“The Medium is the Message.”
If you’ve ever studied media theory and criticism before, you’ve certainly heard that before. In an age of cable news, increasing product placement in film and TV, and all the innovations that have come with the online sphere, Marshall McLuhan’s five-word distillation of one of his core concepts on media criticism remains as pertinent as ever. It’s also a key concept to keep in mind as we trace the history of medium changes and their influence upon the music industry.
The Rise of Vinyl
Skipping past your great-great grandmother’s gramophone, let’s talk about vinyl.
While vinyl is making a comeback today, it’s worth remembering that for decades, it wasn’t a consumer choice for collectors, but one of the only ways to consume music. From the Jazz Age until the 80s, either you listened to whatever was on the radio, or you threw on an album. That made releasing singles and albums all the more important, which in turn placed a lot of emphasis on the production and artwork of these albums.
Music Videos and MTV
With the Beatles, Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and other early practitioners, the music video became a recognized art form. With the rise of MTV, it would be used (and abused) by everyone from Madonna, Michael Jackson, boy bands and pop queens to the litany of New Wave synth bands, pop flukes, and one-hit wonders throughout the 80s and 90s.
CDs, MP3s, and iTunes
Once CDs became widely available, you could enjoy your favorite music in an easier, more portable, and well-compressed fashion than ever before. The first MP3 players at the start of the 2000s and then Apple’s iPod and iTunes would allow for even greater portability and ease, allowing listeners to put hundreds of their favorite songs on one device.
Spotify, YouTube, and Today
Today, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to both music, as well as means of playing it. iTunes is still going strong, Spotify has become a successful niche service for audiophiles, and YouTube has helped resurrect music videos after a slump, as “going viral” matters as much as “going platinum” once did.
“The Medium is the Message,” and the best music masters have always mastered their era’s medium.