1880s/1950s – Let the music Play!
In 1877, Thomas Edison came out to save us, poor humans waiting desperately a musical recording player, inventing the Phonograph. Orange cylinder you may notice in the picture was the CD of the time, the first music media ever! Speaking about medias, the very first player using disks as we knew was the Gramophone which was released in 1889.
We will benefit from this historical reminder to highlight one other forgotten key item that played a massive role in record sales over many years: the music player. Regardless of the era, regardless of the format, the music industry has always been limited by the number of effective music players in the market. All crisis periods of the music industry, from the years 50 to the early 80 collapse to mid-2000 apocalypse, have always been the consequence of a difficult transition from one format to another, and thus, from a music player to another.
Cylinders limits were catastrophic, so were initial disks physical limitations. Early ones had a playing time of a mere 2 minutes and were broken after only a few plays. Music market at the time was consequently limited to songs only, the album concept wasn’t existing.
Over 20 years after its release, in 1910, Gramophone eventually passed Phonograph in terms of sales, which highlights how much of a struggle transition of music players have ever been. By 1920, the Gramophone was largely dominant over its competitors. Record sales were already pretty healthy, the first ones passing the million mark happened in early 1900. As amazing as it may seem today, during year 1921 the US record sales topped the 100 million milestone.
A problem quickly emerged yet, the lack of norm. Back then, disks had not pre-defined sizes nor speed. To solve the issue, majors started to focus on the now iconic 78 RPM record, that became the industry standard in 1925.
The main concern was to increase the length of the record that still hadn’t pass the 4 minutes limit. Despite this limitation, Billboard published the first Top Album chart in March 1945. Again, the question coming out is how was it possible? Answer is rather easy: the first albums ever issued on the market were barely boxes containing a set of singles.
In 1948, while 350 million singles were sold the previous year in the US, the first proper album entered the market. This was the utterly cult LP (Long Playing), that some of us knew under the name of 33 1/3 RPM.
In parallel of technical evolutions, the recording brought a new actor in the industry: the singer. Majors started to hire several of them. Functions were still very segregated yet. The first actors were composers, the most famous of them being George Gershwin. Once the composer completed its work, the major used to send it to all singers under contract to record the new song, one after the other. This is how during 40s editions of the Billboard, the Top Singles was still independent from the artist as each song was sung and released by various groups of musicians and artists. Among all those voices that were recording the same songs, one stood out over all others: Frank Sinatra. No question why he got nicknamed The Voice.
As we move over years, we start noticing a very interesting point: the inherent relation between the recording and the media ; as the later evolves, the former changes as well. Quite logically, the strong emergence of the album format – from 1 million sold in 1948 to 32 million in 1955 – pushed Capitol, ancestor of Universal, to adjust recordings. The musical concept of the album was created in 1955. It could have been no other than Frank Sinatra with the unique album Songs For Young Lovers. This was the very first time an album wasn’t a compilation of standalone songs but an overall concept with songs consistent from each other. Sinatra was still strictly a singer yet, he wasn’t involved in composition or lyrics.
We notice how the music industry lived for 78 years being the advent of the album. This fact is the perfect illustration of what came anew much later: downloads completed the ring by coming back massively to a single song point of view.