The MP3 is just the latest in a long line of ways of buying music. Tim de Lisle composes a short history ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2012
What it was Notation of a popular piece of music, printed on a sheet or two of paper, or collected with other pieces in a book.
Breakthrough The first way to buy a tune.
Drawback You had to play it yourself, or get someone else to.
Played on Any instrument, but most often a piano or spinet.
When it reigned c.1473-1888. The first printed book with music in it was the Mainz Psalter in 1457, but the music was added by hand; the first machine-printed music was published c.1473.
Biggest seller Unknown: possibly “White Christmas” (1940, written by Irving Berlin), with sales of over 5m.
How it survives Almost unchanged, in books giving the notation for popular albums.
THE PHONOGRAPH CYLINDER
What it was A hollow cylinder of wax, four inches high, with a recording engraved on the outer surface, invented by Thomas Edison (below) in 1877.
Breakthrough The first commercial medium for recorded sound.
Drawback Looked like a toothmug. A toothmug made of clay.
Played on A phonograph: a primitive gramophone with an ear trumpet attached.
When it reigned 1888-1910.
Biggest seller Unknown.
How it survives In museums and on web pages with a lot of text.
THE GRAMOPHONE RECORD
What it was A flat disc, usually black, with the music inscribed in grooves and played by a stylus; at first ten inches, then a mixture of 12 and seven.
Breakthrough It had music on both sides. After 1947, when Peter Goldmark invented the LP, it could hold 46 minutes of music, so the album was born, and with it, almost as beloved, the album sleeve.
Drawbacks Easily scratched, not very mobile, needed turning over.
Played on A gramophone: the lovable version of a phonograph. Started out looking like a chest of drawers, ended up as just a turntable with a perspex lid. Led to invention of hi-fi—a mixed blessing.
When it reigned 1910-88.
Biggest seller Possibly Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” (1973), said to be the first album to reach a total of 50m sales in all formats.
How it survives Vinyl LPs are still released, and sales have risen since 2008. But it mainly survives as an idea—the album, still the dominant form of physical music.
What it was A recording on tape, held on two spools in a box the size of a cigarette packet, introduced by Philips in 1963.
Breakthrough The first mass medium that allowed the listener to do the recording—its father, the reel-to-reel tape, had always been exclusive. Also the first time an album could fit in your pocket.
Drawbacks The tape would come unspooled and emerge as brown spaghetti. You could fast-forward or rewind, but not go straight to any track except the first.
Played on A tape recorder or in-car player. Not forgetting the music centre—the all-in-one turntable-cassette-radio that was almost as big as the early gramophone.
When it reigned It didn’t: it was destined to play second fiddle, first to LPs, then CDs. But it had a 20-year near-reign, c.1971-91. Rejuvenated by the Sony Walkman (1979), which made music mobile.
Biggest seller Unknown; could be Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982).
How it survives In attics, often in the form of a mixtape: half playlist, half love letter.
THE COMPACT DISC
What it is An LP redesigned by an alien—still plastic but silver, 4.7 inches not 12, and able to take 80 minutes of music.
Breakthrough The first digital form of recorded music—so it contained the seeds of its own obsolescence. When computers came along, the music could be transferred from disc to screen to MP3 player.
Drawback Hard to love. A feast neither for the ears (squeezed sound) nor the eyes (soulless box).
Played on CD players, including the CD Walkman and the in-car CD player, which still rules today.
When it reigned 1988-2004 in terms of listening, and singles; but it still outsells download albums.
Biggest seller Early on, Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” (1985); overall, probably “Thriller”.
How it survives Shakily. In January the Times quoted unnamed industry sources saying that the major record companies might halt CD production by the end of this year.
What it is A digital file, or MP3, containing a song.
Breakthrough The first recording to take up no shelf space, and to be able to fly through the air to different devices. And the first you could buy (or pilfer, alas) instantly, without leaving home.
Drawback Intangible, and some feel it negates the album.
Played on MP3 players, led by the Apple iPod, designed by Jonathan Ive in 2001; now, increasingly, on phones.
When it reigned For individual tracks, since 2005, but it still hasn’t seen off the CD album.
Biggest seller Download album: Adele’s “21” (2011), 3m+. Total tracks: Rihanna, with 50m+.
How it survives Triumphantly, for the moment.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life and the rock critic for the Mail on Sunday
You can read Simon O'Hagan on how to manage your music here