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The First Music Streaming Service
In the 1930s, a Seattle entrepreneur created a successful analog streaming platform—and ran it out of a drugstore
Streaming music was a dream long before it became reality. Back in 1627, Francis Bacon imagined a futuristic kind of music streaming technology in his utopian story The New Atlantis—where the inhabitants “have means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.”
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The same dream of music streaming shows up in Edward Bellamy’s 1887 novel Looking Backward. Here the author envisions music on September 12, 2000, when people can listen to a concert in their home “merely pressing the button which will connect your house-wire with the hall where it is being rendered.”
Bellamy must have thought this was an amazing concept, but his streaming vision was quite modest compared with the reality of the 21st century. In his story, people only have a choice of four streaming channels, each one connected to a different concert hall.
In the 1920s and 1930s, this dream started to turn into reality. An electric utility in Cleveland even offered a service to residents in Lakeland—three channels piped into their homes from the power substation for $1.50 per month. The Muzak company, originally launched as Wired Radio, Inc. in 1922, initially built its business model on the same concept: Music would be provided to homes as a kind of utility, and paid for as part of the monthly electricity bill.
The company eventually changed its name to Muzak, and shifted its emphasis to businesses. The much larger home market continued to rely on recordings and physical media. Even radios, which started showing up in almost every household during the 1920s, never became an actual utility with consumers paying for the service. Instead, radio broadcasts were embraced by station owners as a way to sell advertising and supported by music companies in order to promote recordings and tickets to live events.
Radio represented a huge technological advance, but people still dreamed of other ways of delivering music to homes, especially via the telephone. One of the strangest jazz tracks of the 1930s finds Louis Armstrong performing live with his band in Stockholm—but he was recorded over a telephone connection with a studio. This remarkable performance is one of the very first live recordings of jazz, but how unsettling when you hear occasional telephone conversations interrupting the music—because they were going over the same wires as Armstrong’s trumpet.
Check out Armstrong’s majestic coda at the 3:25 mark and weep over the crossed lines of other phone calls filling up the moments of silence between his horn notes.
The bandwidth (as we would call it nowadays) simply wasn’t wide enough to create a genuine streaming technology—certainly not with all the choices and options allowed by Internet platforms today. Music might very well be the most intangible of all art forms, but it still needs physical infrastructure to support its commercial aspirations. Given these constraints, even a small record collection gave music fans far more options than any radio or other available technology—at least until the late twentieth century.
But this didn’t stop people from trying other things, some of them quite strange.
This leads me to my favorite crazy music technology concept of the era. At the end of the 1930s, Seattle inventor Ken Shyvers launched a bizarre business out of a kind of studio bunker in the Pacific Northwest. Here a team of women worked late into the night with odd-looking machines combining the capabilities of a turntable, jukebox, and phone line.
The price was five cents per song. The input device looked like a small art deco cylinder, only 18 inches tall and easily fitting on a restaurant tabletop or bar counter. Many customers must have assumed these were some kind of mini-jukebox—except they offered a much wider range of song choices than any other competing technology.
The Multiphones (as they were called) allowed a selection of up to 300 tracks—and typically came with a list of around 170 options. The song choices were relayed to the female disk jockeys, who worked out of an available room in a drugstore at Fourth Street and Pacific Avenue in Bremerton. They would play the chosen track, which was broadcast back to the customer via a telephone line.
Bars and restaurants were the target market, but there was no reason why the concept couldn’t have spread to homes. The technology never gained national distribution, but thrived in Washington state, where it found a user base in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, and Bremerton. From 1939 to 1959, the Multiphone was not only a viable business, but anticipated many key aspects of the music distribution model of our own time.
We recognize many familiar ingredients here. No physical medium was required at the customer interface. A wide selection of songs was available for instant listening. Music choices were made by the user, not some corporation or station manager.
Why did it eventually fail? I fear that the Multiphone concept was too labor-intensive—requiring human intervention for each song played—and not very scalable. And though it offered a wider range of choices than a jukebox, the recordings suffered from poorer audio quality. The old-fashioned jukebox was, at that time, a simpler, easier concept.
But give Ken Shyvers credit. He wanted to empower the user, widen the range of song choices, and avoid the need for physical records at the point of consumption. Nowadays we take each of these ingredients for granted, But eighty years ago, only a farsighted entrepreneur could have conceived of how to achieve such ambitious goals with analog technology.