The way that people consume music has changed drastically in its history, and that is all due to advances in technology over several centuries. Music distribution wasn’t always what it looks like today, with independent artists having all kinds of options for platforms to release their music through. The options for musicians used to be extremely limited, and not always even recorded. The history of music distribution takes us through changing traditions among musicians as well as the business practices associated with music distribution, which have not always been the best or most honest practices. This is important because it can help musicians, producers and songwriters understand how this industry has evolved, what its roots are and how to move forward in the modern world as we continue to see developmental changes in the way that digital media is consumed, shared and how it makes money. So, if you’re curious to learn more about how music distribution has evolved over the years, then keep reading to learn more!
The Printing Press and Sheet Music
The first historical stop on our journey through music distribution starts with something you might not associate with music at all: the invention of the printing press. The invention of this device dates back to the 15th century, and allowed things like books, papers, documents and most importantly for our discussion, sheet music to be printed and mass distributed. Before the days of recorded music, this was the only way to get your songs or pieces to other people. This meant that if you wanted to listen to a piece of music outside of a concert hall, one had to have some musical capabilities to read the sheet music and play it to be able to hear the piece themselves. Sheet music is still widely used as a universal language for musicians to learn music quickly and efficiently, but it is no longer the primary method of distribution.
The First Recordings
Fast forward to the 17th century and we have the invention of the microphone and parlophone by the one and only Thomas Edison. Initially, these early recordings were pressed onto a wax cylinder which eventually turned into the vinyl disc. These early recordings are rudimentary, and you can easily hear them by searching on YouTube to see just how scratchy and unclear the sound is to our digitally trained ears, but at the time this was revolutionary. And not just for music, this meant that speeches could be recorded and also gave way for the invention of radio. The microphone provided recording capabilities, but more importantly it created sound reproduction capabilities that would be soon adapted by radio stations for broadcasting music to the masses. Defintely something that paved the way into custom made songs
We’re skipping over a few steps here to get to the good stuff, but CDs were one of the biggest changes to the personal music market. With tapes and home vinyl players, music in the home became a staple for most modern households. However, it still wasn’t portable. The CD and CD player changed that entirely. Now, with CDs, these pieces of media were much more portable than ever by being thinner and less clunky than 8-track or cassette tapes. The CD also makes way for a new audio format, the mp3, which allowed for smaller file sizes and therefore allowed consumers to carry hours upon hours of music on their person at any given time.
CDs were great for a while, but with music being digitized into compact mp3 files, it was only a matter of time before the digital market utilized this technology to do away with physical formats entirely. Soon, the first online music database was born, called Napster. Napster infamously has contributed to the consumer devaluing of music as a product, offering streams of music for fractions of the cost of buying a CD. Today, the digital streaming platform dominates the marketplace and is the primary way that most individuals listen to music. Interestingly, there has simultaneously been an uptick in the popularity of vinyl in recent decades, suggesting that there still is a market for physical media, albeit just a corner of the marketplace. This also meant that record labels had to reconfigure the way they do business.
Digital music distribution today allows for a unique change in the way people get their music out there. As per the website EarthWeb, these days independent artists no longer need the help of major record labels to get their stuff out there.
With music distribution services, artists can easily get their music on top streaming stores such as Apple Music and Spotify without the help of a label. However, it’s always still helpful to have some marketing power behind you, so labels are not quite obsolete yet. We hope you enjoyed this brief overview of the history of music distribution!