In 1921 the world was told that radio broadcasts, available for free in homes and businesses across the country, had reduced phonograph record sales -- both the newer disc and the older cylinder -- to the point where the fledgling format would be gone in just a few more years.
Like Mark Twain, if the record album could talk it would have said 'The report of my death was an exaggeration.’
The Singalong Era
Even though recording sales had been growing year on year through 1920, the recording industry was far from booming.
The real money in the music business was in sheet music, with hit songs selling millions of copies. The majority of "popular" songs were sung and played by people in their homes and gathering places.
In many cases, the recordings were just there to promote the sheet music sales. But people fell in love with the simplicity of the recording. Especially families without a skilled musician to play, the Phonograph was a way to bring more music to the masses.
The 1920s and Radio: An Experiment and a Tool
Then came radio, at first an experiment, then a tool, and even in the early 1900s intrepid radio pioneers saw the possibilities for entertainment.
After a delay due to the Great War, radio stations began to crop up in increasing numbers across the United States.
Even though radio was still in its infancy, everyone started to predict that it would take over for all other types of media consumption.
Radio would kill the newspaper, the book, and the music recording. Why buy a song when you could hear a thousand songs beamed into your home for free (or for the cost of a little of your time to listen to advertisements)?
Return to 1921
Record sales peaked at around 110 million recordings, and then started the decline. Newspaper articles and radio broadcasts predicted the demise of the cylinder and the disc. Many of these were fed by the desire for and ongoing revenue stream from advertising.
Broadcasters and music publishers alike stood to benefit from the model where they made a little revenue each time a song was played, instead of selling the consumer a recording for a one-time payment and then never making any more money from it.
If the music industry had a crystal ball, they would have let the recording die as it ultimately would have been more profitable to keep complete control over the consumption of music.
The people refused to give up.
For some, it was lack of a nearby radio station. For others, it was not have the right station that played their preferred music.
For some it was the convenience of playing what they wanted when they wanted.
Ultimately, it came down to choice. People chose to own recordings and play them whenever they wanted.
100 Years Later
Fast forward to 2021 and beyond and we find the more things have changed the more they have stayed the same.
The music industry is pushing a model where they control the content and the revenue. Streaming gives the illusion of choice, but playlists use algorithms to drive sales or save costs. And ultimately those who hold the music rights and the streaming companies control whether you can listen to a song or album.
And so, vinyl sales have blossomed again.
People are appreciating the experience, the control, and the hobby of collecting physical music. Playing music has always been ritual-driven, and there are many wonderful rituals when putting an album on the turntable.
With vinyl sales on the rise -- and expected to continue for some time -- we have seen the rebirth and renewal of a format that has been declared dead numerous times since the first prediction 100 years ago. Wouldn't it be something if they are still laughing about this fallacious prediction in another 100 years!