A Brief History of Live Music Broadcasts: From the Early Telephone to Live Streams

Even in this time of social distancing, we still need our live music fix so we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of live streamed concerts from artists. The practice of broadcasting musical performances to a distant audience is nothing new though. In fact, this ‘new’ method of showcasing live performances is more similar to the past than you might expect.


Even before the time of radio, live performances were made available to the public remotely via telephone!

“By means of this remarkable instrument, a man can have the Italian opera, the Federal Congress, and his favorite preacher laid on his own house.”

The New York Times, March 22, 1876

Of course, it wasn’t long until this idea became a reality. By the 1880s, stereo telephone listening had been used to transmit music from local theatres. In the late 1890s, numerous companies across Europe started offering their services. Throughout the day, subscribers could tune in from the comfort of their homes to news reports, live theatre, opera, and musical performances. Some companies also included special programs and concerts for children!

Read more about early telephone programming


Naturally, the invention of the radio quickly replaced these special telephone services. The first known radio program was broadcast by Reginald Fessenden on Christmas Eve, 1906 in Massachusetts. Nearby ship operators with wireless systems heard the broadcast, which featured two musical selections, a reading of a poem, and a short talk.

Listen to a segment from NPR’s All Things Considered about Fessenden’s broadcast:

At the end of World War I, radio technologies became more widely available to amateurs and hobbyists. Quite a few “radio stations” popped up, often playing songs off records to anyone who happened to be listening. One entrepreneurial hobbyist even created the first radio advertisements – promoting a local record shop in exchange for free records to play!

A 1920s radio station in Queensland.

In October 1920, a student at Union College in New York started the first college radio station. Wendell King operated the station under his personal call letters, 2ADD, and the station aired what is believed to be the first public entertainment broadcast in the United States: a series of Thursday night concerts able to be heard for nearly 1,000 miles.

1922 saw the formation of the nationally owned British Broadcasting Company, whose stations were to broadcast “news, information, concerts, lectures, educational matter, speeches, weather reports, and theatrical entertainment.” In 1927, the government liquidated and replaced it with a public corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The BBC held a national monopoly on broadcasting until the creation of the Independent Television Authority in 1954.


In 1936, the BBC launched the world’s first high-definition television service, designed by Issac Shoenberg. In 1937, the BBC made its first notable outdoor broadcast, the procession of the coronation of King George VI, using a portable transmitter mounted on a special vehicle.

Footage from the Coronation in 1937

The age of the television in the United States began much later. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) began television broadcasting in 1939, but World War II slowed the growth of television by necessitating that electronics factories shift to wartime production efforts. In 1946, the U.S. and British government removed these wartime restrictions, which enabled a rapid growth of television usage in both countries.

And so began the Golden Age of Television, which further opened the door for many of today’s remote concert options.

The Ed Sullivan Show

When one thinks of live performances during the mid-1900s, the Ed Sullivan show is likely one that comes to mind. Over the shows 23 years, musicians such as The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder, The Doors, the Rolling Stones, and The Jackson 5 all appeared on the show!

Elvis Presley

On September 9, 1956, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. While Sullivan initially refused to book Presley, deeming his dancing to be too un-family-friendly, he changed his mind after losing viewership to a rival show that featured The King. Sullivan offered Presley $50,000 (worth $474k today) for three appearances on his show. His first appearance on that Sunday evening drew 60 million viewers, which represented 82.6% of the national TV audience.

The Beatles

One of the most notable performances on the Ed Sullivan Show was The Beatles’ performance on February 9, 1964, which was their first live performance on American television. The band played the first and second half of the show that evening, and it’s estimated that 73 million Americans tuned in (that’s more than 1/3 of the population!).

Live Aid

In 1985, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure organized the original Live Aid benefit concert. Held simultaenously at Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, the event had over 161,000 in person attendees and broadcasted to an estimated 1.9 billion people around the world.

It’s twelve noon in London, seven AM in Philadelphia, and around the world it’s time for Live Aid.

British Broadcaster Richard Skinner, opening the Live Aid concert

The festival started at noon in London and was broadcast on BBC television and BBC Radio 1. The London lineup featured The Boomtown Rats, Elvis Costello, Sting and Phil Collins, U2, the Dire Straits, Queen, David Bowie, Elton John, and more. The day ended with a piano performance by Paul McCartney of “Let It Be,” followed by a Band Aid performance of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

The show in the US was telecast by ABC and MTV. Notable performances included Black Sabbath; Run-D.M.C.; REO Speedwagon; Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young); Judas Priest; Bryan Adams; The Beach Boys; George Thorogood and the Destroyers; Simple Minds; the Pretenders; Santana; Madonna; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; the Cars; Eric Clapton; Phil Collins; Led Zeppelin; Duran Duran; Hall & Oates; Mick Jagger; and Bob Dylan. The first performance started just before 9am, and closed just before 11 pm with a performance of “We Are the World.”

Queen’s performance at Live Aid was voted the greatest live performance in the history of rock by a 2005 industry poll.

Super Bowl Half Time Show

Before the 1990s, Super Bowl half time shows weren’t what they are today. The shows usually featured marching band performances, and occasionally a performance by a vocalist or other entertainer. In 1993, in an effort to draw more viewers during the event, the producers decided to book Michael Jackson for Super Bowl XXVII. The success of Jackson’s performance in increasing viewership led the NFL to continue booking top performers for their halftime shows.

Over the years, the NFL has hosted an impressive array of artists to be broadcast live into the homes of millions of Americans. Some of these performances went better than others, and in recent years, many of them were also available live online.

The Internet

It wasn’t until 1991 that the internet became available to the public. In 1993, the first live stream concert took place. The band Severe Tire Damage was playing an event at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto when engineers decided to test their new internet broadcasting technology. People as far away as Australia checked it out!

In 1994, the Rolling Stones became the first well-known band to broadcast live via the Internet. Of course, Severe Tire Damage wanted in on the fun, and played some songs before and after the official Stones concert, since the broadcast channel was open to the public!

Read more about these early livestreams from a 1994 New York Times article.

While live internet broadcasts started pretty early on in the internet’s history, it was more than 10 years later before it became affordable and feasible for the general public! In 2007, Twitch.tv got it’s start as Justin.tv, a site where Justin Kan live streamed his life, 24/7. It wasn’t until after 2010 that the major sites that we still use today implemented the ability to go live. YouTube added live video in 2011 for accounts with over 1,000 subscribers and for everybody in 2013. Periscope, which allows Twitter users to go live, launched in 2015. Facebook Live didn’t fully launch until April 2016, and Instagram Live started in November 2016.

To read more about the history of internet streaming, click here.

The history of broadcasting live musical performances is a rich and interesting story, and the performances we have access to today are a culmination of over a hundred years of science and culture that we should not take for granted! We hope you enjoyed this brief overview of the history of performance broadcasting, and check back on May 15 for a look at the best livestreams that have entertained us at home during our coronavirus quarantines.

Photo Credit: Squelle / CC BY-SA

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