The Secret History of Technology and Pop Music
Learn more about the previous reports in this series.
This week's TechnoPop featured story:
Part Six: 'Triumph of the Amateurs'
(click to begin an interactive photo gallery on the story)
About every 20 years, says NPR's Rick Karr, "a new technology comes along and revolutionizes the sound of recorded music, or the economics of the record industry. In the past, those technologies have primarily affected recording studios and record pressing plants -- but the latest revolution is happening at home."
In homes, for example, like Elizabeth Sharp's Brooklyn loft apartment, where she records music in a six-by-eight-feet cubicle she calls "the Rock Closet." With cardboard and old futons soundproofing the walls, a drum kit, a stack of guitar amps, and an Apple Macintosh as a studio recorder, Sharp can record and mix song tracks for her band, Ill Ease.
Just 10 years ago, says Karr, even a studio like this would have cost $50,000 or more. Today, it can be had for the cost of a home computer and less than $1,000 of additional hardware and software.
Like Sharp, thousands of musicians around the world are taking advanyage of the cheap, powerful technology. Chicago recording engineer Steve Albini -- who's produced albums by Nirvana, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, among others -- has a name for what's happening: "The triumph of the amateurs." Albini dates the phenomenon from about 1980, when Japanese manufacturers started building four-track recording-studios-in-a-box that used cassette tapes. For around $2,000, they allowed musicians to record decent-sounding demos of their songs at home. In 1982, Bruce Springsteen used one to record his album Nebraska.
By the late 1980s, the price of portable cassette studios had fallen to as little as $200, so virtually every band "got the experience of recording in some fashion," says Albini. "That enabled the enormous growth of semiprofessional bands in the '80s …(and) from a cultural standpoint, I think that was a great and important development."
At the same time, desktop computers were accelerating the revolution. Digital sound recording systems, once costly and confined to professional studios, became affordable and widely used. Software company executive Dave Lebolt describes them as "like a word processor for sound. You see a waveform representation of the sound on the screen -- the little squiggly line that represents what the sound is -- and you can cut, copy or paste it to another location."
The technology is empowering people who aren't musicians in a traditional sense, and in the process is redefining the economics of the record industry. Miles Copeland -- who managed The Police, and today runs the independent Los Angeles label Ark 21 -- says labels traditionally advanced thousands of dollars to musicians who showed promise, so they could go into studios to record. Now, he doesn't have to: "I've had a lot of music brought in to me and offered to me for free or next to free that's super quality. And I say, you know what? I'm willing to take a shot on this because I'm not being roasted into spending fortunes in a studio and I can hear the thing finished."
Inventor and former session guitarist Roger Linn, who invented the first fully-programmable drum machine, takes a different view. Linn says technology gave birth to the music industry -- and now, it's destroying it. "Electronics at the beginning of the 20th Century enabled one person to sing in one place and have it reach many people and created this industry of people to be the gatekeepers and charge money and make money in it. But now the record companies don't really have the role of distribution so much anymore -- or at least conceivably, in the future -- because of the Internet." There'll be fewer professional musicians, he says, but more people making music - and the triumph of the amateurs will be complete.
Learn more about the triumph of the amateurs.
NPR cultural correspondent Rick Karr presents a six-part series on how technology has changed popular music, from the home piano to electronica. The series is heard Fridays beginning Sept. 20, 2002 on Morning Edition. For npr.org, Karr offers this essay outlining the series:
By Rick Karr
When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, he accidentally invented the music industry. The last thing on the inventor's mind was using his new device to record music. He figured there was a better market in dictation equipment that could record contracts and business letters. Recordings don't lie, he said.
In fact, he resisted music as the "killer app" for the new technology, until competitors proved there was a market for it -- a big one.
So big, in fact, that nobody who made or listened to music could ignore the phonograph and the industry it created. Songwriters shortened their compositions so they'd fit on one side of a 78 rpm record. Singers worked on their projection and enunciation so that the primitive recording technology would render their voices at least halfway decently. And fans got into more kinds of music than many had ever known even existed.
Everyone’s understanding of music changed completely. Piano sales fell. Music lovers spent less time getting together for hootenannies on the porch or jam sessions around a piano. They gathered around the horns of their Victrolas, leaning with their ears cocked like Victor's spokesdog, Nipper.
Since then, technological innovations have repeatedly altered the sound of popular music, and regularly changed the way listeners acquire it, listen to it, and share it with others. TechnoPop is the story of those changes.
New technologies make their mark on music in two basic ways: They alter the sound of pop -- what musicians can make and listeners can hear -- or they change the economics of recording and distributing music. For the past century, a new technology has changed the music industry every quarter century or so.
By the turn of the 20th century, for instance, the middle class had adopted phonographs as their preferred way of listening to music. In the mid-1920s, the advent of electrical recording resulted in clearer recordings than had ever been possible -- paving the way for Bing Crosby and other crooners to become the dominant vocalists in pop.
After World War II, three innovations -- tape recording; the long-playing, high fidelity record; and FM radio -- led to what Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman calls "The Big Bang": an unprecedented flowering of musical styles and sonic experimentation.
The changes continue today. For $500, aspiring musicians can turn a laptop computer into a recording studio. Just 20 years ago, similar equipment would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, the World Wide Web, file-sharing programs and e-mail have allowed musicians to distribute their tunes without any involvement from record companies, while fans have access to more music than ever before, much of it free.
While virtual hip-hop and bedroom rock haven't yet produced their first megastars, musicians and record producers say it won't be long before they do -- or before technology helps create a whole new genre of music.
Some experts believe the whole idea of popular music could end up changing into something altogether new. Pioneering synthesizer designer Roger Linn (who invented the first programmable drum machine that played realistic, digitally recorded drum sounds) suggests many music lovers will end up learning how to "play" the computer -- generating rhythms and melodies on their own computer-based "instruments," then networking online with friends for virtual jam sessions.
Maybe, Linn suggests, all music will be made that way, and we'll end up not too far from where we started: with groups of friends singing and playing around a high-tech, virtual version of the home piano.
Stories in this series:
(click on the links to begin an interactive photo gallery on each story)
Part One: The Original Hardware Upgrade
In many 19th-century homes, home entertainment technology hardware consisted of a piano, and a daughter to play it. The software was a piece of sheet music. By the turn of the 20th century, cutting-edge technologists were selling hardware known as the gramophone, and software called phonograph records. Songwriters changed the way they wrote, and listeners got turned on to an avant-garde music genre called jazz. Learn how a successful piano manufacturing firm in southeastern Indiana changed gears and ended up making pop history.
Listen to Rick Karr's report on Morning Edition, Sept. 20, 2002.
Part Two: Going Electric
By the mid 1920s, the technology of making records hadn't changed much since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. In order to literally "cut wax" in those studios, singers needed leather lungs and a lot of stamina, and musicians had to play really loud. When electricity came to the studio in 1926, it ushered in a new era of "hi-fi." Al Jolson and other belters with megaphones were out, Bing Crosby and other crooners with microphones were in -- and listeners were blown away by the new sounds.
Listen to Rick Karr's report on Morning Edition, Sept. 27, 2002.
Part Three: The Last Bad Note
Until the late 1940s -- even during the era of electrical recording -- making a record was an all-or-nothing proposition. If the trombonist flubbed a note in the second verse, you either scrapped the recording by literally breaking the record, or you just lived with the mistake. But an unlikely team made up of Nazi-era engineers, an American GI and Bing Crosby helped change all that. They introduced a new technology called "magnetic tape recording."
Listen to Rick Karr's report on Morning Edition, Oct. 4, 2002.
Part Four: The Long Version
At the moment when magnetic tape was revolutionizing the way music was recorded, two other innovations were radically changing the way listeners relate to music. The LP record allowed for better fidelity, stereo sound and relatively long songs. FM radio offered greater fidelity than AM radio, and it also let emerging music subcultures have a voice on the airwaves. The result was a flowering of musical culture like none before.
Listen to Rick Karr's report on Morning Edition, Oct. 11, 2002.
Part Five: The One-Man Band
Over the past six decades, new technologies have turned professional recording studios into places where musicians can create just about any sound they can imagine -- whether or not they actually have the skills to play those sounds on their instruments. Instead, musicians have come to "play" studio technology. The technology that makes this possible is known as multitracking: musicians record their parts side-by-side, then mix all of them together when they're done.
Listen to Rick Karr's report on Morning Edition, Oct. 18, 2002.
Part Six: The Triumph of the Amateurs
Just 15 years ago, a professional-quality recording studio that incorporated all of the technologies that have revolutionized music over the decades would have cost tens of thousands of dollars, or more. Today, anyone can make the same sounds on a simple home computer with a few hundred dollars of software. What's more, the Internet has made it possible for musicians to distribute their music for free. Some people call it the triumph of the amateurs -- the ultimate democratization of the means of production. Others say it's the end of pop music as we know it.
Listen to Rick Karr's report on Morning Edition, Oct. 25, 2002.