In the centuries since Thomas Edison’s lo-fi version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” innovators from Steve Jobs to Spotify have changed the way we hear music.
Since Thomas Edison declared in 1915 that audiences would be unable to distinguish between a live band and his Edison Diamond Disc, inventors and entrepreneurs have hustled non-stop to bring new hi-fidelity audio formats to music fans.
It’s been over a century since Edison’s early lo-fi experiments, but the course of music history changed with a simple nursery rhyme.
With his 1877 recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—arguably the first cover song in the history of popular music—Edison proved it was possible to capture, store and replay sound. Though Edison’s initial tinfoil cylinder recordings had a limited shelf life (the recordings themselves only survived a few play-throughs), the proof-of-concept paved the way for the vinyl LP, cassettes, CDs, radio, downloads and streaming.
At the dawn of the computer age, engineers used recorded music to test file compression algorithms and develop digital media standards. Early in the dot-com boom, a fly-by-night campus startup brought the music industry to its knees by simply moving files between computers. In the web2.0 era, niche artists found their audiences and unlikely mainstream success by skipping the indie-to-major label pipeline and releasing their music on a new type of website—social media.
By 2003, even Apple wanted a bite of the digital music market. In their iTunes Store, users could buy and download individual songs from nearly any artist, a strategy that brought total dominance of the digital music realm. That is, until 2011, when a Swedish tech startup called Spotify launched its streaming audio service in the United States.
So how did we get from tinfoil recordings to $1,000 CD burners to $9.99/month unlimited streaming? Keep reading to learn more about the evolution of digital audio technology, the birth of streaming and the precursors to Spotify.
1991-97 — MP3s: Bite-Sized Audio To-Go
In 1991, Leonardo Chiariglione was determined to keep massive media corporations’ filthy paws off his vision of the perfect digital video standard. Where consumer choices in the analog realm had been limited to VHS vs. Betamax (so, just VHS, then…), the Compact Disc provided engineers at the Moving Picture Experts Group, aka MPEG, with an exciting challenge: how do we establish a self-improving digital video standard for CD-ROM?
In Perfecting Sound Forever, Greg Milner writes, “Chiariglione felt that video standards in the past had suffered from the influences of conservative corporate interests;” that film studios, record companies and manufacturers sacrificed sound and picture quality for profit—a practice birthing such forgotten formats as the 8-track tape, HitClips and Videodisc.
Chiariglione’s idea for a system that evolved with improvements in digital encoding technology meant that as time went on, old lo-res MPEG files could be played side-by-side with modern 4K video without compatibility problems.
MPEG became the standard for digital videos on CD-ROM in 1992, but why stop there? Realizing the potential for a new digital audio format for internet listening, electrical engineer Karlheinz Brandenberg continued tweaking the MPEG audio codec, using the isolated vocal from “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega as the control for his experiment.
By 1997, the MP3 format was a hit on college campuses. It dethroned Real Audio as the dominant internet audio format and became a hot commodity at dormroom LAN parties, where the bite-size audio clips were traded freely. The files could then be played on MP3 players, burned to a CD-R or shared on peer-to-peer networks.
1999 — Napster & the Peer-to-Peer Revolution
Sharing music in 1999 was a painstaking process. You had to actually own a copy of the album and dub it onto a cassette tape. This usually involved several trips to the mall to buy blank cassette tapes and Sharpie markers. And CD burners? Forget it. Hewlett-Packard released the first CD burner to retail for less than $1000 in 1995, but at $995 MSRP, it was too rich for the average listener.
Though music fans weren’t investing in computer hardware upgrades just yet, they signed up for cable-based broadband internet services in droves—no longer would surfing the internet tie up the phone lines. With their extra bandwidth, internet users could now stay online for as long as they’d like—without missing an important phone call.
With that in mind, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning launched Napster on June 1, 1999—a peer-to-peer file sharing network which allowed users to download MP3 files directly from another user’s hard drive. At its peak in early 2001, the service thrived with more than 80 million users, accounting for between 40 and 61 percent of network traffic at colleges and universities.
But was file-sharing a good idea?
Radiohead seemed to think so. Despite little airplay or promotion, their landmark album Kid A debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart when tracks leaked on Napster generated significant word-of-mouth buzz. Thom Yorke and co. would disrupt the music industry a second time in 2007, when they self-released their album In Rainbows on their own website as an early experiment in pay-what-you-want digital music distribution.
Metallica weren’t so convinced. The Bay Area thrash metal group joined Dr. Dre and Madonna in a series of lawsuits that eventually shuttered the file sharing service. When a demo version of “I Disappear” (from the Mission Impossible 2 soundtrack) appeared on Napster and received radio airplay, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich sued the site for copyright infringement—and won. Napster’s legal troubles kept coming and soon there was no running from lawsuits filed by A&M Records and the RIAA.
On July 11, 2001, Napster went offline.
2003 — MySpace Makes a Scene
It’s not a glitch in the Matrix—hacker Tom Anderson co-founded the social media network MySpace in 2003, a website where users could adopt an alternate online identity (or profile) and interact with millions of other accounts in cyberspace.
Operating under the hacker alias “Lord Flathead,” a teenage Anderson became the target of an FBI raid when he successfully bypassed the cybersecurity at JP Morgan Chase. Being a minor, Anderson escaped prosecution for the security breach and traded computer science for English, which he studied at UC Berkeley.
Before launching MySpace, Anderson was the lead vocalist in a band called Swank—a significant detail considering how music would prove essential to the site’s success. During its heyday, the platform catapulted unsigned niche artists into the mainstream, bypassing old ways of grassroots touring and A&R.
Unlike rival platform Friendster, MySpace gave users the ability to customize the appearance of their profile pages with HTML and greet visitors with playlists of music from band accounts. Soon, artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, Arctic Monkeys, Janelle Monae, Soulja Boy, Paramore and Bring Me the Horizon had “gone viral,” racking up follower counts and ticket sales at festival stages around the world.
Following their 2005 acquisition by NewsCorp, MySpace launched a record label, MySpace Music, to showcase the rising talent on the network. At its peak, 14.2 million artists contributed over 53 million songs to the platform, making it the destination for indie rock, R&B, pop-punk, screamo, crunk, crabcore and rap-rock.
2003 — Apple Launches the iTunes Store
Apple offered a solution to the piracy problem in 2003 with the iTunes Store, an online marketplace with individual songs for sale at 99 cents apiece.
A common complaint among CD-era listeners is that albums of the time were heavy on filler—gag songs, unfunny skits, remixes you couldn’t really dance to, songs that just weren’t very good, etc.—inspiring many fans to sail the high seas. But on the iTunes Store, casual listeners were free to download as many 99-cent songs as their iPods could handle, and artists were given the option to designate some songs as “album only,” encouraging diehard fans to pony up the full retail price.
Steve Jobs planted the seed for the iTunes Store in 2002, inking digital distribution deals with the five major labels. In the three months following, over two thousand indie labels uploaded their catalogs to the service. By 2008, the iTunes Store was the largest music retailer in America. By 2010, iTunes Store was number one in the world, if only for a short while.
Spotify launched in the United States in 2011 and streaming quickly outpaced media downloads as the primary vehicle for musical consumption. Apple clapped back with the subscription-based Apple Music service in 2015, and the two tech titans are currently duking it out for streaming audio dominance.