From Vinyl To Free – A History Of Music Formats (and How Much They Have Cost)

They say music is the food of love, and who doesn’t love food – especially a free lunch?

Ever since Napster blazed its way onto the Internet in 1999, people all over the world have been enjoying the easy availability of free downloads of copyrighted music. The record industry threw a fit and they haven’t stopped since.


They argue that they are losing too much money to piracy and besides that, why should these criminals be getting their product for nothing? They say that quality will suffer as labels are forced to downsize and be more selective with the bands they sign. The music industry will die because of this!

Then there’s the other side of the argument, that CDs cost far too much and that most music promoted by the record industry is vapid and soul-less. When this is the case, why should the consumer fork out for their product only to discover they’ve been sold the sonic equivalent of snake oil?

Whichever side of the argument you hold as your own personal opinion (and who wants to stand side by side with the industry that gave Fred Durst a recording contract?) we at AMOG thought it was time to have a quick look back through history at the various formats music has been sold on and pose the question: if the dollar was worth then what it is now, how much would I be paying?

The Phonographic Cylinder

This is the big grand-daddy of consumer music media. Invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison (based on somebody else’s idea), they enjoyed their heyday between 1888 and 1915 before being replaced by the Gramaphone record, the earliest form of what we consider Vinyl. A machine to play one of these cylinders on would set you back $125 dollars back in the day, with the cylinders themselves retailing for $4.

Taking into account inflation that’s $2,685.72 for the machine and $85.94 per cylinder!


The Phonographic Disk

The cylinder is dead, long live the disk! The phonograph is where that mainstay of DJs started out its life, all the way back in the 1870s. In those early days records were made of all kinds of wacky materials like metal, hard rubber and bug resin (shellac).

Shellac was the big thing until vinyl became the standard material in 1948. Shellac records are still collected today in the form of 78s (referring to the Rotations Per Minute the record was to be played at) as a lot of the early jazz and blues artists we’re recorded onto them before promptly dying of heroin overdoses, being stabbed in bar-room brawls or drinking themselves to death.

Information regarding how much these used to retail for is somewhat sketchy, at least online. Shellac records were very brittle and shattered easily which explains all those loony tunes cartoons in which we saw records being smashed over Elmer Fudd’s head. Vinyl would just bounce off, see?



When we think of phonograph records these days, vinyl is what we envision. Made from more resilient material than shellac, and producing a much better sound, vinyl was the main man for playing music at home right up until the 80s when cassette tape sales eclipsed it.

In the 1960s a single (or a 45 in vinyl parlance) would of set you back 69 cents, which works out at about $5 in today’s money. During the 70s, albums (LPs) retailed for between $2.97-$5.99 which comes out at $11.74-$23.68. By 1984 an album was going for between $6-$7 which in 2009 cash-money is a scale of $12.28-$14.33 – not much change from the 70s!

These days vinyl is virtually the exclusive domain of dance music aficionados, DJs and indie snobs. On the Tower Records website Radiohead’s “OK Computer” will set you back 21 bucks! A hip hop single? Still logging in at about $5.



This ill-fated format didn’t last very long. Invented in 1964, they didn’t really take off until the Ford motor company started offering them as an extra in 1966. That made them a massive overnight success, with 65,000 8-track decks being installed in that year alone.

An 8-track copy of your favorite album would cost you about the same as a vinyl copy in the 70s, which accounting for the passage of time would be between $11 and $24. By 1983, the major record labels had – thankfully – forgotten all about them in favor of cassette tapes.


Cassette Tape

Despite being invented in the 60s, tape didn’t really become popular until the 80s. The sound quality was somewhat lacking in comparison to vinyl. An album on tape in the 80s would cost you $7, about 14 bucks these days.

What was truly revolutionary about cassette tapes was that you could buy them blank and use them to record your record collection onto, providing you with a handy and portable copy of your music, or even a compilation of your favorite tracks. These could then be swapped between your friends – and thus music piracy was born.

The mix-tape was the analogue precursor to the playlist! In the UK the British Phonograph Institute ran an advertising campaign that declared that home-taping was killing music, echoing the ravings of the RIAA today. Strangely enough, music survived. I’m sure it will find a way to continue today.

Leave a Comment

  1. Scott says:

    Um…. I think your missing something here. I don't know maybe you should have mentioned CD's, Mini Discs, mp3s, mp3 players, you know to complete the transaction from "Vinyl to Free"

    • techmog says:

      CD's aren't mentioned because it's the format we use now and I would assume everyone knows what they cost. The article starts by discussing how files are practically free. Mp3 players are not a format – I didn't mention Walkmans and other players in depth, did I?

  2. michael aaron says:

    also missing aresheet music & piano rolls

  3. MKMK says:

    How about the different reel-to-reel machines?

  4. Paul says:

    Funny thing, I remember and have used all these music formats. I remember being a kid and using 33 1/3 RPM vinyl, 45 RPM, and some 78 RPM. I never liked the 8-track. I used me some cassettes back in the day. Just think you had 90 minutes of music in your pocket….I mean dude that was awesome. Music piracy, they have been screaming about that for years, and nothing has changed. We just have the Internet now but at its core…it is still the same as it was then.

  5. Beef says:

    this article sucks.

  6. What? says:

    So where is the rest of the article?
    You suck!

  7. vinyl man says:

    This article is lame. I cannot believe it made it too digg.
    Here is some stats. The most vinyl was pressed last year (2008) since 1991.
    Vinyl is still being released as collector items with a coupon for the mp3 download.
    so put that in your pipe and smoke it

  8. to be continued? says:

    I bet they called the author "halfjob" at the office.

  9. wtf says:

    Is this missing a link to the rest of the article?

  10. josh says:

    I really liked the article, I found it to be well informed and well

    (yup i end things in the middle as well )

  11. Learn2write says:

    Thanks for wasting my time. It would be a compliment to even call this article a "half-assed' attempt. Not only is this article missing some of the most relevant technological developments which led to popular music formats today, but most of the information that is given is false, assumptions, or just plain incorrect!

  12. JOhn Davis says:

    Wow, what a trip down memory lane! Amazing!


  13. audiopreservationist says:

    seriously? the article ends here?

  14. KPHITMAN13 says:

    Wow, self high 5 yourself on not finishing the article. I saw cassette, and then.. comments? Oh well, i guess ill …

    See, now you will never know. Thats me stopping half way through…

  15. nsilva1380 says:

    "I know! I'll write an article about the evolution of the music format!!!"

    7 hours later…

    "Man this is hard…oh well people all know where this is going anyway. I'm gonna watch tv."

  16. dragonaut says:

    either the "next" button is not working, or this article really sucks.

  17. ZZZZbad says:

    "From Vinyl To Free"

    what exactly it this free you speak of, since I don't see it in you're article. I must agree, this article is incomplete and not all that great ~_~

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