How Has Technology Changed The Music Industry

Mankind has been captivated by music since time immemorial. There are records of ancient instruments, including flutes crafted from bones, that go back more than 40,000 years. It is believed that the oldest piece of music to be preserved in full is a melody inscribed on a column in Turkey. This song, which dates to the first century AD, was composed to commemorate the burial of a woman.

 Through the centuries all things musical have evolved. From the way music is played to the way it is listened to has changed beyond recognition from ancient times. The modern music industry is a multi-billion dollar global business that is constantly adapting to changes. Technology plays a huge part in the music industry and below you can read about some of the biggest changes over the last century or so. 

Listening to music in the late 1800s

Back in the late 1800s if someone wanted to listen to music they might go to an arcade booth. These places were coin-operated and extremely popular at the time, especially on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Each booth would have one musical selection and ear tubes to listen to the music through. There was always a clamor for these booths and it could be a struggle to gain access. Each morning the music would be changed to a new selection to keep customers returning.

 One more sophisticated way of listening to music would be to visit a phonograph parlor where you could select a cylinder to be played in the shop. Once happy with your choice you could then purchase the phonograph cylinder to take home. 

From sheet music to vinyl

Up until around the 1920s the music industry was dominated by sheet music. It may be hard to understand the appeal of this with today’s technology but playing music at home was very popular. This meant buying sheet music and playing it on a piano – usually – instead of using a record player. Back then, theater and vaudeville were still very popular and people wanted to recreate the songs they heard in their own homes to family and guests.

Another surprising aspect of sheet music is that not only could millions of copies be sold of a hit song but if there was a recorded version it was generally only made to help promote sales of the printed version. Of course, as you know things changed.

 Although when talking about records you would normally think of vinyl, the earlier recordings were made on shellac. These records were selling steadily from 1900 onwards. Although they kept growing in popularity it took until around 1920 for them to start taking over from sheet music. One rationale for this is that artists didn’t take them seriously. 

Records switch from novelty to serious business

Back in the first two decades of the twentieth-century actors and musicians saw movies and records as a novelty. A stage actor preferred to work in theatre and saw movies and films as something trivial. Musicians had a similar outlook to recording their music. Coin-operated booths were looked down upon by musicians as cheapening their trade. But one of the other reasons they didn’t like the new path music was taking was money. A performer would make most of their income from live performances and in the case of a popular musician they might get royalties from the sheet music too.

In the early 1900s, only the top and most popular musicians were getting royalties of any kind. The type of music would define sales with love songs being very popular. Most artists would receive a flat fee for every recording or for writing sheet music. This was going to change and with it, the outlook for the way music was recorded and listened to. At this time the biggest recording company was RCA Victor who were aggressively defending their product. However, they were successfully sued by a rival label in 1921. After that, the industry exploded and record companies started to appear everywhere.

During the Second World War, the recording material was switched from shellac to vinyl due to the former’s use in explosives. After the war, the music industry continued to grow through the 1950s and 60s with rock ‘n roll, Elvis, and the Beatles. 

Technology changes the music industry

After vinyl became established record sales took off after the war. New types of musical styles evolved over the years and the way they were recorded changed also. In the 1950s multitrack recording was introduced. This was a Godsend to musicians and producers as previously songs had to be recorded in one take.

Over the years the music industry has had to adapt to competition from radios, home recordings, piracy, and other threats. Technology has helped the industry continue to move forward. Here are some of the most significant changes that have occurred since multitrack was introduced in the 50s. 

Different formats

Vinyl is still beloved by many music fans and is having something of a resurgence but over the years it has been challenged and outsold by other formats. The first was the 8-track tape that was popular for a couple of decades before being passed by for the compact cassette. This type of cassette became very popular as it could be used in boom-boxes; very cool in the 80s. They were also played in cars and on Walkmans.

A Walkman was a personal music player that came with headphones and could be listened to on the go. It was also useful in other ways. A musician can practice without disturbing the neighbors. With the use of an adapter, you can plug your guitar into the input jack, press Rec and then listen to yourself playing Coldplay chords without complaint from anyone else.

DAT, MiniDiscs, and of course CDs followed but probably the biggest challenge and threat to the music industry was Mp3s and piracy. 

Music piracy

For most teenagers in the 80s, piracy meant copying a friend’s music onto a compact cassette or putting a microphone next to the radio and trying to record the Top 40. As time moved on things became more sophisticated.

After the advent of the internet suddenly there were dozens of music sites offering free downloads. It was very easy to amass a huge music library without paying anything for it. Obviously, this was not ideal for musicians or their companies. The most famous of these sites was probably Napster and they incurred the wrath of the music industry and were shut down. However, the music business had been transformed forever. 

The launch of iPods

The music business and the musicians themselves could no longer ignore the fact that people wanted to download music. The traditional recording companies tried to fight back for some time but eventually as record shops started to collapse it was obvious they needed to find a way to monetize downloads.

By this time Apple had revitalized their company with the iMac and most importantly the iPod and iPhone. These devices changed the way people were listening to music and how they purchased it. Much like owning a Walkman before, an iPod allowed the owner to have their own personal music player. The difference was that they could connect to the internet and download music at any time from the Apple Music Store. 


The internet has allowed many businesses to flourish from supermarket deliveries, taxis and even dating online became popular but unfortunately for the music industry, lots of people still didn’t want to pay for music so the next development was streaming. This allows the user to pay a monthly fee to listen to music as much as they want as long as they have a WiFi connection. The musician and company make money from subscriptions and advertising. 


There have been many changes to the industry over the years with electronic instruments replacing acoustic ones. After video games started to become more complex they have often licensed music for their soundtracks.

The internet is probably the greatest example of technology changing how the industry works. It has opened music up to the masses and also hosts an almost endless supply of resources for musicians. If someone wants to get the piano chord songs from a favorite song they can upload it to a website and instantly there they are. Technology will advance and evolve and the music business is definitely along for the ride.

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