Music: The Digital Revolution

Music is an ever-changing industry. With an elaborate history filled with many inventions and innovations, music has changed as technology progresses. Technology and music have always been connected. Whether it is the technology that has allowed for the carving of drums and other basic instruments or the technology that led to the development of the Compact Disc, which, in turn, led to the digitalization of the music industry and the most dramatic change the industry has ever seen. These new digital technologies have forced the industry to expand, change, and adopt new strategies to help them succeed. The physicality of music has been lost to the mp3 and digital instruments have substantially transformed musical performance. The digital age is changing the way music is produced, sold and preformed.

In 1857, the music industry was started by Léon Scott de Martainville’s invention of the phonautograph, the first recording device. This idea inspired Emile Berliner to use this technology for music in 1887 with the gramophone, a disc music player (“The History of Digital Audio”). However, this idea did not catch traction until the development of new recording and amplification techniques led to Columbia developing the 33-1/3 LP in the 1940’s (Bhattacharlee et al. 136). Technology then led to a more mobile form of playback in 1963 when Phillips released the cassette tape (“The History of Digital Audio”). Music was becoming more portable, in terms of playback, which allowed the average person easier access to music, a trend that increased as time went on.

Sony was at the forefront of the digitalization of the music industry in the beginning of the era that would forever change music and the way we view it. In 1978, they created the first digital audio recording devices to be used in professional settings, which had profound effects. In terms of music, this led to a more acute processing of the sounds, to the point where an unprocessed voice has become deficient in recorded song. We have gotten used to the compressions, reverberation and editing that has gone into basically every recording, so much so, that an organic sound would appear to be lacking something. Sony then followed this up with the introduction of the Walkman, which eventually played Compact Discs in 1988 (“The History of Digital Audio”). Around this same time, the mp3 was in the early stages of its development, a development that would slowly eradicate the physicality of musical recordings.

The development of the mp3 can be traced back to the process known as hedonics, which was used as far back as World War II. This was a process that measured pleasure and displeasure and was used in the formation of the mp3 format. Hedonics was used in this process by a team from the Moving Pictures Expert Group to compare the possible new coding schemes to CD quality sound. This team was made up of professional engineers, and other professionals in the music industry. They tested a variety of sounds, but mostly commercial sounds like Suzanne Vega’s a cappella version of “Tom’s Diner” (Harvey). By doing so, they picked the coding scheme that worked best for music, the way the recording industry at the time viewed music, and not based on human hearing, thus leading to the development of a slightly biased format. The digital technology was becoming shaped slightly by the professionals’ view of music, thus changing the way society views music.

The mp3 also revolutionized the way we view recorded music as a physical medium. Before the advent of the mp3, music was physical in every sense of the word. When you bought an album, you actually had to buy something palpable: a vinyl, a cassette or a Compact Disc. With the mp3, music has become invisible and abstract. It has lost the physical appeal that would come with collecting records or CD’s and has taken on a whole new way of looking at music. Although the mp3 form of music can be held as something tangible too, you just need a container, something like a Zune or iPod or computer, it has fundamentally changed. Even though the mp3 loses the physical aspect of the way we view music, it provides many new features not available in the time of physical music. As mp3’s are around 90 percent smaller than the files on a CD, this makes downloading, sharing and posting songs quicker and easier (“The History of Digital Audio”). This was exactly what the music industry was afraid of, and rightly so.

Although the mp3 was chosen and patents were filed, a large amount of them by the Fraunhofer Institute, the mp3 did not gain popularity right away. Ironically enough, the format gained its popularity through the same means that would plague the future of the industry and change the way in which revenue was obtained for recorded music- it was stolen by an online hacker. The hacker from Australia stole some encoding software from the Fraunhofer Institute that allowed people to rip mp3’s from their CD’s. This software was then redistributed for free, and soon enough, everyone with a computer could transform his or her CD’s into mp3’s. The popularity of the mp3 grew until companies like Apple and Microsoft were making deals with Fraunhofer (Harvey). This new, popular format would change the revenue stream of the music industry and lead to an ongoing battle against piracy.

With the incorporation of the mp3 into the market, file sharing became easy and essentially no one was paying for music anymore. The Recording Industry Association of America estimated that music sales decreased from $13.7 billion in 1998 to $8.5 billion in 2008 (Sinha et al. 40). The RIAA blames this decrease in revenue on online piracy, the illegal sharing of music files. One example of this was a case brought about by the RIAA against in 2000. Napster was essentially a search engine, but instead of searching for words on websites, it searched for mp3 files on the hard drives of all the people using Napster and allowed users to download these files directly onto their own computers. It was extremely popular, especially among college students. In the lawsuit, Napster argued that it was protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Audio Home Recording Act because it was providing noncommercial sharing. It also argued that since the owners of the copyrighted songs did not object to the others downloading them, they did not violate any copyright laws. The court ruled otherwise, saying that the company was still violating the copyright laws by allowing the sharing of files, even after Napster proposed a plan that would stop 99.4 percent of the illegal sharing. The court would only settle for a plan to stop 100 percent. The case was eventually settled in favor of the RIAA in 2001 and in 2002, the company went bankrupt and sold its assets (Fisher). The mp3 changed music distributions so quickly, that the industry did not have time to keep up. Musical recordings were starting to be seen as a free product, something that did not require monetary attribution to the artists, producers and record companies.

The advent of the mp3 and its use in illegal file sharing lost the music industry billions in revenue. So naturally, the industry fought back. They did this through encoding, specifically through the use of Digital Rights Management Technologies that are encoded into the music and other files that are purchased. DRM prevents the sharing of downloadable, purchased music by not allowing the transfer of the files outside of the medium that it was downloaded on. For example, if one downloaded a song off iTunes before 2007, this song was accompanied by DRM technology, which made it impossible for it to be played anywhere besides those computers that were authorized by the account that made the purchase. This technology was prudent towards the fight against copyright infringement, yet it seemed to have the opposite intentions as well. The restrictions that DRM provided did help stop pirating, but it also slowed down music sales. This occurred because the files “limit many aspects of a consumer’s ability to listen to the music” (Sinha et al. 40). Therefore, in 2007 Apple announced that it was making the move towards a DRM free library and completed the transition in 2009 when it signed contracts with all the major labels to distribute their music without DRM restrictions. As Steve Jobs put it, “DRM systems haven’t worked, and may never work to halt music piracy” (Sinha et al. 40). The other major distributers followed in the wake of Apple leading to a DRM free marketplace for digital music. The industry was trying to catch up to the technology that changed the distribution process.

The mp3 has shaped the music industry, transforming it into a radically different industry than during the time of cassettes and Compact Discs. This new format changed the way music is view as it transformed music from a physical representation to an invisible one. It has led to an outstanding rise in pirating that has forever shaped the industry and caused it to use new tactics in the fight for the money that used to be generated from CD sales. Some of these new tactics were premiered by the band Radiohead in 2007 when they distributed their album In Rainbows on their own website with a price decided by the individual fan (Holt 248). This “name your own price” technique has since been used by many other acts such as Rusko in November when he released his KAPOW EP for which a fan had to pay for with a tweet or Facebook post ( Music is no longer seen in terms of albums, records, and singles but in terms of downloads and streams.

Besides the distribution of music, technology has extraordinarily impacted the way music is played. It has changed the way that musicians think about playing, and even how the public perceives these performances. Traditionally, musical performances were associated “with the bourgeoisie and the idea of autonomous art” (Holt 245) an idea which music has since moved away from. It has also abandoned the idea that live performances are scheduled around agricultural or religious calendars, and adopted a yearly schedule where outdoor performances are in the summer followed by a winter tour of clubs and indoor venues (Holt 245). Where these venues used to have yearlong contracts with artists, these old ways have now been reserved for traditional venues like the Village Vanguard in New York City. These practices have now shifted towards short-term contracts with the live performances used as a marketing event (Holt 246). The scene has also shifted towards superstar performances, an example of which would be the current Rolling Stones’ “50 & Counting” tour ( These “concerts are still the main source of income for many artists and their managers” as they rake in millions of dollars (Holt 248). Where the industry used to be based around profits from recordings and concert profits complemented these, the live performances are now the main source of revenue and have become the way to sell other products like merchandise and recordings. Due to this change, ticket prices have seen an increase. In the 1980’s, the price of a ticket was about the same price as that of their recent album. Since then, the price has risen to about five to ten times that of their album (Holt 250). This change of focus has shifted the way live performances are looked at, both by those involved in the business aspect and by those who attend the shows.

The actual performance aspect of music has changed dramatically with the introduction of digital technology. First, when building these digital instruments, or programming them, a lot of music theory is preprogrammed into the device whereas with acoustic instruments, the music theory is, essentially, extracted by the musician (Magnusson 70). The process of learning these digital instruments is also drastically different from learning an acoustic instrument. The process of playing a digital instrument is mostly consists of pushing buttons and other such movements that do not require complicated physical action, therefore, the engagement with the instrument is largely cognitive and lacks the physical interaction that acoustic instruments have (Gurevich and Fyans 168). Take, for example, drum machines which are basically “a simplified extraction of a real drummer” (Mayer). These machines have gotten so technologically advanced, in pursuit of replicating a human, that they have far surpassed human capabilities. Yet they will always fall short of perfectly replicating acoustic playing by a human.

Technological advances in music have attempted to replicate human interaction with an instrument. This, however, is a goal that will be forever out of the reach of technology as “electronic music, to a big extent, is still a premeditated medium while playing music happens in real time.” There will always be subtle nuances that technology will be unable to replicate, such as human emotion and feeling. This can be seen through one of the most emotional elements of music, improvisation. “When we improvise, the decision making process gets condensed to fractions of seconds and to a degree where we can no longer compute these decisions consciously.” At this point in acoustic playing it is possible for the artist to let intuition take over and give up their intentions, something not available to digital musicians. In digital music, there are essentially two decisions, 0 or 1 because digital technology is a binary system. Human improvisation is “a place that examines the distance between zero and one which is a zone which a machine cannot compute” (Mayer). Digitalization has added to our musical capabilities, but it is still impossible to fully replicate the human live performance.

Music is an extraordinarily complex entity. The introduction of technology has added to the intricacy of the musical experience. The industry has been forever changed by the introduction of digital formatting as seen in the mp3. This change has influenced the new perspectives that the industry has taken on distributing music. It has caused them to consider self-distribution as well as the name your own price method. This change in the way albums are sold has affected the concert industry as well since the main income of the artists is now ticket sales. Besides the business aspect, digitalization has changed the actual performance of music. The digital instruments are more focused on cognitive abilities and therefore fall short of replicating the true human musical performance. The music industry, and music as an art form has changed drastically due to digitalization. It has changed the way music is produced, sold and performed.


Bhattacharjee, Sudip, Ram D. Gopal, James R. Marsden, and Ramesh Sankaranaryanan. “Re-Tuning the Music Industry – Can They Re-Attain Business Resonance?” Communications of the ACM June 29: 136-40.

Fisher, William. “Digital Music: Problems and Possibilities.” Harvard Law. N.p., 10 Oct. 2000. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <;.

Gurevich, Michael and Cavan Fyans. “Digital Musical Interactions: Performer-system Relationships and Their Perception by Spectators.” Organized Sound. By Michael Gurevich. Cambridge UP, 2011. 166-75. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.

Harvey, Eric. “Interviews.” Pitchfork. 09 Aug. 2012. Web. 06 Dec. 2012. <;.

Holt, Fabian. “The Economy of Live Music in the Digital Age.” European Journal of Cultural Studies (2010): 243-61. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.

Magnusson, Thor. “Designing Constraints: Composing and Performing with Digital Musical Systems.” Computer Music Journal 34.4 (2010): 62-73.

Mayer, Jojo. “Exploring the Distance.” TEDxZurich. N.p., 11 July 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <;.

“RUSKO.” Rusko. Web. 06 Dec. 2012. <;.

Sinha, Rajiv K., Frenando S. Machado, and Collin Sellman. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right: Music Piracy and Pricing in a DRM-Free Environment.” Journal of Marketing 74 (2010): 40-54.

“The History of Digital Audio.” Random History. 04 Aug. 2008. Web. 06 Dec. 2012. <;.

“The Rolling Stones.” The Rolling Stones Home. Web. 06 Dec. 2012. <;.


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