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Twilight of the recording industry

July 13, 2012

One of the things I appreciate about being Canadian is the never-ending source of information and entertainment I get from CBC Radio. This past weekend, I was listening to The Sunday Edition, and during the last hour the show ran the first of a five-part series, Twilight of the Gods, looking at the history of recorded music. I’m a music geek anyway (this should be obvious), so I had to tune in.

CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition is now playing a five-part series on the history of recording.

The introductory episode, “The Dawn,” opens with series host Robert Harris visiting the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J., site of Edison’s home and lab. Edison’s invention of the phonograph didn’t turn out as he’d envisioned. He viewed the technology as something between the telephone and telegraph, and hoped to create a kind of early dictation device to record sounds onto wax cylinders. However, musical applications were where the future lay.

The documentary talks about the cultural shift that resulted from the phonograph, and later the gramophone. There was a democratizing aspect to all this, as music could now be heard outside of concert halls. However, some at the time had a different point of view over the fact that listening to music could now be an entirely solitary act inside one’s own home instead of something in the public realm.

There were those who felt taking music exclusively out of performance venues was somehow turning it into another commodity, something that could be bought and sold like other art forms such as painting or books, something that could now be possessed.

Many times I’ve wondered about the extent to which the commodification of music has affected the numbers of people that take up an instrument. No longer reliant on the piano in the living room or a guitar by the campfire for their enjoyment, many people now experience music passively.

The second half of “The Dawn” examines the development of recording as a commercial enterprise. Edison, it turns out, had little business sense when it came to recordings until it was something he could no longer ignore, as people had started playing record to customers who’d shell out a nickel for the privilege of tuning in.

Later, another inventor, Emile Berliner, working with Edison ended up creating disks as kind of an afterthought, but these turned out to be more durable products than Edison’s old cylinders and could be mass-produced more easily, giving the world something far closer to the record as we know it.

However, it took another man later working for Berliner to understand the real potential of these records as mass-market items. Eldridge Johnson devised a way to improve the sound and volume capacity of the records and also understood what the record-buying public wanted to hear, specifically stars such as Caruso. As the program makes clear, few remember Johnson’s name now, but any music lover will know his business, which became RCA Victor, and its famed mascot, the little dog Nipper.

I’m curious as to where the next episodes of Twilight of the Gods will take me. True to CBC form, the show is ripe with endless clips of old recordings harkening back to the early days of recording.

As an endnote, I’ll point out that I missed some of the actual radio broadcast but was later able to hear the program in its entirety via the CBC website. It makes me wonder what Edison, Berliner or Johnson would’ve made of this brave new world of digital recording.

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From → Essays

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