It’s easy to take music for granted. In our society, it’s constantly and freely available. Yes, you do need to pay for certain formats because musicians deserve payment for their work. But there is music available for you to listen to for free.
Now imagine that was taken away from you. In the early years of the Cold War, during the 1950s, the Soviet Union banned Western music, and even some Russian music that they believed was decadent and would corrupt their citizens. American parents were also concerned about that rock and roll beat, but they weren’t able to ban it.
Soviet leadership apparently didn’t know that the best way to ensure that people want something is to ban it. Or that where there’s a will, there’s a way. And while music may not be necessary to sustain life, many of us believe that the world would be a dark and dreary place without it.
Life in a place as micromanaged and controlled as the Soviet Union brings out human creativity. When access to ideas and things is so limited, people learn to work around the rules. Suddenly there was a black market where you could get banned items that had been smuggled into the country. Western music was available if you had enough money.
Not everyone had enough money, so they needed a cheaper option. They could press their own copies from smuggled vinyl, but vinyl was extremely rare and expensive. Then some enterprising soul realized that they could use old x-rays in place of vinyl. A new subculture of Soviet teens called stilyagi arose and “bone records” were born.
This was the 1950s, in the days before shredding, and it seems they were able to get old x-rays from hospital dumpsters. The quality of the final product wasn’t great, but everyone today who listens to old vinyl instead of digital music understands that clarity isn’t always the point. They could only press a smuggled copy on one side of the x-ray, they put a hole for the spindle in the center using a lit cigarette, they had to play at 78 rpm, and the newly stamped record wore out quickly. But they were most certainly better than no music and were much cheaper than black market vinyl.
With so many copies throughout the country, the government took steps. They tried to stifle demand by flooding the market with fake bone records which included just a couple of seconds of music and then a torrent of swearing at the listener about how bad it was to listen to this music. The hope was that the public wouldn’t spend their hard-earned money when they might end up with a fake. When that ploy didn’t work, they simply banned bone records in 1958.
That didn’t work either, and the market, known as the “x-ray press”, continued for a few years, even though those who created, sold or bought the recordings were risking imprisonment. Then in the 1960s the government lightened up a little bit on their restrictions, and at the same time, reel-to-reel tape recorders became available and made them obsolete. See, technological obsolescence is not a new thing.
Some bone records have survived, and you can find some for sale on the internet, although they are pretty pricey. You can go here to listen to any of a selection of 15 bone recordings. The quality is actually better than I imagined, and I especially liked the second selection, “Lullaby of Birdland” by Ella Fitzgerald.
So next time you turn on your music of choice, imagine if you couldn’t. Think about how it would change your life if you didn’t have music, and what you would risk to get it back.