A Brief History of Musical Disruption

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The music industry is certainly navigating though interesting times, but are these the most disruptive of times?

Shifting from discs to digital is no small matter, though a stroll through history reveals some seriously seismic shifts – potentially on a grander scale than what we’re currently experiencing.

There’s no question that the physical music format has been ‘disrupted’ at least a handful of times since the gramophone first appeared.  But moving from one playback mechanism to another is mostly small potatoes  – at least on the larger historical stage of musical disruption.  In fact, a closer look shows that the last time the fundamental economics and balance of power shifted so drastically was about 90 years ago.  That was when Tin Pan Alley, a music publishing powerhouse rich with sheet music sales, first felt threatened in the Roaring 20s.  Within a few decades, publishers were playing second fiddle to the recording industry.

This was a drastic shift.  For starters, the fundamental way that people consumed music changed with the radio and the gramophone.  Previously, having music in the household required an investment in a piano and then sheet music – that is, if you could afford it.

This next part may sound familiar.  Although Tin Pan Alley saw this disruption occur, they didn’t realize the grave threat and didn’t make any significant changes until it was too late.  By the end of the Great Depression, LP manufacturers were on their way to displacing centuries of publishing control and establishing their hegemony.   This would remain unchallenged until the early 21st century.

Over the ensuing decades, one format bled into another.  But these shifts were less dramatic: each physical format transition added something new in terms of quality and portability, but preserved two main elements of consumption.  The first was that the consumer was typically forced into buying a physical bundle.  And once purchased, the buyer couldn’t pirate beyond an immediate physical network of people.

Of course, that’s all history now.  But if history is any guide, massive transitions take time.  Recorded music first appeared in the 1890s, yet didn’t fully displace Tin Pan Alley until almost 1950.  Looks like here in 2010, digital distribution is merely entering its adolescence.

Written with Anthony Accardo.  Graphics by Mike Niemczyk.