An illustration of cassette tapes featuring classic albums by Sex Pistols, John Lennon, Pink Floyd and more.
© John Smisson
Music

These are the recorded music formats that changed listening habits forever

Digital streaming and downloads have dominated music consumption since the start of the 21st century, but how did fans listen to music before then? Here's a potted history.
By Sammy Lee
3 min readPublished on
Recorded music formats – the medium via which fans consume their favourite albums and songs – have become increasingly accessible since the dawn of the 20th-century and Thomas Edison's wax-cylinder phonograph. With every evolution of recorded music formats, more music than ever is put within easy reach of listeners. We've certainly come a long way since hand-cranked 78 rpm shellac discs. Scroll down for a rapid-fire history of recorded music formats.

Phonograph

The earliest recorded music format was the wax cylinder phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. To begin with listeners had to load and hand-crank pre-recorded cylinders (and eventually flat shellac discs) to hear their favourite tunes, before electrical cut records in the early '20s standardised the speed of records at 78 rpm (revolutions per minute).
An illustration of America's greatest inventor Thomas Edison dancing to a shellac playing on a phonograph player.
An illustration of American inventor Thomas Edison dancing to a phonograph

Vinyl

There were various attempts at making reel-to-reel tapes and the Tefifon – vinyl 'tape' housed in a cartridge – commercially viable in the '30s, but it wasn't until fragile shellac 78s were replaced by vinyl in the late '40s that music consumption skyrocketed. Columbia Records developed a 12-inch 33 ⅓ rpm micro-groove record that held 22 minutes of sound on each side – the beginning of the album's golden era. Its rival, RCA Records, opted instead to develop a 45 rpm seven-inch record. Both became popular and vinyl – in its various guises, including the flexi-disc – dominated until the late '80s.

Cassette tape

The 1963 arrival of the cassette tape changed perceptions of recorded music, allowing listeners to make their own recordings of albums and live shows, and make mix tapes for loved ones. With this, of course, came an explosion in music piracy, which the industry tried to tackle with the iconic anti-piracy campaign 'Home Taping Is Killing Music'. Tapes had competition in the '60s and '70s from the eight-track cartridge, which became a staple in-car format for a while, but the enduring legacy of the cassette tape was to make recorded music portable for the first time thanks to the Sony Walkman.
Vinyl albums in illustrated form.
An illustration of a vinyl album on top of yet more records

CD

Nothing challenged the supremacy of vinyl records until the arrival of the compact disc. The digital optical disc, with a diameter of 12cm, first appeared in 1982 when Sony and Philips, who had been developing digital discs independently, chose to pool their resources. The first million-selling CD was Dire Straits' Brother In Arms in 1986 and the format began to make vinyl obsolete (although we'll come back to  that later) with sales peaking at 2.455 billion in 2000. Sony also developed the MiniDisc in the late '90s. But something much bigger was on the horizon.  

MP3

In 1982, a German electrical engineering student was set a challenge to transmit music over digital phone lines. By the early '90s he had developed a lossy compressed audio file otherwise known as a MP3. After decoding software was leaked online at the end of the decade, file-sharing sites such as Napster appeared and music piracy was back on the agenda and threatening to cripple the recording industry. The 2001 release of Apple's iPod legitimised the MP3 and digital downloads – now also served as lossless files – overtook physical sales in 2011.
An illustrated line chart showing the rise of online music consumption and the fall of physical music formats.
Illustrated line chart showing the rise in digital music consumption

Streaming

Even the dominance of digital downloads couldn't last. Internet radio apps such as Pandora and Last.fm began introducing the idea of streaming and when the iPhone landed in 2007, making these apps and others mobile, music consumption took a giant leap. Streaming services such as Tidal, Spotify and Apple Music meant listeners could discover and play almost any song ever recorded without the need for storage. The twist in the tale of music formats, however, is that vinyl sales are now at their highest level since 1991. Who's laughing now, CD?