The Musical Evolution

Gen Z, or the emerging generation of teenagers, has had access to technology, like the iPod, since early childhood. This group of adolescents were some of the first kids to have the classic iPod Shuffle, a screenless device about the size of a memory card. The iPod shuffle was released in 2005, only two years after the creation of the iTunes store in 2003. The ability to have one’s entire music collection on one device was revolutionary. After the creation of the first iPod, Steve Jobs explained to the press that “to have your whole CD library with you at all times is a quantum leap when it comes to music. You can fit your whole music library in your pocket.” Teenagers today take this ability for granted; all they know is the endless, streamable music that they can hear with the click of a button.

Before the age of Spotify or Apple music, individuals could not buy single songs – instead they would buy entire albums on vinyl. The first modern vinyl record was released in the 1950’s, after the invention of the microgroove, and helped pave the way for the “album era.” This period in music history lasted from the 1960’s to the mid 2000’s and was categorized by the focus on recording whole albums for the consumer. The microgroove enabled artists to include an entire album on vinyl as it reduced the RPM to include 30 minutes of music per side rather than the older records, which could only contain up to 5 minutes of music per side. The popularity of vinyl records quickly led to the creation of EPs, or shorter albums with fewer songs, as well as the 8-track, which was the first invention that allowed people to listen to music in their car that was not on the radio.

Vinyl records and 8-tracks remained some of the most popular formats for listening to music until the 1970’s with the invention of the cassette player. Cassettes were small, portable, and held better sound quality than any record before it. The popularity of the cassette led to iconic inventions, like the Sony Walkman, which truly mobilized music. Compact discs, like cassettes, were a means of luxury during the 70’s, but the dropping price of CD players in the 80’s led to the extinction of cassette tapes. CDs offered something that other formats did not:forgiveness. Vinyl was hard to maintain as it was prone to warp or get scratched, and cassettes were highly priced. CDs, however, were protected by a new form of technology that scratch protected the disks and greatly improved sound quality. CDs were the starting point for many people’s digital music collections.

The creation of the MP3 player in 1997 was the true turning point in musical media consumption. CD sales in the United States peaked in 2000, and have declined since the MP3 has gained popularity. The MP3, which compresses music into very small, transferrable files, was the first major device that allowed for digital consumption and sharing of music. The MP3 player, in addition to 24/7 internet access, encouraged developers to create a format that allowed for individuals to listen and discover music without having to actually download files or purchase songs. This musical format is what we now consider streaming.

Since the early 2000’s, streaming platforms, such as Pandora or Spotify, have grown into the current 17 billion dollar music industry in the United States, and will continue to grow. It was only four years ago that Apple Music, YouTube music, and Amazon Prime Music were introduced to the public. As streaming platforms have grown in popularity, so has the music industry. As of 2018, streaming platforms made up 75% of total revenue for the record industry – that is more money produced from streaming than physical CDs, digital downloads, and licensing deals combined. In addition, the new user adoption rate is approximately one million new subscribers for streaming platforms each month, which is more than any other category of recorded music business.

The music industry has paralleled advancements in technology and became more accessible and desirable for teenagers today. The exponential growth of musical platforms throughout the past century is a remarkable feat that should not be taken for granted. Gen Z feels entitled to be able to listen to any song at any given time, but next time you hear a song, consider yourself lucky to have music in your back pocket.

Kendall, Jaclyn. “From Discs to Digital: The Odd History of Music Formats.” LANDR Blog, 2 Oct. 2017, Accessed on 21 March 2019.

Smith-Engelhardt, Joe. “The Evolution of Musical Formats.” A.Side, 5 Apr. 2017, Accessed on 21 March 2019.

Team, VF. “The Evolution of Physical Music Formats – an Interactive Timeline.” The Vinyl Factory, 12 Apr. 2017, Accessed on 21 March 2019.