The history of music: How music has changed in the last century

Music has evolved rapidly and in many different ways in the last century. What happened and where do artists and labels stand today? This quick, complete recap brings it together in simple terms.

Music has transformed massively in the last century and in the past 2 decades we’ve seen it change more than ever before. A musician creating in their bedroom now has the entire world at their fingertips unlike budding creatives years before. To find out why, we have to go back in time and start from the beginning of the modern music industry.

How sound recordings changed music forever

Whilst music is something integral to the human spirit and we can trace back musical instruments and celebrations by many millennia. In more recent history, the 19th century saw music in the home in a very different form to how we recognise music today. With no source of recorded music, sheet music was the dominant industry in music; printing sheet music for popular pieces of music that people would take home and play to hear the piece.

In the early 20th century, vinyl records and radio broadcasting completely transformed thousands of years of music that came before it. Capturing music and sharing it around the world became possible with the ability to take music into your home and play it on-demand or listen to popular songs by tuning in through home radio sets.

This saw music shake up the world with popular artists spreading like wildfire – and so the music industry was born. With this wild proliferation of music also came the roots of record labels: companies who managed the artists and controlled their recordings.

These labels set the precedent for popular music and grew and grew, eventually becoming one of the world’s biggest industries by the 1960s. For a long time if an artist wanted to get themselves heard on radio and pressed on records, they needed a connection with a record label. But this often left artists with no control over their music once it was recorded and saw the big companies taking the majority of the money their music made.

The dawn of the independent artist

Things began evolving in the 70s and 80s, particularly with punk making independently funded and released music a viable thing for… pretty much the first time. Often times, punk artists working off of their own back would crowdfund but without the help of a website like GoFundMe. Making use of a community presence (built by gigging) or even gaining funding from their own family, these bands often had to find their own route to pressing records with the difficulty of reaching a major label’s interest.

DIY labels began popping up all around and artists like R Stevie Moore even proved you could be an almost unknown artist with little to no funds and record your music at home. A new precedent had been set that proved to artists around the world that they didn’t need to endlessly send tapes to labels that they’d scraped every penny together to record. The was another way, but it still wasn’t easy.

Even if a band or artist managed to fund the pressing of their own records, there was still the big question of how to ship them to a wide audience. Sure, you could sell them on a stall at concerts and petition your local record stores but it was no route to gaining a national presence, let alone reaching international audiences.

The internet transforms the music industry… for better and worse

It began with services like Napster where sharing files with anyone simply required an internet connection. Sharing music around the world became massive and the doors were opened for listeners who were hearing music they never had access to before on a massive scale. Unfortunately, it was illegal and meant that artists weren’t making any money from it. For a while the music industry seemed dire as they lost more money every year whilst people were bathing in a sea of free music online.

The record industry fought back aggressively and managed to get Napster shut down whilst threatening legal action with anyone caught sharing music files. As you can imagine, every success for the music industry was followed by a slew of new websites, services, and players cropping up, using the anonymous ubiquity of the internet to easily mask and host their presence and share songs.

It wasn’t just the platforms the industry was fighting against, listeners were getting behind digital music more and more. The game had changed, people had access to all the music in the world for free and they didn’t want to go back to buying one album at a time. They knew they couldn’t fight the listeners like they could the providers.

So along came streaming services, who put all the music they could access into one place with agreements from labels, publishers, and artists. Using adverts and subscriptions they were able to make money whilst still offering the seemingly endless scope of recorded music that modern listeners had come to expect. As a result, artists were making money again. So were the labels, and they were still making a bigger cut than the artists were in most cases.

Whilst independence in music was rising, when it comes to the major record labels we have today: Sony, Universal, and Warner – that power imbalance is still very much there. It’s still common to see a major artist in the news who is being prevented from releasing their own music because of a label contract.

Nowadays, even though most music revenues come from digital services – meaning no pressing or publishing costs – the labels still charge the artist for these processes and take massive percentages of the profits. But the world is changing and the bedroom producer and home musician now hold more power than ever before. The internet has levelled the playing field and created a whole new world for the music industry.

Digital music distribution gives opportunities to every artist

Around the same time as streaming services started cropping up, RouteNote’s founders were working at an independent recording studio and saw the problem that was still present from the first days of independent music. Once the music was recorded, how could these artists reach the audiences around the world? With digital services making music so much more accessible, we knew something had to be done.

RouteNote was born, with one goal: to offer all artists the opportunity to reach audiences in every corner of the globe at no cost. Working with streaming services like Spotify and download stores like iTunes, we made it free for artists to upload their music to digital services so there was no barrier of entry for artists to release their music, get heard worldwide, and make money from their tracks.

With digital distributors like us at RouteNote artists now have full control over what happens to their music, the freedom to make their own decisions, and direct access to billions of listeners around the world. The industry has transformed in the last decade and digital music has seen the industry return to growth after years of plummeting profits. Streaming now makes up the majority of recorded music revenues around the world.

It’s not only a new world of possibilities for getting your music out there, but creation and recording has become easier to with technology and ease the likes of which independents in the 80s could have only dreamed of. With the technology to create and record music from home the age of bedroom producers is here. Artists like Tobu and Billie Eilish can record and produce their music from the comfort of their bedrooms and then send it straight to a distributor where it reaches hundreds of millions of listeners around the world. 

Some of the world’s biggest musicians are now free from major labels. Alan Walker started his career making beats in his bedroom, the same goes for Jacob Collier whose first album won 2 Grammy’s and Chance the Rapper whose self-released mix-tapes brought him to worldwide stardom.

It is now possible for anyone to create and release music for the world to hear. Independent music is only just beginning in it’s potential. You could be a part of this massive movement when you upload your music and get it out there to be heard.

So don’t wait around, the opportunity’s here for you to take. Head to www.routenote.com and become part of a musical revolution.

Writing about music, listening to music, and occasionally playing music.

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