Of all the great technological advancements that have taken place in the history of mankind, the ability to record things must surely be among the most significant. I don’t mean writing and drawing pictures, I mean capturing actual images and sounds by some permanent means and then being able to show them or play them back at will for the information and amusement of the masses. Putting a man on the moon was also quite significant, but there would be a lot more conspiracy theories if the only records we had of it were some notes taken by Neil Armstrong and a few sketches by Buzz Aldrin.
Before we had the ability to record pictures and sounds, things were certainly very different for musicians and actors. Musicians were barely more than specially trained servants who could make agreeable noises with their voices or cunningly fashioned pieces of wood and metal, and actors were little more than performing monkeys who pranced about doing their best to bring to life the stories written by the really talented people. These were not glamorous occupations—in fact they were quite vulgar—and those engaged in them were never going to get rich. To earn a living they had to perform live for payment, either for a flat fee or for what they could earn from ticket sales. This remains the case for the majority of musicians and actors today, but at least these occupations are more respectable these days.
Musicians were the first to benefit from recording when clever clogs Thomas Edison came along with his phonograph under his arm in 1878. For the first time, the noises made by the tuneful servants could be captured and then played back at will. I am sure the servants thought this would be a disadvantage at first, meaning they were only needed once and then the music they produced could be played forever. I imagine the servants very soon started asking for higher fees for their services, but they were probably largely ignored and sent to empty his Lordship’s bedpan. But then the public started liking some music more than other music and buying it in larger quantities and the music industry, and its first stars, were born.
Then, in 1896, Edison stuck his head round the door again with his Vitascope, which became the first commercially viable moving picture projector in the US. Now the efforts of actors could be recorded and played back at will and ‘the movies’ quickly became a popular form of entertainment. The good actors (or the best-looking ones) started becoming more popular than the others and the movie industry and movie stars were born. So, thanks to Edison, musicians and actors have had it pretty good for just over a century.
Things have changed now. The original, digitally recorded work of musicians and actors can be recorded again (or ‘copied’ – it’s the same thing) by almost anyone and shared free of charge with millions of people in the blink of an eye via the Internet. So, even though this ‘piracy’ is highly illegal and the owners of the work are doing their very best to stop it, there is less and less value in the recorded work and more and more value in live performance. Famous musicians used to go on tour doing live performances to promote sales of their recorded work. Now, by necessity, more and more are giving away their recorded work online in order to promote sales of tickets for their live shows. Ironically, modern recording methods are eroding the fame and fortune the original recording methods gave them just over 100 years ago.
But what are actors going to do? Can you imagine Brangelina on Broadway or Bruce Willis in the West End? It’s a possibility, but they wouldn’t make the multiple millions of dollars per year that they make now from movie fees. Clearly the West End production of Armageddon would not have quite the same impact as the movie, so movies will always be necessary, but with computer graphics going the way they are, pretty soon the digital wizards of Hollywood will be able to take a 3D picture of any movie star (or even design their own) and make it do whatever they want on the big screen and we won’t be able to see the join – and it will stay young forever.
Going to the movies remains something we like to do with other people, so even though we could easily (but illegally) watch the latest movies at home for free, we still like to make it a night out. For this reason computer technology is a far greater threat to the Hollywood actor than recording technology – but their days are certainly numbered. Live stage actors will come to the fore and Oscars will be given only for writing, directing and digital wizardry, etc. Imagine the awards ceremony with no dramatic, tearful, glamorous people, just short, fat, bald men and nerds thanking their mums.