By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Then I begin to think about the four or five corporations that sell the vast majority of those records, agglomerations that tend to treat their "entertainments" as packaged goods, like cereal or dish soap. I consider the explanation Sony made to its stockholders in 1988 when it spent $2 billion for CBS and Columbia Records, one of America's greatest labels -- it needed software for Sony hardware: disc players, microcassette players, Walkmans and the like. Then I contemplate the words of British stockbroker Edward Lewis, owner of the early gramophone manufacturer Decca, who recalled his rationale for going into the record business like so: "A company making gramophones but not records was rather like one making razors but not the consumable blades."
As we think about the future of records, it's well worth keeping in mind these attitudes, that what drives these labels is not "Give them music!" but "Give them razor blades!" Perched as pop culture is on a narrow fence between art and commerce, it is important to remember that the major players have nearly always fallen on the side of dish soap.
So ask yourself, Do records -- CDs, LPs, cassettes -- treat us well? And just how do these products treat music?
Before I get to the exciting part -- Napster, Scour, Gnutella, Freenet, the future, free! -- let's consider the wonder of abridged history, how it can make the past seem recent and the present an aberration, how it shifts today's debate from the world of commerce into the context of art and music.
History will tell us that before written language, humans made sounds -- grunts, then indicative grunts, then chants, then music. Some theorize that it was our rhythmic voicing that first elevated us from the field of lesser mammals. It connected us, made us capable of massed action, aided memory. The "arraahgah" of Matt's partner, for instance, may have meant "Help me. Save me from this other mammal. Kill it. Make it food."
It wasn't until 1877 that anyone recorded sound. Thomas Edison earned the nickname "The Wizard of Menlo Park" not for the electric light but for his invention of an early version of the phonograph. As much a device for recording as for reproduction, Edison's first phonograph inscribed a paraffin-coated strip of paper with a wave of sound, then faintly played it back. This was a new apex in efforts to seize human life shifting in time, much eerier and more real than the brief moment caught in the flash of a photograph.
While the ideas behind the machine were not new -- an invention called the phonoautograph had previously been used to draw waveforms representing a given sound -- the physical fact of his own recorded voice left Edison with little idea what he might do with his discovery. His earliest notion was that recorded sound might be used for dictation or recording phone calls.
Within a decade, though, the visionary writer Edward Bellamy imagined what the modern communications industry now strives for. In a utopian novel called Looking Backward, 20001887, he predicted a future of ubiquity and unlimited choice, "An arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will."
If you can't get your head around how rapidly Edison's invention became ingrained into our lives, we can bypass the next hundred years of history. We can skip the singers who feared that recorded sound would cause their careers as performers to dry up; we can bypass swing, Tin Pan Alley, jazz, race records, rock & roll and disco, and rejoin our story 100 years after the invention of the phonograph, in 1977. That year NASA launched the Voyagerspacecraft, at the time the most ambitious attempt yet to explore the outer limits of the universe. Wishing to include a time capsule that would convey the story of our planet to whoever might find it, the agency sent a bunch of records encoded with images and music.
Along with the records was a needle and cartridge, and indications on how to play the record rendered in what appears to be a rocket scientist's rendition of hieroglyphics. While the albums were sturdy, gold-plated 12-inch copper discs -- not vinyl -- in pictures they are recognizably recordlike. There's even a label that soberly states:
THE SOUNDS OF EARTH
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Compiled by Carl Sagan and a handful of other scientists, the 90 or so minutes of sound include a Mexican mariachi band, heartbeats, footsteps, Beethoven, Bach, the bark of a wild dog, crickets, an initiation rite for pygmy girls, falling rain, preacher and blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, a mother kissing a child, and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."
Sagan, a master at understatement, placed the record's import as such: "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet."
Little did he know.
Suppose, for example, that Voyagersoars far past the sun's magnetic field and the outbound currents of the solar wind. Imagine that an extraterrestrial discovers Sagan's hopeful sign and that the creature plays the record, perhaps sharing it with extraterrestrial friends via some inconceivable mode of psychic transmission. Or let's say it shares the sounds of Earth with a wide swath of its advanced spacefaring civilization. What might happen if, in sharing, a psychic copy is rendered? Well, it might run into trouble -- playing "Johnny B. Goode" especially -- because the American industry built around the hopeful sign might take a dim view of the extraterrestrial's failure to pay royalties.