There was a gold rush in new music media—new startups appeared almost weekly and patent disputes broke out. Even though the new kid in town spent more time in court than developing the product buyers couldn’t get enough music players and content. This was before World War One—the flat disc was replacing the recordable cylinder.
Berlinner accumulated many patents but history suggests his success was down to ease of manufacture (stamping), flat storage, and louder playback without amplification. (Amplification didn’t hit the mainstream until 1925, the disc was launched 30 years earlier.)
The current music format upheaval is different and although history doesn’t repeat exactly it probably has something to tell us. When Berlinner launched the disc in 1895 he laid the foundations for today’s record industry and defeated the incumbent. Edison made his cylinders until 1929 but never came close to retaking the recorded music industry he had started. Perhaps he hoped amplification would redress the balance but in the 1930s half of all American record production went into jukeboxes where once again discs ruled. However, there is a more important winner in this story—the customer.
The cylinder was perhaps more capable than the early disc, it was recordable and Edison had the resources, a killer brand and marketing power. Nevertheless customers chose the disc, decisively. It’s futile to second-guess the customer, they choose what they want.
In the late 1990s, faced with a new format (MP3) they didn’t control, Berlinner’s descendants made a series of attempts to regain the upper hand. But customers didn’t like what was offered. DRM on downloads, DRM on CDs, Major label web stores, subscription streaming… the verdict of the public has been decisive. Music distribution today can be summed up under 4 headings—CD sales, download sales, file sharing and radio. Overwhelmingly that’s what people want. Of the 2 billion online we know around 1 billion will be music customers. 900 million of them don’t use a big label streaming service and of the 100 million who do less than a quarter pay.
The evangelists of music streaming commerce—who have flogged this particular horse for over a decade—have made little headway. They tell us people “prefer access to ownership”, but quite clearly they don’t. We are told it’s early days but it isn’t—it was early days in 1995 when MP3 became available to everyone with a telephone line. There must be a point when it’s obvious streaming doesn’t sell. For me it was iTunes outselling all the streaming services overnight… in 2003. The Major labels will catch up one day, maybe.