As a generation who dominantly stream their music, with streaming accounting for “38.4% of global music industry revenue” in 2017, some of us may not know what it was like to live in a time of vinyls, cassettes and compact discs. InterMusic is here to take a look back at the history of music distribution from its inception to now.

Sheet Music

An image of sheet music

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Before any form of physical recording, sheet music had been the way that music was distributed. The first machine-printed music came into circulation in the 1470s, approximately 20 years after the printing press first came into motion. From here, this was the beginning of a new era for music and it was about more than the performers and the instruments. It started to become about the composition; allowing for composers to create pieces for amateurs to reproduce. At the dawn of the 19th Century, the reproduction of sheet music became a large dominance of the music industry.

The Phonograph

An image of Thomas Edison and a Phonograph

Levin C. Handy [via Wikimedia Commons]

The Phonograph (or gramophone), invented in 1877, was the first world-famous invention of Thomas Edison. Edison invented invented a machine that could not only record sound but could also play it back. Originally, phonographs would use tin foil and a needle to record the sound and another needle would play this back. However, once the tin foil tore up the message could not play anymore. As time passed, phonographs could play records.

The Record

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Records (or vinyls) were first of prominence in the 1890s in which the discs were around seven inches in diameter. In 1903, twelve inch records came into motion which could hold four or five minutes of music on each side. In the 1910s, the ten inch music record took over as most popular and was able to hold around three minutes of music on each side. This is around the average length for a single track today: “songs seem to be around three minutes“.  It was not until 1930 that the first twelve inch long-playing (LP) music record was released, holding around 22 minutes of music per side. Records remained the dominant format for music until the late 1970s. At this point, cassette tapes were the major rival for records.

The Cassette Tape

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Cassette Tapes were first introduced by Philips Electronics in 1963.  They store sound on magnetic tape that wound around the two reels inside of it. Each tape allowed for 30-45 minutes of music per side – a revolutionary development for music distribution. Initially not the best quality of music, the quality of Cassette Tapes drastically improved over the years. This became prominent with cassette decks were introduced to cars and the invention of the Walkman Portable Music Player; allowing individuals to consume music wherever they went. As the 1980s came, the compact disc become the Cassette Tape’s biggest rival.

The Compact Disc

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The Compact Disc was created in a meeting between Philips and Sony in 1979, moving from analogue technology to digital sound: a large advancement in music distribution. The Compact Disc was introduced into the market in 1982 and by 1988, over 400 million Compact Discs had been manufactured around the world. In addition to this, Compact Disc sales eclipsed records, and overtook cassette tapes in 1991, becoming the dominant format for music distribution. This was until a new entity changed the dynamics of music distribution forever.



Originally launched in 1999, Napster was a peer-to-peer file sharing network that allowed members to share MP3 files across an internet-connected network. Providing millions of users with free music, it became a very popular service. This did not last long, however, due to copyright issues across the service shutting Napster down in 2001. The following year, the service redeveloped and branded itself as Napster 2.0: an online music store. This service allowed for users to access music through a subscription based service. The development and initial shutdown led to a new and illegal form of music distribution.

Torrents and Download Sites

An image of a pirated compact disc

Napster [CC BY-SA 4.0]

With Napster coming and going in a flash, this influenced others to create websites with a similar purpose. Websites such as Rapidshare and Megaupload started allowing people to download music for free. Piracy had become a new and popular way to distribute music. This problem still persists today, although law enforcements around the world try their hardest to block and prevent these services from happening.

Digital Download Services

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The iTunes Store, officially launched in 2003, had been described by Steve Jobs as a “music revolution“. The iTunes Store is an online service in which people can buy and download music whenever it suited their needs. However, it was not until 2014 when digital download sales surpassed physical sales. As a service that started the legal music download industry, it had no idea what was in store for the future of music distribution.


An image of the Spotify Logo

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Spotify, currently cited as the “best music streaming service overall“, launched in 2008 as a free (with advertisements) and paid subscription streaming service. Streaming services like Spotify have most of the same features. These include millions of songs to choose from on-demand, downloads for offline listening and the ability to listen on any device from mobile phones to televisions. Streaming has taken over as the dominant format for music distribution, with other services such as Apple Music, Amazon Music and YouTube Music following the ways of Spotify in the format of streaming.


From sheet music and phonographs to digital downloads and streaming services, the dynamics of music distribution have significantly changed over the years. It is hard to comprehend the future of music distribution and what is going to come next. With advancements of music distribution seemingly reaching their optimum, what is going to come next?