In 1877, Thomas Alva Edison was working on a machine that could record the spoken word. He believed this could be a valuable tool for business, perhaps even replacing the imperfect profession of stenography. The device he ultimately came up with had a diaphragm that captured sound and converted it into indentations transcribed onto a cylinder wrapped in tin foil so that when a needle passed over those grooves again, the recorded sound was played back.

Instead of revolutionizing business communication, he ended up giving the world a whole new way to experience music. Before the phonograph, the only way one could listen to music was at a live performance. Edison’s invention changed that forever.

The fidelity of early music recordings was low and the volume soft. These recording devices could only capture a part of the sound spectrum and so what worked best for these recordings were loud instruments, such as the trumpet, or deep instruments like the tuba. That is why the most popular band in those early days was the US Marine Band led by John Philip Sousa, the legendary composer of such tunes as Stars And Stripes Forever and Washington Post.

Sousa himself was no fan of the fledgling recording industry. He disliked this new technology so much that he wrote a widely quoted article bemoaning the harm that it would cause to American taste. Music, he argued, required “the labor of study and close application" and the “slow process of acquiring a technic". Once a mechanical music-maker is introduced into the home, children would simply listen to the machine and lose all interest in studying music. Eventually, he argued, singing would no longer be a fine accomplishment but something that could be turned on and off like an electric light.

History has shown us that Sousa’s fears were unfounded. Not only did music not die, but it also evolved, flourishing in myriad new ways that simply would not have been possible had it not been for recording technologies. As records were replaced by magnetic tape, fidelity improved to the point where singers could record with their voices at a whisper. This meant that audiences were able to experience sounds that were impossible to produce in concert halls. Music itself became more perfect, as musicians could hear the mistakes they made on their recordings and correct them before they were released to the public. They had new opportunities for experimentation. They could splice together bits of different recordings to create new ones, giving rise to new genres of music based on remixes of existing works. They invented tools, such as loopers, that played sequences of music in a constant loop, adding unique musical elements to their repertoire. With advances in electronics, they began to construct layered, intricate soundscapes that would have otherwise been impossible to fashion.

As a result, children continued to study music, even if the music they studied was of a different kind and learnt in a different way.

Technology also changed the way we consume music. Where previously music could only be experienced live, technology democratized access, bringing it within the reach of common people. The digitization of sound made it possible for more and more people to experience the high-fidelity perfection of a CD and, in time, gave rise to the MP3, a format that shrank digital songs down to a size that let them easily be shared over the internet. Once music became digital and shareable, it wasn’t long before we started seeing the streaming music services that are all around us today. As a result, we have stopped thinking of music in terms of ownership, forsaking the collection of records and CDs in favour of subscription services that allow us to listen to whatever we feel like over the air.

However, people have found reason to protest against these technologies, as well. Streaming, they claim, earns artistes less than ever before since per-play revenues are a fraction of what they used to earn from album sales. Since technology brought down the entry barriers to becoming a musician, it’s getting harder and harder for even the best musicians to stand out.

However, what is of the greatest concern seems to be the rise of Artificial Intelligence, technology that has finally made it possible for music to be created without human intervention. This, more than anything else, has given rise to a fear that we are not far from the time when there will finally be no need for human music-makers.

So, once again, the knives are out. A new technology has raised, once again, doubts about the future of the music industry and fears that the artistes that make up its ecosystem will be made redundant.

Every new technology has disrupted the one in use before it. In the process, people employed in old industries have lost their jobs. However, each such instance of “creative destruction" has resulted in the development of new technologies that have improved the quality of our lives and created brand-new opportunities for employment.

In dynamic economies, there is always going to be disruption that will mostly harm those who are so wedded to the old ways that they find themselves incapable of adapting to change. However, in the long run, it is important to nurture technological change to constantly renew and reinvigorate the economy.

Rahul Matthan is partner at Trilegal and author of ‘Privacy 3.0: Unlocking our Data Driven Future’

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