1880s/1950s – LET THE MUSIC PLAY!
The first record player
In 1877, Thomas Edison came out to save us, poor humans waiting desperately a musical recording player. He invented the Phonograph. The orange cylinder you can see in the picture was the CD of its time, the first music media ever! Speaking about media, 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 and the format, the number of effective music players in the market always limited the music industry. All crisis periods of the music industry have always been the consequence of a difficult transition from one format to another. Thus, from a music player to another.
Technical limits of cylinders were catastrophic, so were initial disks’ physical constraints. Early ones had a playing time of a mere 2 minutes and were broken after only a few plays. The music market at the time was consequently limited to songs only, the album concept wasn’t existing.
Records reach everyone’s home
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 early 1900s saw hits pass the million mark. As amazing as it may seem today, during year 1921 the US record sales topped the 100 million units milestone.
A problem quickly emerged yet, the lack of norm. Back then, disks had no pre-defined size nor speed. To solve the issue, majors started to focus on the now iconic 78 RPM record. It became the standard of the industry in 1925.
The first popular singers
The main concern was to increase the length of the record that still hadn’t pass the 4 minutes limit. Despite this issue, Billboard published the first Top Album chart in March 1945. Again, the question coming out is how was it possible? The answer is rather easy: the first albums ever issued on the market were barely boxes containing a set of several singles.
In 1948, while 350 million singles were sold during 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 to 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 his work, the major used to send it to all singers under contract. Then they all recorded the new song. This is how during the 40s editions of the Billboard, the Top Singles was still independent from the artist. Various groups of musicians and artists recorded and released the same songs. Among all those voices, one stood out over all others: Frank Sinatra. No question why he got nicknamed The Voice.
From singles to albums
As we move over years, we start noticing a very interesting point: the inherent relation between the recording and the media. As the latter evolves, the former changes as well. Quite logically, Capitol, ancestor of Universal, adjusted their way of recording due to the strong emergence of the album format. In the US, the format grew from 1 million units sold in 1948 to 32 million in 1955. 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. Instead, it was an overall concept with songs consistent with 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 before the advent of the album. This fact is the perfect illustration of what came anew much later. Downloads completed the loop by setting back an industry massively axed towards singles.