The Impact of Technology on Music in the 20th Century
Matthew Hugenschmidt LBST 3020-090 Final Paper For centuries man has sought pleasure through music and visual arts. Until the last 100 years or so that required someone to go see a live performance, either locally or possibly to a larger metropolis with concert halls and theaters. The technological advances experienced in the last century have allowed the pairing of the audio and visual media for the masses, and have let them spread much farther than their local roots and changed their influence on society.
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Though essentially performing the same function, they have gone from merely allowing an escape from everyday life for very limited audiences to affecting American society’s values, view of its own culture, and consumerism. With the advent of the gramophone in 1901 people were able to listen to music inside their own homes, as well as were able to easily transport music from one area to another. (Savage 115) It was these earliest recordings brought with the American troops, or doughboys, in WWI that brought jazz, blues, and other American musical styles to Europe.
These recordings would heavily influence the shape of the European musical landscape after the war, and also increase the overseas demand for American culture and style. The music and associated dances were completely new to Europeans, and combined with the care free attitude of the Americans it showed what was seen as a hopeful way of life that had all but been forgotten in the war ravaged continent. This craving for American culture would have a large effect on the coming European generations, and would help steer the musical course for the bands that started the British Invasion.
Almost simultaneously, nickelodeons started to become popular in urban areas of the United States. Named after their admission price, a nickel, these places showed short motion pictures and were usually located in working class districts. (essortment. com) Since the movies of the time were silent, the theaters usually had a piano or organ to provide music for the film. This was the first time there was a mass media distribution that included both audio and visual components, though the music played varied a bit from theater to theater. As movie technology improved nickelodeons soon ecame out of date, but they laid the ground work for audio and visual pairings in mass media. The rise of national radio broadcasts in the United States would play a huge part in the spread of music around the country. When the national broadcasts went to clear channel, it signaled the rise of weekly radio shows that became standard nationwide. Because of the limited variety of programming at the time, these programs had a very large audience base. One of these radio shows was Ozzie and Harriet, a family oriented radio show that was based on Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s family.
The show was quite popular on the radio since it portrayed the everyday stereotypical white suburban family. The major leap came when television became the new medium of choice. In 1957 Ozzie and Harriet moved from radio to television, and by this point their son Ricky had also become an integral part of the show. This was during the very beginnings of Rock & Roll, and Ozzie saw an opportunity to cross market his son as both an actor and a singer. At the time the genre was represented primarily by figures like Elvis and Chuck Berry who were by considered risque by the elder suburban white population.
Ricky Nelson was marketed as a wholesome alternative singing the same style of music, thereby appealing to both the youth and their parents. This was a major step in defining stars in pop culture since it cemented that the performers image could be more important than their musical ability and gave rise to the teen idol culture. Concurrently, since the national broadcasters had begun to focus on television, the local radio stations no longer had time occupied retransmitting the major station broadcasts. Because of this they found it necessary to diversify their offerings to fill the time slots.
This allowed them to cater more to their local audience and what they wanted to hear. This heralded the rise of the disc jockey, and because the radio signals reached beyond the immediate locale it broadened the fan base for many musical styles. Programs like Red Hot and Blue in Memphis started playing some more alternative styles, and when it was realized that there was a large demand for this music they became important for the stations and their advertisers. (Miller 35) These shows would play what they pitched as new and “hot” tracks, thereby pushing their listeners in the directions they wanted.
The person that would take this to the next step was Dick Clark with American Bandstand. He very successfully took what these radio shows were doing and applied it to national television. By carefully selecting the performing artists and the kids dancing to the music, he cultivated a very tame and innocent atmosphere for the show. This was integral in changing the image of Rock & Roll and its perception by the older generation, and though there had been variety shows for a good number of years, it was the first television show to completely focus on music and giving it a visual component.
American Bandstand would go on to be one of the longest running series in television history. Also in the mid-1950s movie industry was becoming more popular than it had ever been, and this was due largely to the trickle down of the post World War II economic boom. Many teens had part time jobs doing things like delivering papers or running errands, and others were given an allowance by their parents. Because they had no bills to pay, all of the income for this demographic was disposable income. This led to almost all of their money being spent on entertainment.
This started in the early 1900s with the nickelodeons, and then progressed as the movie industry expanded and technology progressed to allow longer films and include audio. When the movie Blackboard Jungle was released in 1955 it brought out a very interesting revelation. The Bill Haley and His Comets’ song “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” was played over the opening credits, and though it had been released the year before it had not fared well at all on the charts. As soon as it was featured in the movie it immediately shot to the top of the charts, where it remained for eight weeks. Covach 78) Alan Freed, a New York City DJ, immediately saw an opportunity and began making movies such as Rock Around the Clock, Rock Rock Rock, and Mr. Rock and Roll. These movies had very little in the way of plot or story line, but focused on promoting some of the hottest musical acts of the time, including Chuck Berry and Little Richard. They also served to further the career of several new artists such as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. (Covach 84) This would mark the beginning of cross marketing musical stars into movies.
The person who is most responsible for the cross genre bridge between music and visual media was Elvis. His start was a humble one, beginning with him paying for his own recording at Sun Records. Sam Phillips thought the he heard something special and signed him. For the first year and a half that after his first Sun recordings, Elvis was primarily known in the south and was relegated to the country charts. It wasn’t until Phillips sold his contract to RCA that Elvis began getting television appearances, starting with Stage Show. Covach 85) The show had poor ratings, but within week of his start there he had become a national phenomenon. This led to his appearances on the Milton Berle show, the Steve Allen show, and culminating in the Ed Sullivan show. With his good looks, sex appeal, and exciting performance style, his television performances rapidly cast him onto the national stage. (Covach 84) This meteoric rise would forever cement the link between image and popularity, and also add to the “rags to riches” dream which has always been prevalent in lower and middle class households.
Once Freed’s movies started coming out and doing well, RCA was quick to pitch their new star as an actor as well, though more as a feature with hip music in it rather than a sort of American Bandstand movie. The movies Elvis did, such as Jailhouse Rock, fared decently well at the box office, and usually had a single by the same name released concurrently, which in turn became a hit. The companies behind the scenes had realized that by doing this they could have their star produce multiple revenue streams for them. This would lead to a slew of movies following the same formula, especially beach movies with surf music.
These movies would prove to be very influential to the images of bands and individual singers for years to come. The next level of combining visual arts and music came in the form of marketing for a band, manifested as The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. This movie departed from the Elvis style fictional motion picture that just included songs by the featured artists, which were pretty much standard at the time. Rather, this film portrayed The Beatles roughly as their lives actually were. Though exaggerated, they used The Beatles playing themselves showing their daily lives.
The use of irony and satire were prevalent throughout the movie, which makes it an entertaining comedy. Even so, the viewer gets the sense that they are connected to the band and has gotten to know them on a personal level, and they could easily be someone down the street. One of the common themes throughout the film is the manager’s futile attempts at controlling the band members. Whenever he tells the band they need to do something like reply to fan mail or stay in the dressing room the first thing that is done is the opposite.
Though the band members are always going against what they are being told to do, they always come through to fulfill their responsibilities, usually at the last possible moment. This appealed to both the youth who appreciated the free spiritedness The Beatles exhibited as well as the adults who cared about the example it set of fulfilling responsibility, thereby successfully cross marketing the band to both demographics. All of these events were heavily intertwined with the boom in consumerism in the 1950s and 60s. In an era of excess, the image of success is what was being sold.
The idea of the suburban house with two cars and modern amenities was what the older generation who still remembered the depression was being pushed towards. With the surplus of disposable income in the post WWII economic boom, Americans began replacing items rather than fixing them, which let almost all products to be disposable. This attitude carried over to entertainment as well. Because of the short attention span of the general public it was no longer enough to just make good music. The image of the artist and how they were marketed became in some cases more important than the music itself.
Rock & Roll was integral in the shift of America’s values in 1950s to 1960s towards the liberal side, starting with the youth. The music and the image it portrayed meant different things to different people, usually split by generation, but the successful visual marketing done by some key players helped change the image and soften the transition to allow the older generation to become more receptive to the cultural changes. The liberalization of music and image that started in the 60s would grow by leaps and bounds in the 70s.
Artists began to take the alter ego route started by the Beatles with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and stepped it up a notch. One of the most notable examples of this was Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper’s lead singer, Vincent Furnier, had noticed that most rock stars of the day were portrayed as heroes, but there were few rock villains. He created the persona of Alice Cooper as such a villain and also dressed in tattered women’s clothes to add more social controversy. The biggest break and controversy that really launched the band was the infamous “Chicken Incident”, where at a show a chicken somehow made its way on stage.
Thinking chickens could fly Alice Cooper threw the chicken into the air above the audience thinking it would fly away. Unfortunately, the chicken fell into the audience where it was torn apart. This turned into a story of him biting the head off the chicken and drinking its blood, which made national headlines. As had been learned with Elvis, the only bad press is no press, and this rang true for Alice Cooper as well. Following this, their performances were known for being “dangerous, dark, and irreverent. ” (Covach 344) These shows usually ended with some sort of gruesome death for Alice, frequently beheading or electric chair.
This goes to show how important and image and show could be to the career of a band. The next major development in visual and music pairing was MTV. This would go on to change the course of pop music and culture from its inception in 1981 all the way through the present day. MTV was modeled after Top 40 radio, focusing on the most popular artists at the time. In the early days they found that their most successful market was mainly the Midwest, so they focused on playing the mainstream rock artists that were usually white as well.
At the same time most videos were shot on shoestring budgets since labels weren’t convinced that music videos would pay off in additional sales. (Covach 451) The view of music videos would change with Michael Jackson. In 1983 “Billie Jean” was rising in the pop charts, but MTV refused to play the video, presumably because it was thought it wouldn’t appeal to their target audience. After a great deal of pressure from Jackson’s label MTV conceded, and the video became very successful. This brought a significant rise in popularity to both the network and artist, and that in turn showed the labels the importance of music videos.
After that, videos were major undertakings with major label backing and significant repercussions. It was found that even if the music wasn’t good, if the artist looked good in the video then they could be successful. This really is a continuation of the teen idol phase of the late 1950s, just taken to the next level and across a broader range of styles, which still continues today. Though MTV had become more popular and mainstream, it also had the double edged effect of negative media attention for the content of the videos it played.
Applying images to music that was said to be “a help to the devil” (Gilmore 263) would bring further scrutiny to the content of the music itself. Though rap music was already under attack from the media and PMRC (Parents Music Resource Commission), videos like that of N. W. A. would further widen the gap. The most important technological advancement of the last 20 years or so is the development of the internet. This one creation has done more to connect the globe and share information than anything else in the history of man. The amount of information that is readily available o anyone with an internet connection is almost incomprehensible. This sharing of information has also had a drastic effect on the music industry and artists. According to Brian Hiatt and Evan Serpick “the Internet appears to be the most consequential technology shift for selling music since the 1920s. ” (Hiatt & Serpick) Because of the internet, anyone with a microphone or video camera and internet access can publish their music. With the advent of some computer programs like Pro-Tools there isn’t even a need for musicianship. This has greatly changed the landscape for artists and how music is viewed socially.
Until an artist becomes successful enough for corporations to heavily invest in, the responsibility for creating an image and fan base has largely moved from the label to the artists themselves. No longer does the label sign a band, make a record, and then produce a formulaic video to try to garner interest. Take Arctic Monkeys for example. Their debut album “Whatever people Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” released in 2006 became the fastest selling debut album in British music history. (NME) They did this by recording early demos and giving them away on burned CDs at shows.
In the digital age, these songs were immediately shared on the internet as well by their fans, which greatly broadened their popularity. Once their popularity was recognized, they were signed and had a huge debut album. This shows the shift in landscape and how the sharing of information and files on the internet can impact such a major industry. Works Cited Covach, John. What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History. New York: W. W. Norton ; Company, 2009. Essortment. com. The Nickelodeon’s History. ; http://www. essortment. com/nickelodeons-history-21268. html;. Gilmore, Mikal.
Night Beat: a Shadow History of Rock ; Roll. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Hiatt, Brian and Evan Serpick. “The Record Industry’s Decline”. Rolling Stone 19 June 2007: n. pag. Web. Miller, James. Flowers In the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock n’ Roll 1947-1977. New York: Fireside, 1999. NME. com. “Susan Boyle beats Leona Lewis, Arctic Monkeys to ‘biggest first week sales for UK debut album’ title”. < http://www. nme. com/news/various-artists/48619> Samuels, David. Only Love Can Break Your Heart. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. Savage, Jon. Teenage: the prehistory of youth culture: 1875-1945. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.