WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne
In our first episode from Season 2 of Reconnecting Roots, we discuss how technology has changed the way we listen to music and each other.
How do you usually listen to music? Do you turn on your phone and play your favorites with a streaming app? Do you pop in a home-made mixtape? Maybe you put on a classic vinyl record. Each of these options represents ways that the recording industry has changed—and the recording industry has gone through some massive changes. In the past decade, Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn, of the innovative band Pomplamoose, have witnessed that change first-hand—and have even contributed to it. After the band’s success on YouTube, Jack founded Patreon: a brand-new way for musicians and creatives to gain independence and take charge of their careers.
Our host, Gabe McCauley, had the chance to sit down with Nataly and Jack to discuss just how—and how much—the industry has grown.
“Oh, so much,” laughs Jack. “In the early 2000s, if you got a brand deal, you were a sell-out as a band. Fans right now are rooting for you to turn it into a business and make a living. The behavior I’m seeing on YouTube and what you see fans doing is, like, ‘Alright, you got the SquareSpace deal! That’s so exciting! Congratulations!’ [That support] is definitely one change, for sure.”
Nataly adds, “I feel like something that started in 2008 is that people got on the internet and were watching...kids in their bedrooms—like we were—making music very unprofessionally, and they started to get really interested in them...not just as musicians, but as people.”
As Jack explains, it used to be okay to be a “smoke and mirrors” artist, and Nataly admits she’s jealous of that. Artists could once be removed from their audience, and simply gift their music to the world. But in a world where the more connected we become, the more disconnected we seem, audiences are longing for authenticity.
Nowadays, with the help of technology, fans can almost be in the room with artists—they can watch their creative process, meet their pets, and even see inside their bedrooms.
“For me, there’s something really inspiring and exciting about seeing real people make something that sounds good,” Jack tells Gabe.
So how do artists ‘make something that sounds good’? Nowadays, just about anyone can open Garageband on their mobile device. The app alone provides access to hundreds of drum kits, synthesizers, guitar sounds, voice-changers, and more. But it wasn’t always that easy.
In the pre-Civil War era, before the invention of the phonograph, printed music was the primary musical artifact. In the 1850s, sheet music, church hymns, and more gave people access to the latest creative compositions and hymnal-hits. Stephen Foster, an American composer — often called the ‘founder of American music’ — wrote over two hundred history-making songs, exemplifying that the music industry wasn’t just for entertainment. It was a business, after all; there was a strong economic vein running through it.
And, did you know? Stephen Foster is the only person to have written two state songs: those of Florida and Kentucky!
Twenty-odd years later, Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph shook both the recording industry and the world of invention alike. For the first time in history, recordings of the human voice could be made and replayed.
From there, great minds such as Alexander Graham Bell and Emile Berliner made
improvements upon the phonograph, ultimately developing it into the gramophone: a machine that used flat discs with grooves running through it and a needle to fit into those grooves. That gramophone has evolved into what we now call a record player. Fun fact: though the name gramophone is no longer used, its nickname, grammy, is the namesake for the modern-day Grammy Music Awards!
From then on, the recording industry skyrocketed. Here are just a few of the highlights...
In the mid 1890s, Guglielmo Marconi developed the first method of long-distance radio communication.
In 1906, Canadian inventor Reginald A. Fessenden became the first person to make a public radio broadcast.
In 1927, Automated Musical Instruments, Inc. introduced the amplified jukebox, selling 50,000 units in one year.
In 1929, Radio Corporation of America (RCA, established 1919) purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company (established 1901), resulting in RCA-Victor, a leading manufacturer of record players, discs, radios, tape recorders, and other audio equipment.
In 1948, Columbia released the first 33 1⁄3 LP (Long Playing) record, which became the new industry standard. The 45-RPM record followed in 1949.
In 1952, amid the rise of recording studios, Sam Phillips opened the now famous Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee; eventually giving birth to the rockabilly sound that made artists such as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley famous.
We could go on and on...or you could go ahead and book a trip to Memphis and tour Graceland yourself.
So, just how does our modern music world differ from the distribution pipes of old? How has our technology changed to allow real people to be the artists? And how does our new-age process of distribution allow creators to access billions of fans worldwide? For the answers to these questions and more, check out the video below for the rest of the interview with Pomplamoose!
Don’t forget to tune in to your local station to catch Season 2 of Reconnecting Roots — or stream free, anytime, anywhere, from https://pbs.org/show/reconnecting-roots