Caruso, Crooners, Ice Cube

by Paul Orlando

I’ve been exploring ways that tech innovation could lead to inevitable outcomes. Here’s a continuation of that, specific to the enduring human need for music.

Music has been around as long as there have been people. Longer if you count music made by animals. It’s safe to say that music will be a part of this world  as long as there is life. So what happens when new technology encounters an eternal constant for humans?

Demand for something like music is built into what it means to be human. Music related tech development (especially if it is more about improvements rather than step changes) can be somewhat predictable. I use the term inevitable because we’re combining enduring human needs with forces that are largely about laws of physics applied to manufacturing. Supporting business models form.

Early Tech

Let’s look at some of the changes over the 20th century of the music industry. Treat this as a thought experiment on applying second-order thinking.

If you were born in 1900, in the early years of the recording industry, it’s likely that all of the music you heard growing up would be live music. An informal local band, or a more formal chamber orchestra, or singing in the home. You also would have been a child when Enrico Caruso recorded these versions of “Vesti la Giubba,” from the opera Pagliacci (which premiered in 1892).

Enrico Caruso – Vesti la Giubbia, first decade of 1900s

Caruso was one of the first international stars, both because he was a great tenor and also because his career coincided with the development of the early recording industry. His combined “Vesti la Giubba,” recordings are counted as the first million unit record sale in the US. (A bigger deal back then with one-quarter of today’s population and less disposable income.)

Early cylindrical phonograph records, which could play around two minutes of sound, and early disc records, which could record around seven minutes of sound also impacted the length of songs. That is, for the purpose of reaching an audience with records, songs had to be shorter to fit to the new format.

Around that time there were a few changes in the price of early musical equipment. The price of a phonograph declined to $50 – $100 (that’s $1,350 – $2,700 in today’s 2020 dollars) and the price of a record fell to as low as $1 ($27 in 2020 dollars). These prices may seem high today with mass production and ad-supported or premium streaming priced well below that, but recorded music was far from mass market back then. It was, however, the beginning of a dramatic change in how people consumed music.

Previously, there were more people than today (in terms of percentages) who earned a livelihood as musicians. It had to be so. In the not so distant past the only way to hear music (that innate human constant) was to make it yourself or listen to someone else live. (I’m ignoring the impact of player pianos, music boxes, and… birds.) When music had to be performed live, and also before travel was easy and affordable, that meant that most performers were local. That means that a local population supported more local musicians than today. From the US Census, there were 92,000 employed as musicians and teachers of music in 1910 (or about one person in a thousand). In 2010 there were 182,000 people employed as musicians and teachers of music in 1910. (or about 1 person in two thousand).

Recordings Improve

When it came to opera, a genre developed centuries ago, what did performers do to be heard? Imagine performing in a large concert hall, which might have great acoustics, but which had no electronic amplification. Performers had to sing louder. That’s why the classic body type of an opera star, even today, is someone with good lung capacity. They can’t hear you in the back? Sing louder.

In the early years of the recording industry, records could only be played on devices that were relatively rare and expensive. What’s more, the recording quality was terrible, as you probably heard earlier in the Pagliacci recordings. But it says something that when the choice was between poor playback quality and not hearing any music (or mediocre local musicians), people started to chose the professional music.

Caruso died in 1920. If his singing career had peaked a generation earlier, we might not remember him today. His (enduring) popularity came from his talent but also timing. As much as his talent, it was technological development and the creation of the recording industry that made Caruso a star. A generation earlier, without the recording industry, his influence would have been more localized and of course, no one could have appreciated his voice today. He marks the start of the winner take all model that naturally emerged with the early recording industry.

More Improvement

The “crooners” were (usually male) singers who unlike Caruso, scandalously sung in a quieter, subtler, voice. Crooners you may have heard include Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Rudy Vallee, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby. Crooning was a style that you’d sing with if you weren’t on stage performing for a large crowd, but were instead scandalously in the same room with the listener.

This style upset many older, conservative people in authority. Who would agree to mass seduction on records or over radio waves? Religious and other conservative opposition was a natural benefit for the style’s popularization.

“No true American man would practice this base art. Of course, they aren’t men… If you will listen closely [to crooners’ songs] you will discern the basest appeal to sex emotion in the young.” — Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, 1932

But if crooning is one of the ways people have always sung, why did it take time for this recorded singing style to emerge? Why even come up with a new name for the style? A big reason was improved recording technology, namely the ribbon microphone, developed in the 1920s.

The earlier popularized carbon button microphone, which was invented in 1878, didn’t enable this personal singing style. If you look at one you might mistake it for the receiver of an old telephone handset (which in essence it was).

However, the ribbon microphone design enabled it to pick up subtler tones with less volume. And when singers could vary their volume, they regained their vocal flexibility. Pair that with better records and record players and the crooning style took off.

As a comparison to the earlier recording of Caruso, listen to this 1946 recording of Sinatra singing “You Go to My Head.”

Now that we’ve improved recording and playback technology almost to current levels, how else can technology be applied to the music industry?


Les Paul, who I luckily was able to hear play live in New York, invented a lot of musical technology that led to another wave of styles. His inventions included over-dubbing, tape delay, echo, reverb, phase shifting, and the solid body electric guitar.

For me a demonstration of how tech was going to change music again comes from this Les Paul and Mary Ford recording of the old standard “How High the Moon.” With effects, the sound was unlike anything people had heard before.

But that was 1951. 

It took some time for Les Paul’s inventions to dissipate. Bands like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and King Crimson were founded in the decade after many of Les Paul’s inventions and their sound was unimaginable earlier. Again, an accident of timing.

There was also another set of leaps when people started sampling and mixing snippets of other songs into new music. This actually started in the 1940s but started to become popular in the 1970s and 80s.

Here’s “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A., released in 1989. This is music, that if needed, you could listen to on headphones your Walkman rather than the expensive equipment needed at the first part of the century. You might also listen to NWA on headphones since the lyrics were so bad that Tipper Gore had already complained about them.

In terms of timing, NWA is about as far in time from the Sinatra recording above as that was from the Caruso recording.

It’s Just Better?

Why don’t we listen to music from the first half of the 20th century that much today? Why do we comparatively listen to much more music from the second half?

I don’t think it’s a matter of how much of the population lived through those years. The effect was the same decades ago. 20th century music from after the 1950s dominates what came before.

It took over a decade for many of Les Paul’s and others’ inventions to permeate the music industry, but once they did, they changed a lot.

My explanation: the music that came after the 1950s… became better. The musicians themselves gained a hold on the tech in new ways and it led to new types of creativity.

Music industry business models went through a lot of development over the last century too (with rough dates):

  • The typical 1900 business model: sell tickets to concerts,
  • 1910: adds record sales,
  • 1930: adds radio advertising,
  • 1960: adds merchandise sales,
  • 2000: adds the sale of individual digital songs,
  • 2010: adds streaming revenue and ad revenue share…

For all the improvements in sound recording and inventiveness in style, there’s something else that happened over that time. That winner take all market meant that music popular in dominant economies (especially those singing in international languages) travels around the world. I have heard the song “Hotel California” requested by locals in Burma and Xinjiang as well as around the US.

Next up is song development by trend analysis and algorithms to write hit songs.

After that, who knows.