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Radios, Recordings, and Music: A Full Circle, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

This paper will summarize the general history of American music specifically as it has been heard over the radio, from the earliest years of the medium to the present. I will touch briefly upon the history of radio and recording technologies and then trace in somewhat greater detail both the development of those technologies and their effects on popular American music contemporary with those developments; and the role of changing technology as a driver in changing musical tastes. I hope to show that recording and broadcasting technology originally were and are now more than ever as integral to the production and mass acceptance of all kinds of music.

The scientific discoveries underlying both recording and radio occurred roughly at the same pace and over the same period of time in latter part of the 19th Century, specifically the 1870s and 1880s. But by the time the first commercial radio stations devoted to popular entertainment had become viable in the 1920s (Radio), the phonograph had long established itself as a stable and profitable form of entertainment.

The phonograph producers, in conjunction with the sheet-music industry, had both fostered and profited from the emerging national markets in popular music. The falling prices of mass-produced musical instruments also played a fundamental part in developing that market, both for the musicians themselves and their listeners, inspired by recorded music to learn to play. By the time radio became practical as an entertainment business, it had an at-hand supply of music from which to draw. In the beginning, it was simply a matter of booking the most popular performers (recordings of the time having too-high levels of surface noise for entertainment purposes). But in its infancy, radio had a limited range, either by choice or by necessity. So, present at the creation of radio as a driver in popular music was the concept of musical formats and market segmentation. Broadcasters learned what kind of music to play, depending on what kind of station they operated: hotel-based for guests alone, city-wide, regional, and national. The larger the broadcast range, the more those broadcasters had to take into account the hourly-changing demographic of their listeners, and this required a greater supply of, and knowledge of, the kind of music their listeners like or might like.

Because listening to a radio was free and the price of radios fell quickly as mass-production increased, broadcasters learned they had to play kinds of music that not all of their listeners might like. But their advertisers had to approve first, since advertising paid the bills. When those advertisers sensed a new market to exploit, record producers and radios led to the way to mass acceptance. Jazz was probably the first new form of music to find popularity in conjunction with the radio, simply because it doubled as dance music enjoyed by the post–Great War young. Played by bands at hotels with regional or even national broadcasting range, jazz and its many varieties eventually evolved into swing, and then rock ‘n roll after World War II. To a great extent (and not surprisingly), the history of radio music as a force in American and world social-history is the history of dance music.

It should be noted that increasingly between the world wars there were two technically distinct venues in radio music: live music and phonographic recordings played over the air. Both depended on each other, but they are of course fundamentally different, having music alone in common. With the advent of the vinyl 33⅓ rpm in the ‘30s, records transmitted well enough to match live-event transmission quality, providing an expanding audience an advertiser would pay to achieve. But actual live music could still be turned into profitable special events, particularly when a station or hotel hosted a widely popular band. Listeners at home could share in the experience with the live audience, and the live audience could partake of the broadcast experience, knowing that hundreds or thousands of people were listening live. But over time, as records (and, later, tape)  improved still more and costs declined, live broadcasting as a popular mode of listening fell from use, just as live TV did with the development of videotape. Throughout it all, servicing the demographic specialization of the listening audience remained the defining business model for broadcasters, just as it does today.

A review of the quality of radios available to the public and the transmission facilities available to broadcasters before 1940 will show a tendency to favor the higher registers of sound, which was also a very pronounced characteristic of early acoustic (non-electric) recordings. Possibly for that reason the clarinet played in front while the guitar was mainly restricted to a support role, both in swing and in country music, the latter genre being dominated by singers and fiddles capable of higher and louder ranges of sound.

After 1945, two other technological advances played key roles in radio: the perfection of the 33⅓ rpm LP and the invention of the 45 rpm. With the latter came the revolution: the single.  The single probably made rock ‘n roll what it is today, for one simple reason: they were cheap and durable. For this reason, radio broadcasters and their audiences of baby-boomers bought them by the millions. Additionally, the development of High Fidelity, Stereo, and FM Stereo as a broadcast technology also fostered a strong broadcast market in classical music in its myriad varieties. Later those advances were made standard for virtually all mass-market records and broadcasting, with the exception of sports and talk radio, which remain by and large on AM frequencies.

DJs (disc jockeys) became standard features of radio, both as the result of market saturation of LPs and 45s, but also with the introduction of the car radio. Increasingly, DJs became entertainment personalities in their own right, and through their popularity exercised a powerful influence on musical selection, particularly in the rock ‘n roll markets.
DJs were also a product of another revolution: the growth of the independent label. As the price of recording technology declined, small studios (Sun Records being the defining iconic example) became economically feasible. Again, this development favored rock ‘n roll because early records of this genre lack sophisticated sound effects. Records could be produced cheaply with session musicians backing up a solo artist, or even incorporated for legal purposes into a “band” that made only one recording.

In the conflict of new technology and new forms of business to exploit it, politics played an increasing role. Politics had always been present in the form of regulation and the granting of broadcast licenses going back to the 1920s and ‘30s (Hilmes, Loviglio 11). But in the 1950s, the increasingly lucrative youth-oriented radio market began to attract attention of lawmakers (and their parent-aged constituents) concerned about corruption and its possible effects on the kind of music impressionable young listeners heard (Hilmes, Loviglio 135) . One famous result, the Payola scandal, resulted in Congressional hearings (Cox 1).  Gradually, control of music selection moved from DJs to broadcast management in the larger stations. It arguably did little else, as contemporary observers of the recording and broadcast industry never claim that payola — the payment of cash, drugs, or sex in exchange for playing specific records —  has gone away completely or even been reduced (Boehlert). In the club scene, payola is probably beyond the power of regulatory control. But it is doubtful anyway that payola and the attempts to prevent it have played a significant role as arbiter of popular taste. Popularity remains what it has always been: subject to the whim of the customer, to luck, talent, and persistence. And popularity isn’t the same thing to all artists. Some never expect mass-market appeal, and never try to achieve it (although it is safe to say that any artist given a surprise shot at it will always give it a try). Others dream only of achieving mass appeal, then quit when confronted with reality.

If we look over the history of broadcasting, we see an initial Wild West period caused by a market with initially low economic barriers to entry but a certain limiting technological barrier. One had to have the technical know-how and motivation to start your own station. But there were enough people who had those qualities to create a dynamic new force in music. As the field became more expensive between the wars and even more technologically daunting, there was a consequent consolidation. The power of dominating recording labels and radio stations served to locked the city markets, leaving the rural field and its rural music to a myriad of smaller players. This held, more or less, until the coming of the Internet.

The Internet has been a powerful force for democratization in broadcast music, and has even redefined what a broadcast is. In short, it has changed everything. Before, you listened to what your favorite radio station played, and you listened according to the radio station’s schedule. That model has arguably been superseded already by Web sites that let you listen to virtually any form of music that has ever been recorded and is being recorded now. You can listen when you want to listen, as the music is available 24/7. And you can take the music with you, either through your Smartphone or via podcast, the latter format allowing anyone to be their own DJ, and allowing anyone to listen to them try. The sheer accessibility of the technology and its consequences tends to confirm an observation made by the social anthropologist Jack Weatherford: “Communication technology often begins as a highly centralized phenomenon” and that some observers “initially assumed that modern communication media would make a homogenized world in which everyone listened to the same Michael Jackson or Madonna songs . . . ” He adds that as late as the 1950s “there were relatively few radio and television stations in the world, and they mostly emanated from a few major cities. Steadily, however, stations and channels have proliferated” (Weatherford 251) and now include countless small niche markets, like New Mexico’s KNDN, whose motto was and still is All Navajo, All the Time. He concludes that the creation of niche markets can be a function of physical isolation or cultural isolation, but that both are served by the economic accessibility of increasingly better recording and broadcast technology.

Talented artists and their music have never had it better than they do today, and with the advent of even more highly personalized outlets like iTunes and Pandora.com and their mobile platforms, that trend promises to continue for their listeners as well. Since many of these platforms offer customizable interfaces to match their customizable content, I will conclude this essay with the observation that broadcast music seems to have returned to its economical, technological, and regulatory Wild West roots.

Works Cited

Boehlert, Eric. Pay for Play. Salon. < http://www.salon.com/2001/03/14/payola_2/>

Cox, Erica. The Payola Scandal. Rewind the Fifties < http://www.loti.com/fifties_ music/the_payola_scandal.htm>

Hilmes, Michele, Logivlio, James. Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio. United Kingdom: Psychology Press, 2002. Print.

Radio in the 1920s. University of Virginia. < http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug00/3on1/radioshow/1920radio.htm>

Weatherford, Jack. Savages and Civilization: Who Will Survive?  New York: Crown Publishers, 1994. Print.

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