future of musicIf streaming loses its steam, many are wondering what would be the music listening experience of the future. Simply put, no one has thought that far and projecting to such lengths comes with some elements of guesswork and forecasting error. However, looking at the trend as it is today, chances are that music technology could advance so much such that within the next decade or so, people even won’t be listening to artists any more.

Maybe, listeners would just plug themselves into machines which would decode the tastes and preferences and then procedurally generate new music which would perfectly fit the preferences. Currently, there are experiments going on with procedural music and who knows, some may take it to the next step of customization.

Music targeted on the Tastes and Preferences

Authorities on the future of music listening have pointed out that irrespective of the number of tracks available on streaming services such as Beats Radio or Spotify, are decisions still has to be made by the listeners on what tracks to listen to. This simply means that listening to music today is relatively harder compared to radio which strangely is still popular among Americans. As a matter of fact, a survey done in 2013 showed that 91% of Americans listened to radio. The clear trend here is that lots of people are not just looking for music that matches their tastes, but also a listening experience that allows them to consume music without the troubles of creating playlists.

There has been an increased interest into zero-UI music players which ideally require no interaction whatsoever from you as the listener. Instead, these players leverage on the available information such as Facebook and Twitter posts, demographic information, music library information, the current activity the listener is taking part in, or details on the songs that were playing when the user skipped a track, turned up the volume or abandoned a listening session. Using this information, the player will then generate a highly targeted playlist that works with both the users taste as well as their context.

Zero-UI music Players

According to the pioneers of the zero-UI music playing system, there is a strong case because these systems would be a perfect fit for the majority of listeners. Spotify is also looking into this direction with recent reports indicating that they are looking into methodologies that would incorporate motion, heart rate, sleep patterns, and temperature to figure out what exactly the listener is doing and the sort of music they may want to hear. The seriousness of Spotify in this direction has been evidenced by their purchase of The Echo Nest which is an innovative musical intelligence platform powering lots of discovery engines and recommendation applications.

This is largely the era in which we are at where instead of listening to music through tapes, CDs, and MP3s, we are streaming thanks to the various streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify. Launched in the year 2005, Pandora has competently pioneered the style of music recommendation service which has grown to become one of the biggest trends in the contemporary music.

Pandora Pioneers Streaming

In 2000, the Music Genome Project was founded to help in capturing the essence of music at its most fundamental level. Pandora happens to be the custodian of this project and assigns up to 450 musical characteristics per song based on the genre. For instance, rap is assigned 350, rock and pop 150, jazz 400, while the other genres including classical are assigned up to 450. The characteristics assigned include aspects such as hard rock roots, mixed minor and major key tonality, unique instrumentation, dirty organ riff, epic buildup/breakdown, subtle use of strings, groove-based composition, melodic songwriting, tonal harmony, highly synthetic sonority and everything else that you could possibly think of.

The characteristics are normally assigned by human analysts who at any one time are coding songs. The output for this human analytical team is about 10,000 songs per month. The information is then fed to an algorithm which permits the user the ability to listen to songs which resemble a given song, artist or album.

Availability of Music Globally

This technology has introduced hundreds of thousands or even millions of listeners to several bands across the world as well as opening up a wide range of previously unavailable listening experiences. Every system comes with its own criticisms and Pandora has received its fair share. The critics are of the opinion that the recommendation engine together with its degree of homogeneity, are not living up to the expectations of the 21st century.

Despite the criticism, the popularity of Pandora has increased immensely and in April, 2013, the service had 200 million users. Much of the revenue this service earns comes from the ads which are placed on the service and listeners hear in between songs. Pandora also offers an advert-free premium plan.

The rise to prominence of Pandora was not an easy feat; the service is meant to allow listeners to hear music from lots of artists without even buying a single album. As you know, in the music world, this can be controversial. Together with the other music streaming services, Pandora has faced constant battles over loyalties to artists.

spotify-1360002_640Today, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and iTune Radio are among the biggest online music streaming services in America. Artists are on the constant push to ensure their music is adequately rewarded over these platforms especially after a report came out that Pandora pays $0.0012 per play to record labels while artists get only $0.0002 per play. This simply means that a million plays only earn the artists $200.

A Win for Listening Experience

Online streaming has been criticized also for destroying the music industry by allowing listeners to access music for almost for free with the likes of Spotify only charging $10 a month for premium subscriptions. Album sales are tanking and CDs are slowly exiting the scene. YouTube is also coming into the scene and artists like Jay-Z have launched their own streaming services.

Listeners are the biggest gainers of the online streaming services because they can access lots of music within a few seconds and this is extremely appealing to a large variety of listeners from the most committed to the casual. According to statistics, online streaming has greatly reduced music piracy by a whopping 80%.

The fact that the online streaming service doesn’t require you to have terabytes of hard drive space in order to store your music, but rather you can stream directly from the cl9ud and download only a handful of albums is a good thing.

apple-151070_640The emergence of MP3s can be traced back in 1982 when Karlheinz Brandenburg was a PhD student at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg studying electrical engineering. It was as this great institution that his thesis adviser posed a challenge to him to find a way through which music could be transmitted over digital phone lines.

In 1986, the progress on the project became more tangible when advanced technology was used to separate sounds into three layers or sections. Each layer had the capacity to either be saved or discarded depending on its role and overall importance on sound. Brandenburg together with his colleagues leveraged on a phenomenon known as auditory masking to enable them compress the size of the file on which the music was recorded.

Auditory Masking

Simply explained, auditory masking is exactly what happens when the human ear is incapable of hearing certain sounds. Sounds with lower frequencies can effectively mask other sounds which mean the obscured sounds can then be discarded from the particular recording without any noticeable loss in sound quality. The ability to obscure sounds and later discarding them gave rise to the possibility of encoding files with decreased bitrates which in turn resulted in smaller files that could retain unacceptable amount of the initial sound quality.

The Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) was a group charged with the responsibility of creating worldwide standards in audio recording. This group was created by the International Standards Organization abbreviated as ISO in 1988. The standard created by MPEG included three layers; Layer I, II and III. Layer III gave the highest sound quality at the lowest bitrates.

Low Fidelity Recordings and Loss of Information

Though work on digital encoding continued, there were problems at some point because voices were being recorded in very low fidelity. Further experimentations continued with the psychoacoustic models which were finalized in 1991 when MPEG-1 Audio Layer III was developed. It was later discovered that MPEG-1 Audio Layer III was a lossy audio data compression format which lost some information each time the digital file is uncompressed and then recompressed. The compression algorithms employed by MP3 take advantage of the limitations in human hearing to discard sounds that were not well perceived by the human ear thus resulting in very small music files.

Advances in the compression technology led to complex encoding algorithms which allowed for things such as variable and average bitrate encoding where complex parts of the audio are recorded at relatively higher bitrates compared to the less complex ones hence higher quality sound.

After it was realized that the new format could be used over the internet, Brandenburg and MEPG decided to have the .MP3 file extension in 1995. At about the same time, the cost of MP3 decoding software fell thus making it affordable to a large majority of people. One of the common and widely downloaded decoding software was WinAmp which was partially free and partially paid for.

Peer to Peer Music Sharing

The rise of peer to peer music sharing gave rise to Napster, one of the most infamous companies of the internet age. Napster was a simple to use free peer to peer file sharing service which focused on MP3 sharing. By 2001, Napster had close to 25 million verified users. Napster recorded huge amounts of traffic largely from college networks. Napster was brought down in 2001 following lawsuits by Metallica, Dr. Dre, and the Recording Industry Association of America who accused the service of violating the Digital Media Copyright Act. Despite Napster shutting down, other peer to peer file sharing services such as Kazza, Scour Exchange, Madster, and LimeWire sprung up. BitTorrent is one of the file sharing service that exists up to today.

The listening of MP3 music was boosted by the proliferation of electronic gadgets including the MPMan, Audio Highway’s Listen Up MP3 Player, Creative Nomad Jukebox, and the Apple iPod which was released in 2001.

radioThe development of radio technology and that of airing music through radio did not happen at the same time. Radio technology came first at about the beginning of the 20th century while broadcasting of music through the airwaves came a little bit later. Even though the history of music radio was not as well documented and therefore a little bit murky, a college radio station in San Jones is said to have broadcasted music from 1912 to 1917. This was not on a daily basis but later daily broadcasting started. 

Due to security concerns during World War I and part of World War II, the US congress passed a motion to suspend all amateur radio broadcasts which meant a lot of stations went off air almost permanently. However, there is evident that 1XE of Medford Massachusetts began broadcasting music shortly after the war ended in 1919. In the following years, lots of radio stations sprung up and that meant more music in the airwaves.

The Entertainment Function of Radio

There was resistance to radio music broadcasts by people who strongly believed that radio was a channel to be used only for two way communication and not entertainment. The resistance was so strong that a New York station was ultimately shut down by a federal inspector.

The appearance of commercially licensed stations in the years leading to 1920 saw a general increase in acceptance of radio as an important entertainment and information channel. The first inaugural broadcast of presidential election results through radio was done through KDKA in October 1920. KDKA was a commercially licensed radio station based in Pittsburg. Shortly after, there was a massive explosion in the popularity of radio with 60% of American families reported to have purchased radio receivers between 1920 and 1930 while the number of families with radios doubled during the 30s thus ushering in the famous golden age of radio that lasted up to the 50s.

Radio Advertisements and Sponsored Music Programs

In addition to music, radio broadcasts included news, soap operas, weather reports, lectures, sports scores, voting results, political commentaries, comedy, and other informational stories. In 1922, the feature of music broadcasting took a different twist with the introduction of the first radio advertisement. It was paid for by AT&T. Before advertising on radio was accepted, companies used to sponsor musical programs, some of the famous ones including King Biscuit Time, Acousticon Hour, and Champion Spark Plug Hour. Classical music was oftentimes broadcast live which to some extent survives though on a very small scale today. The 1920s and 1930s also witnessed the rise in country music broadcast with lots of country shows gaining popularity over this period.

 

The Development of Popular Music

The radio is often credited with the development of popular music. The rise of the top 40 stations in the early years of the 1950s had a tremendous impact of music radio as we know it today. Because radio stations were allowed to run with less equipment, space, and staff, top 40 stations quickly became the norm. This was especially after higher-fidelity magnetic recording made it possible for prerecorded programs to be broadcast. Before then, radio shows were live broadcasts because there was no mechanism to capture prerecorded programs to give a better sound quality.

In the middle of the 20th century, another significant radio technology development took place with the invention of the transistor in 1947. The transistor was quickly integrated into radios thereby allowing for smaller and more portable radios instead of the large and stationary ones which were a common scene in the golden age of radio. The 1960s and 70s saw billions of transistor radios manufactured and this made portable music a reality.

Digital recording is not a new concept because it has been happening from as early as the 1960s. In the 1970s, the format of the CD was demonstrated by companies, but it was not until the 1980s that commercial compact discs came into the scene. This made it much easier for manufacturers to get into the production business because the format of the CD was standardized.

Laser versus Mechanical Data Reading

The predecessor of the CD, magnetic tape, had its data read mechanically with a sensor which was turning a physical or magnetic pattern into electrical signals. The use of laser technology to read the data on compact discs was thus regarded as a huge leap forward in the area of audio technology. The laser was bounced off the CD and the resulting reflections were read by a sensor which then transmitted an electrical signal.

The first popular music album to be encoded onto a CD was The Visitors released by ABBA in 1981. Quickly after the release of this album, followed Billy Joel’s 52nd Street and thereafter, lots of musical releases were done on a CD. In the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, compact discs were in huge demand because of their portability and class.

Error Correction in CDs

From the very early stages of compact disc development, error correction was built in as functionality. This is actually one of the factors that enhanced the popularities of CDs. The ability of a CD player to dampen the effect of a fingerprint or scratch was such a lauded development by consumers. Manufacturers then introduced skip protection into their players which enhanced the listening experience. Skip protection was done by storing a few seconds of music well ahead of time so that playback would continue uninterrupted even during a skip.

In the 1980s, the cost of CD players came down significantly and this gave a major boost to the popularity of CDs. A large number of artists went ahead to convert their back catalogues to the new digital format. Among the outstanding features of the compact disc that endeared it to their audience was the 60 minute playtime together with the high audio quality they offered. The resistance of CDs to interference by external particles or dust quickly made the CD the primary musical medium going into the next decade. Portable and home players were increasingly adopted by listeners.

Improvements to CD Format

CdUnlike the other preceding formats, the CD has largely remained unchanged over time. However, there have been some slight changes to the format although not major. In 1983, experiments were carried out with the aim of developing erasable discs. This is what paved the way for the rewritable compact discs (CD RW) which took the place of the CD-Rs (recordable discs). The cost of the recorders that were able to write on the CDs as well as the CD themselves fell quickly hence making the discs ubiquitous.

In the computer industry, CD ROMs (read only memory CDs) made a debut in 1985. These were later refined and developed into video CDs, photo CDs, DVDs, HDs, super video CDs, and Blu-Ray discs.

The Sony MiniDisc

Sony Mini DiscIn 1992, Sony went ahead to challenge the musical reign of CDs by introducing the MiniDiscs. These were magneto-optical storage media that combined the strengths of both optical CDs and magnetic tapes. By introducing the MiniDiscs, Sony hoped that their smaller size would significantly offer better skip resistance and transcend the utility of the CD. However, the MiniDisc suffered from lack of players and pre-recorded albums. The final nail on the coffin of MiniDiscs came with the fall in the prices of blank CDs and the emergence of MPS music players.

In 2011, Sony stopped the production of MiniDisc Walkman players and in 2013, the production of all other MiniDisc players were discontinued thereby totaling killing off the medium.

The Radio Corporation of America introduced a device in 1958 that changed the consumption of home music; the RCA tape cartridge. Before the tape cartridge came into the scene, people were using the magnetic tape which according to the experience of many was not a realistic option for home use. This is because magnetic tapes were used on reel to reel players which were relatively complicated for consumers compared to record players.

The RCA tape cartridge introduced the possibility of encoding 60 minutes of high quality audio for home listening. However, despite this breakthrough, these tapes disappeared from shelves by 1964 because their sales dipped as a result of hesitance on the part of hi-fi enthusiast and retailers to adopt this technology.

The 8-Track Tape

Screenshot 2016-06-27 at 1.43.08 PMLater, a number of competing systems came into the market in an attempt to gain dominance through magnetic tapes, but this was not possible up until 1964 when the 8-track tape was developed. This tape was an improvement of the 4-track tape done by Bill Lear of Lear Jet Corporation together with representatives from General Motors, Ford, Ampex, RCA, and Motorola. The 4-track tape was also an improvement of the 3-track model.

8-track players were then integrated in cars in the 60s and 70s making this format the most dominant of the day despite its 46 minute play time. Towards the end of the 60s, all cars manufactured by Ford had 8-track players fitted in them as an upgrade and this contributed significantly to the release of hundreds of tapes. The Lear tape dominated the market, but the 8-track tape still remained an iconic music storage method.

Compact Cassette Tapes

In the early 1970s, Phillips came up with compact cassette tapes which had a capacity to carry high fidelity musical content. These tapes rose to domination very fast with the demand in the automobile music market reaching record highs. They were small in size, an attribute that favored them because smaller tape decks in homes and cars were preferred to the large ones. Even solders fighting in Vietnam grow fond of these tape decks because of their size and portability.

When manufacturers started making smaller and more portable tape decks, he Phillips cassette had its place in music cemented. Portable stereos became a common scene as people found them more feasible than those that were in existence during the times when the 8-track was the standard format.

The Impact of the Walkman

In 1979, Sony came up with the Walkman which is considered an innovation more important than the cassette. These gadgets which were in essence tiny portable stereo tape players deepened the acceptance of tapes among the music listening public. They brought a personal touch to music. Originally released as the Stowaway in the UK, the Sound-About in the US and the Freestyle in Sweden, the Walkman changed how people consumed music. They were no longer tied to large home record players or portable tape decks, but rather listeners could easily carry their music along with them irrespective of where they went. Since the first Walkman came with two headphone jacks, you could enjoy music with a friend.

For the first time, cassettes outsold vinyl in 1983 because of the popularity of the Walkman and other devices similar to it that had been developed by manufacturers. With continuous innovation, AM/FM radios came into the scene as well as rechargeable batteries, bass boost, and auto reverse all of which enhanced the utility of the Walkman. To prove that the Walkman name was indeed an iconic development, it is still in use on a range of devices today amongst them cassette players, CD players, and video MP3 players.

Edison and the PhonographPrior to 1877 and in fact for a larger part of the 19th century, music listeners could only catch their favorite songs in a concert hall or in local joints when someone else was playing them. Because of the massive role music has played in human culture, it is almost impracticable for people to distance themselves from it. Research indicates that music may have emerged some 30,000 to 60,000 years ago and since then, man has been refining the art making the tunes beautiful through improved human talent and instruments. In 1877, something revolutionary happened in the consumption of music when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.
The Phonograph Cylinder
Edison’s invention was not the first attempt to record music onto physical media, but it was the successful one. The phonograph was the first machine to record music and play it back. The sounds to be recorded were carefully transmitted via a recording stylus which would then create indentations on a spherical phonograph cylinder. A playback stylus would then read the recording and have it played back through a diaphragm.
The phonograph cylinders compromised tinfoil carefully wrapped around a metal cylinder to help in the recording of sound. A decade later, a number of engineers and researchers amongst them Alexander Graham Bell came up with a phonograph cylinder that was made of cardboard covered in wax. The advantage with this cylinder is that the wax could be easily engraved with recordings.
Edison then created another cylinder that had wax all round it and could be shaved down if new sounds were to be recorded. This cylinder is what many consider to be the precursor to compact disc re-writables (CD RW). The wax used for the recording cylinders was hardened over time and this enhanced the capacity of the cylinders to handle a large number of playbacks.
The Development of Flat Discs
In the closing years of the 19th century, there was a transition from the phonograph cylinders to flat-disc records. The main advantage of the flat disc was that it could be mass produced, but when it came to audio fidelity, the cylinder was still superior. A master stamp was created and this allowed a number of records to be stamped within a short period of time unlike the phonograph cylinder which had to be individually recorded a process that was relatively slow.
The first release of discs was in a 5 inch version, then 7 inch followed by 10 inch and in 1903, a 12 inch version was released. Around the same time, there was an increased interest in double sided records which also meant the demand and popularity of the cylinder was going down. On realizing this, Edison quickly switched to the Edison disc record which was a quarter inch thick shellac piece that was playable on Edison disc phonographs.

Screenshot 2016-06-27 at 1.41.52 PM
Replacement of Shellac with Vinyl
Shellac was then replaced with vinyl which was lighter and much more durable. This transition also saw the change of the industry standard from 17 revolutions per minute to 33 and a third revolution per minute which meant a large amount of music could be recorded on one disc. The 10 inch, 78 revolutions per minute disc which was popular at the time could only accommodate about 3 minutes of music making long songs to be split across a number of discs. These discs were then put in a sleeve which was bound into a book format hence the term record album. The 12 inch vinyl 33 revolution per minute disc could accommodate about 20 minutes of music on either side and this dominated the market.
Beyond this stage, the changes that were effected in the recordings of music were concentrated on the hardware used in turning the disc and relaying the sound such as direct drive turntables, better styli, balanced tone arms and many others. The innovations taking place today pushed by brands such as Stanton and Gemini are some of the products of past processes.