The last 60 years have seen the music business — the business of selling recorded sounds — birthed, boomed, reset and inverted half a dozen times or more. More often than not these sea changes are due to technological advances, usually having to do with new mediums for getting all these sounds to consumers. Here, we combed through Billboard’s publicly available archives for the coverage our 119-year-old magazine had around the introduction of the dominant formats of the 20th century.
Billboard’s “Retail Record Survey” of July, 1949 must first be acknowledged as an impressive accomplishment; this thing was a lot of work for the magazine’s staffers at the time, who mailed 3,453 questionnaires to dealers around the country — and then tabulated the results by hand. While the all of the survey’s results are interesting (indeed, most printed material from the period has that irreplaceable hearth-and-home allure), for this column we’re most interested in dealers’ responses to the questions about 45s and LPs, the latter which had been introduced the year before (well, more or less) and would, as all the formats we’ll visit in this column, reshape the record industry. A year after the survey, adoption of the 33 1/3 long-playing record would be precipitous.
“Acceptance of LP and 45 r.p.m. records on both the dealer and consumer level.” Survey answers indicate that 45s were on the wane and LPs on the ascent at the time, with 160 respondents saying LPs were selling “Good” versus the 45’s 88 “Good” and 229 saying 45 sales were disappointing. It’s a very early example of how quickly superior media formats have been adopted by consumers. As we now know, the LP would go on to be the dominant format of the century, being replaced only when the CD came into its own almost forty years later. (Also of note was respondents’ answer to the question of what sources they use in determining which records they were to order; 1,236 said “customers’ request,” almost twice that of the runner-up, “personal opinion.”)
“Enough dust has settled and sufficient time has passed since the upheaval begun in 1965 to permit at least a tentative assessment of Stereo-8’s effect on our industry and its position in the market place.” So wrote Irwin Tarr, VP of planning for RCA Records in the pages of Billboard for its June 13, 1970 issue. Tarr went on to explain how the music industry establishment resisted the format initially, resulting in “a policy of ‘watchful waiting,’ as one of them put it” — a sentiment most you reading this might remember from not that long ago.
Five years after Super 8’s introduction, the new mini-industry was projected to be worth $1 billion in sales of tapes and playing devices that year, following exponential growth for the preceding five years, as Billboard’s graph shows. Of course, not everything in Tarr’s triumphant article was true: “Existing Stereo-8 libraries will not be obsoleted.”
Launched and promoted in parallel to Stereo 8 were “musicassettes,” the ubiquitous, undying format we now know as just plain ol’ cassettes. Designed by Philips and promoted heavily in Europe, the musicassette’s success stateside was initially slow, owing to Stereo 8’s popularity in the U.S. at the time. But in 1971, Advent Corp. president Henry Kloss had a few game-changers in store for the nascent medium.
“Among his current plans are to clearly and beyond a reasonable doubt establish the cassette as a high-fidelity medium.” Essentially, Kloss and Advent, in collaboration with Dolby, had found a way to significantly reduce “tape hiss” while increasing audio detail, enabling cassettes to nearly match the quality of LPs. Kloss’ advances essentially doomed the Stereo 8 and guaranteed the runaway success of the “musicassette” for the next two decades. Kloss’ advances also had an unintended consequence for the music industry; the ubiquity of cassettes would eventually introduce the concept of consumer-side piracy to the music business.
GENEVA CONVENTION AGAINST RECORD PIRACY
No, the Geneva Convention Against Record Piracy is not a format for musical transmission, but a direct result of one. Held in 1971, the Geneva Convention Against Record Piracy was the international music industry’s first response to the threat of piracy that easily reproduced cassettes introduced.
Billboard’s article from December of that year estimated piracy was costing the industry around $240 million a year at the time. “Twenty-three countries have signed the agreement, which is expected to be widely ratified to provide an effective international protection against the pirating menace predicted as formidable enough to disrupt the whole of the world music industry if allowed to continue unchecked.” You don’t say…
We’re all well aware of the CDs success as a format — how many subscriptions to BMG’s Music Club did you sign up for? — and, as we’ve seen with the LP, Stereo 8 and cassette, adoption of the promising new medium was swift. “Worldwide trade deliveries of players in 1983, the system’s debut year, were around 350,000. In 1984 they reached between 800,000-900,000, and this year are expected to total 1.5 million-1.8 million,” wrote Nick Robertshaw in the January 12, 1985 issue of Billboard.
In the article “Presidents’ Panel Puts Spotlight on Compact Disc” Monti Leuftner, president of the Ariola Records Group, “launched the substantive debate on the challenge of the Compact Disc by asserting the record and hardware industries should get together to try and find a device by which it would be impossible to home tape from the new Compact Disc player,” wrote Billboard at the time. It’s striking how large the problem of piracy loomed over an industry that was, in retrospect and sharp relief, still so vibrant.
MP3 — “Data”
“Unless you find another way of making money besides controlling copying, you will not last in the digital age.” Those prescient words, spoken by musician and Stanford postdoctoral fellow Ram Samudrala, come from the July 18, 1998 issue of Billboard, in an article on the first “MP3 Summit.” Labels were rightly concerned about this new format which, in many ways, was the last “new format” they and we are ever likely to see; our musical data may get denser (a la Pono), but it will probably never need to be physically manifested again.
A year-and-a-half later, the industry would be suing Napster into oblivion, as this article from December 18, 1999 presages.
The rest, as they say, is very recent history…