How long were they selling recordings?

Read this this morning and I’ve been bouncing off the walls ever since. This is the New Yorker! So wrong and so checkable.

At bottom, the boom in private gigs reflects two contrasting trends. One has to do with the music industry. For more than a century after sound was first captured on wax cylinders, in the eighteen-eighties, the money came mostly from selling recordings. But that business peaked in 1999, and, as CDs vanished, revenue sank by more than fifty per cent. It has recovered on digital subscriptions, but the new giants—Spotify, Apple, YouTube—pay artists only a fraction of what physical sales once delivered.

Evan Osnos, “How to Hire a Pop Star For Your Private Party” , The New Yorker June 5, 2023

I am once again begging people to read “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll” or at least any halfway serious blogpost about the music business. Here’s one I found just with a web search:

Starting the clock in the 1880s is ludicrous… For one thing the “wax method” of early recordings meant that there was no master disc! If you wanted 10 finished records you had to drag 10 horns into the studio. There was no mass production until 1900s. Recordings were an expensive novelty that generated almost zero money for working musicians.

Sheet music outsold recordings until at least mid-1910s. Records boomed in early jazz age… but declined again with advent of radio. One reason was that musicians playing live on electrical microphones sounded a lot better than phonographs. Radio networks had money and blanketed the country with affiliates. Musicians’ livelihoods were dominated by payment for live radio performances that would spur demand for live tours of the name bandleaders made famous on the radio.

If I were a hacky trend piece writer I’d call radio the original cheap disruptive streaming technology.

The Depression crushed record sales all over again: sales fell “from over 100 million units in the US in 1929 to just 6 million in 1932.”

(The musicians’ strikes of the 1940s is another interesting side journey… for at least 4 years of the 40s there were no new recordings at all. Musicians lived solely off live.)

So many amazing little notes in “How the Beatles”… for example: “Through the early 1950s it remained standard for all the major record labels to get their own versions of any big hit and for at least two or three versions to turn up on the charts– in 1951, ‘If and ‘My Heart Cries For You’ made Billboard magazine’s pop top thirty in eight and nine versions respectively.” Thus while in aggregate recordings might be paying artists, there was cannibalization on any one artist being able to amass a fortune for a particular song, something we take for granted today.

In short these ideas that (1) mass revenue is associated with sales of physical recordings and (2) that should produce tightly linked tuples of {artist, song, recording, $$$} are artifacts of the Boomer half-century 1955-1999 that we have a hard time reckoning with and understanding as anything other than “given”.

Not for me to say what’s bad or good but it seems obvious that the era when 1% of GDP flowed to David Geffen and Don Henley was an outlier in the entire history of humans experiencing music. (I’m exaggerating those figures but based on this GDP source and this RIAA source I think it’s likely that at peak in 1977 recordings were capturing about .2% of US GDP.)

1977 as a high water of recording industry capture in is line with that other mega power of the culture trust : network television. My David Stern rants 1 and 2 attempt to show why we are wrong about how we retroactively perceive sports based on the very different circumstances of entertainment dollars in the 1970s.