Artists fight over digital music too. Many say it impoverishes them, as the relatively fat royalties of radio and CD give way to laughably tiny micropayments from streaming companies, where a band might get mere thousandths of a penny from their label when a fan streams its song. Other artists disagree, arguing that giving away your music for free online makes it easier to build a global fan base avid for actually giving you money.
A confusing time, to be sure. But it’s certainly no more confusing than the upheaval that greeted a much older music technology: the phonograph. Back in the 19th century, it caused fights and joy too—as it forever transformed the face of music.
It’s almost hard to reconstruct how different music was before the phonograph. Back in the mid-1800s, if you wanted to hear a song, you had only one option: live. You listened while someone played it, or else you played it yourself.
That changed in 1877 when Thomas Edison unveiled his phonograph. It wasn’t the first such device to record and play back audio, but it was the first generally reliable one: scratchy and nearly inaudible by modern standards, but it worked. Edison envisioned a welter of uses, including for business, “to make Dolls speak sing cry” or to record “the last words of dying persons.” But in 1878 he made a prediction: “The phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music.”