Meet Electrophone, the streaming service you’ve never heard of

Long before Spotify, music buffs signed up to hear live concerts by telephone

Tuned in: Listeners in  the Electrophone Salon in Gerrard Street, London, circa 1903. Photograph: The Print Collector/Getty Images

Tuned in: Listeners in the Electrophone Salon in Gerrard Street, London, circa 1903. Photograph: The Print Collector/Getty Images

 

Some 40 years ago, when Sony launched the first Walkman in Ireland, the company didn’t even call it the Walkman. Here, as in Britain, it was called the Stowaway. In other markets it was branded Soundabout or Freestyle. But Walkman was the name that stuck.

The spur for the new product came from one of Sony’s founders, Masaru Ibuka, who wanted a compact replacement for the Sony TC-D5M cassette recorder he used when travelling. This weighed 1.7kg and came with a shoulder strap but no headphones. They added extra weight and bulk.

One of the selling points of the first Walkmans, which came with super-light headphones, was that they featured two headphone sockets. You could walk side-by-side with someone and share the same music. There was even a “hot-line” button so that people could talk to each other through a microphone while the music continued to play.

The future was to take the Walkman in a different direction. Sharing didn’t catch on. What did was the use of Walkmans while walking, jogging, working out, cycling, travelling by bus, plane, train or boat, and, in the case of some crazy individuals, even driving. Wherever you used it, the Walkman made music a solitary experience because, even when other people were around, you were listening alone.

The cultural impact of the Walkman is still with us, as is the hearing deterioration for people who listen to headphones at too high a volume. Hearing damage from loud music, both within and outside the music profession, was not new in 1979. The way it spread after the introduction of the Walkman was.

Years ago I read an essay about recorded music by, if I remember correctly, the Austrian composer Ernst Krenek, the man who at the age of 26 composed Jonny spielt auf, one of the most successful operas of the 1920s.

Acoustic horn

He was writing about how recording would change people’s relationship with music, and the point that stuck in my memory was about a new achievement: the first recording of a Mahler symphony. The recording of Mahler’s Second was made in 1924 and it’s still remarkable that recording engineers were willing to attempt to capture the sound of so many performers using an acoustic horn. 

In the days of 78rpm records you would have had to get up every four minutes or so to change sides

Until that recording appeared, the only way to experience the orchestral sound of Mahler’s Second was to go to it in a concert. You could, of course, play some kind of arrangement on your own or with friends. But the orchestral colours had been the sole province of the concert hall.

The existence of a recording changed all of that. Instead of having to commit to 80 minutes in the concert hall, you could now get up and make a cup of coffee whenever you wanted, or disrupt the flow of the musical experience in any number of ways.

I don’t remember if the article contained any discussion of the fact that in the days of 78rpm records you would have had to get up every four minutes or so to change sides. But the point about not having to deal with the structure of Mahler’s Second as a whole resonated with me.

Things have moved on a lot since the first Walkman, through portable CD players, MP3 players, Apple’s iPod, music on smartphones and on to the streaming of virtually anything to anywhere with a data connection. And the freedoms associated with the Walkman-like listening experience took a quantum leap after Bluetooth removed the need for cabling.

I wonder what implications Krenek would have found in the fact that a typical transatlantic flight from Ireland allows enough time for someone to sit in their own cocoon and listen, back to back, to five recordings of Mahler’s Second Symphony – or any other seven-hour musical selection of their own choosing – with a comfortably cushioned headset that doesn’t even need a wire to pick up the musical signal.

Group listening

The first musical reference book I ever bought, the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, had a drawing captioned Punch as Prophet, from Punch’s Almanack for 1878. Young Buttons is standing in front of a contraption that looks like a big cooker, with dials labelled after venues: “Westminster Abbey”, “Bayreuth”, Covent Garden”, “St James’s Hall”, “Her Majesty’s”. He is being instructed: “Now, recollect, Robert, at a quarter to nine turn on Voi che sapete from Covent Garden; at ten let in the Quartet from Rigoletto full on. But mind you close one tap before opening the other.”

The Electrophone service was expensive – £5 a year, which would have covered a couple of months’ rent

George du Maurier’s drawing for Punch was indeed prescient. Just three years later, in 1881, the French inventor Clément Ader demonstrated his théâtrophone, which could transmit two-channel, multi-microphone relays of theatre and opera over phone lines for listening on headphones. The use of different signals for the two ears created a stereo effect.

This kind of pre-radio relay became a subscription business, and was quickly imitated in Budapest as Telefon Hírmondó (Telephone Herald) and in London as Electrophone. The composer Arthur Sullivan had royalty to dinner after he was given a knighthood, and entertained his guests with an Electrophone relay of selections from his Iolanthe, the performance coming from the Savoy Theatre.

The Electrophone service was expensive – £5 a year at a time when that sum would have covered a couple of months’ rent. And the number of subscribers seem to have been in the hundreds rather than the thousands. The experience was communal rather than solitary, and some of the photographs of listeners being transported by the new experience bring to mind images of addicts in an old-style opium den. Radio killed the venture off in the 1920s.

Krenek died in 1991. What he would have made of 19th-century live streaming is anybody’s guess.

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