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Winners and losers in music technology wars

Great. Just when I interred my ancient cassette tapes and started buying compact discs, journalist Mark Coleman tells me the store-bought CD's reign may last a little longer than Britney Spears's marriage.

"CDs hold too many songs," Coleman writes in "Playback," his breezy history of the technology and business of recorded music. "Quantity fatally compromises quality. Simply put, seventy-four minutes and forty-two seconds are far better suited to a symphony than a collection of popular songs."

The home computer, which can both record and play songs, became the source of pirated music, downloaded for free from the Internet. The music industry fought back with lawsuits and iTunes, an online service offering songs for a fee. But "the pirates, at least some of them, are here to stay," Coleman predicts.

His illuminating primer shows that this is only the latest in a string of technology wars that has created winners and losers in the music business since its beginnings. This slender volume is a little heavy on technological esoterica, and correspondingly light on human profiles and anecdotes. But the former is rendered accessibly enough, and there's enough of the latter to hint at the personalities who've shaped the industry, starting with the Alpha of recorded sound, Thomas Edison.

When he caged the human voice by inventing the phonograph in 1877, Edison thought he'd come up with a terrific dictation machine for business, not a new way to hear music. The stylus on his hand-cranked device caressed a grooved cylinder rather than a record. It was not flawless technology; I've heard the oldest known presidential recording, made on cylinder circa 1889, and Benjamin Harrison sounds as if he's speaking in the midst of the third race at Suffolk Downs, all but inaudible.

The competing Victrola spun discs and became the first successfully marketed turntable. Records displaced cylinders, as cassettes later displaced records and CDs displaced cassettes.

Snazzy technology still requires canny marketing, and some pioneers knew how to plug their inventions. In the 1920s, a Russian physicist displayed an early synthesizer in the US while flanked by attractively nubile women. The Luddite loyal opposition fielded people like James Caesar Petrillo, who led the American Federation of Musicians in the 1930s and `40s. Fearing that records played on radio would cut the demand for gigs by live musicians, he vowed "open war against mechanical devices in general." He lost.

Coleman offers insightful observations as he spins this history, although only a music writer would hype the long-playing record as "the most enduring cultural legacy bequeathed to baby boomers by their parents." Surprisingly, he ignores the crossover effects on the music industry of one technological breakthrough, the arrival of sound movies. The first successful talkie, "The Jazz Singer," spawned several musical standards.

American album sales have fallen for three years running, though business started surging in recent months, goosed in part by the release of Norah Jones's new album. Meanwhile, some record companies are using the Internet to take customers' orders for CDs, rather than produce discs en masse for stores. Whether new sales strategies will work with youthfully rebellious consumers who enjoy the selection and wild-west ethos of illegal music sharing will have to be the topic for a future book.

Rich Barlow can be reached at rbarlow.81@alum.dartmouth.org.

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