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Beats & Bits Cover of El mercado discográfico Illustration: Jennifer Ancízar.

The record market

Usually, when I think of my childhood, images of cassettes and tapes come to mind. And of VHS players (called "videos") to watch movies on the TV using large cassettes. The "tape recorders" (equivalent to stereos), we called them that, but many did not record. They were smaller cassette players and usually received radio signals (the more advanced ones had an antenna and picked up AM and FM).

I have fond memories of these things. For some time now my wallpaper has looked like this:

record market

Wealthy families had all this and bought original movies and music cassettes in stores or smuggled them in. We all heard about or went to a movie bank; you went there, rented what you wanted to see and that solved the problem, you didn't have to buy blank cassettes at PhotoService to have someone record a film for you or to save your favorite national TV show.

For musicians, dissemination in Cuba in those years was mainly through conventional media: radio, print media and television. Very little could be done outside of that. There was such a limited supply that cassettes were used over and over again. 

They were re-recorded with new content and had to be rewound (bringing the tape back to the initial point) to be able to see or listen to the material they contained. Some people preferred to rewind by hand; after all, it was a mechanical process that could be done with patience (pencil or pen in the cassette slot, better than finger). 

Some tapes were so special and people were so fond of them that they became tangled and wrinkled due to the logical wear and tear of the product and excessive use (perhaps this is the origin of the use of "pellejo" (skin) to refer to pornography in Cuba).

Today, music is an essential and easily accessible element for everyone. From person to person, by USB, by the weekly packagethrough social networks...; in any way it is possible to press the button of Play and indulge ourselves with our favorite artist.

And to think that this can be said to have started in the 15th century with paper editions (or in China around the 8th century; but this is the subject of the next article). Around 1450, the German Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press, printed the Bible and soon after began to use this technology to extend and safeguard liturgical music. At that time, piano manufacturers earned the money that later record sellers earned, because the only way to transmit music was direct transmission, until the possibility of reproducing it on different media appeared. Those who wanted to listen to music had to buy sheet music and have it played in their meeting places. This is the real beginning of the distribution and sale of copies of music in the West.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, sheet music publishers dominated the music sales market. Live concerts were of incalculable importance. Clearly, there were different ways of making live music for every stratum and social group.

Thus began what is known today as the "record industry". Why do I talk about the "record industry" if records were not yet produced? I ask myself, and I answer myself with another question: why do we still talk about the record industry today if records hardly exist anymore?

The sale of physical formats accounted for 19% of total sales proceeds in 2021.although a slowdown in the decline has been observed between 2017 and 2020, followed by sustained growth that does not compete with digital formats. This speaks of the return of records (especially acetate records). 

Anyway, in the recent past, we rarely paid in Cuba to listen to music. Because of the conditions in which we "developed", we were (and in some ways still are) "pirates" of cultural consumption. 

Actually, "recording industry" has been used for a long time, one can speculate that since 1902. On November 12 of that year Enrico Caruso sang in what is recognized today as the first recording of a music disc, at the same time that in Cuba the apprentices' strike and the beginning of the neocolonial period. 

Although 78 rpm discs were quite widespread, it was not until the incorporation of acetate, 33 or 45 rpm, a much improved version of the previous ones presented by Columbia Records in 1948, that its commercialization spread worldwide in a vertiginous way. It was a more malleable, cheaper, durable and efficient support than Edison's phonograph tubes and other materials that failed for various reasons. 

record market

Source: World Economic Forum


If you follow the money trail, you can better understand the context. All the major companies interested in disseminating the works of artists were related to the manufacture of their technological supports. Yes, cult classics started out as simply part of the business for manufacturers of sound reproduction media. It was necessary to invest in artists who sold a lot so that people would buy records and turntables.

The capital invested and obtained as profit, was so great between the 30's and 50's, when it was still beginning to gain strength, that the whole commercial movement linked to the production and distribution of music ended up being coined as "record industry". The broadcasting of music through radio and television and the work of artist representation agencies have their roots in Edison's companies and their competitors, who monopolized and dominated the early days (their traces reach the present day and are even at the genesis of many of today's players in the music ecosystem).

Strictly speaking, however, the "music industry" should not be confused with the "record industry", since the production, distribution and marketing of products containing musical audio is only one part of the chain. From composers, producers, sound engineers, luthiers, live performers, managers and booking agents to concert ticketing companies, not to mention the increasingly widespread trend of the "independent artist" (this person who is all in one and who usually has as the peak of his natural development to be welcomed by the "record industry") are part of the industrial ecosystem that we have been describing.

With all the progress of Web 2.0 and 3.0, digital platforms for music content, the NFTsThe proliferation of independent artists and labels has broadened and diversified the musical offer, and it is now less normal that all the capital circulating around entertainment can be concentrated in a single group of players. At the end of the day, it cannot be forgotten that music is only a part of the resources destined to offer entertainment (there are video games, by far the most powerful sub-industry in this branch; cinema, photography, etc.).

What is centralized today are no longer the means of production. We have lived through a process of democratization of access to them. Making music is no longer complicated; what is difficult is to be visible in order to sell it and, apparently, the historical owners of the market fear for the future.

It is logical that there is such uncertainty about what is going to happen. The world has changed, technologies are once again influencing the destinies of almost all "industries", including the music industry; and now instead of buying cassettes, we put them as wallpaper. We don't even conceive of paying to put a photo on our cell phone. Today's nostalgic people have rescued the old technologies; but that is precisely what makes us think that we are in a stage as ephemeral as the music we consume. 

 (To be continue…)

Avatar photo Edu O'Bourke Professor and Researcher in Social Sciences. Psychologist and singer-songwriter. More posts

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