguably appears to be the genesis of the recorded music industry:

When Edison built his first phonograph in 1877, he published an article proposing ten uses to which his invention might be put. These were:

Letter writing, and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer Photographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part The teaching of elocution Music - the phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music The family record; preserving the sayings, the voices, and the last words of the dying members of the family, as of great men. Music boxes, toys, etc. A doll which may speak, sing, cry or laugh may be promised our children for the Christmas holidays ensuing Clocks, that should announce in speech the hour of the day, call you to lunch, send your lover home at ten, etc. The preservation of language by reproduction of our Washingtons, our Lincolns and our Gladstones. Educational purposes; such as preserving the instructions of a teacher so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment; or learn spelling lessons The perfection or advancement of the telephone’s art by the phonograph, making that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent records.

A few years later, owing to the initial lukewarm reception, Edison confided in his assistant that he believed the invention had no commercial value. He would later change his mind and ultimately did enter the business to sell phonographs, albeit not for the music but instead for use as office dictating machines. When astute entrepreneurs of the era created jukeboxes by arranging a phonograph to play popular music at the drop of a coin, Edison objected to this apparent debasement of his invention, which he believed detracted from the serious office use of his invention. Only after about 20 years did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music, opining that his experiences in commercialising innovation had taught him that, ‘people are willing to pay to be amused more than anything else’.

The story underlines a popular misconception with technology adoption: that innovation is top-down and flows from the will of the creator. True, Edison provided the invention, but it took iterations on the business model by the entrepreneurs who saw its appeal in the parlours of the day, which increased the demand and ultimately birthed the modern recorded music industry. This has knock-on effects for the creation of music publishing, mechanical rights collection, studios etc., all things that evaded Edison’s original conception. Similarly, when labels started using radio as a promotional channel, the three-minute pop song was created because it best fit with the emerging radio formats, with longer songs therefore often gaining less exposure. A few decades later, the album originally was cynically conceived as a way of bundling singles into a higher-margin product for music fans, before artists in the 60s began to use the format as a canvas for wider artistic expression.

The lesson from music commerce history is that while streaming is a far more logical extension of the smartphone era, comparable to Edison’s original phonograph, the services that will be built on top of the technology, like and now TikTok, are much harder to foresee, as will be the way artists utilise these tools going forward.

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Crispin Hunt
Great piece, but I thought the 3.5 minute pop song developed because that was the maximum recording time on one side of a 78rpm disc? Not because it fitted into radio programming. Indeed, recognising the commercial opportunities of the new technology, Puccini cannily wrote arias that could be unhurtfully cut into 3.5 minute segments.....the first pop star?