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How music became an industry: on 'Selling Sounds'

September 15, 2009 |  7:15 am


Among the fascinating examples of early music-industry advertising reproduced in "Selling Sounds," the most striking is a 1913 image that pairs a photograph of legendary tenor Enrico Caruso, costumed for "Aida," with one of his Victor Red Seal recordings. “Both are Caruso," the text reads, adding that the owner of the disc hears the singer in his own home "just as truly as if you were listening to him in the Metropolitan Opera House." For author David Suisman, this identification of a living, breathing person with an inert hunk of shellac that encodes his voice isn’t merely a clever promotional ploy, but an emblem of a century-old transformation in the ways that we understand, experience and consume music.

Subtitled "The Commercial Revolution in American Music," Suisman's book (Harvard University Press) focuses on the 1880s through the mid-1920, a period that saw the growth of sheet-music publishing from a printer's sideline to a wildly profitable New York-based industry, the rise of the player piano, and its displacement in American homes by the even more easily operated gramophone. These innovations made professionally composed and performed music available to a wider range of Americans than ever before. At the same time, music increasingly became something to be passively appreciated rather than actively made. (This story could have been different, if Edison's wax cylinders, which allowed convenient home recording as well as playback, had won out over Emile Berliner’s disc technology.) Suisman also emphasizes the extent to which regional and vernacular sounds were crowded out by the centralized distribution of mass-produced scores (and later records), though he notes that the new technologies would later preserve the folk traditions of players and singers who didn’t or couldn't notate their songs.

Even the category of "popular song" was a child of commerce. Though individual songs had become "hits" since the days of American minstrels and the English music halls, it wasn’t until the 1910s that the writers and publishers of Tin Pan Alley organized their production and promotion into a consistently profitable enterprise. As the lengthy narratives of older balladry gave way to short, catchy choruses meant to be remembered in seconds and forgotten in weeks, these commodities formed the cornerstone of what could be called, for the first time, an American music "industry." The melodies were often sentimental, but their authors were not. Suisman cites Irving Berlin’s dicta that "the songwriter must look upon his work as a business," as well as vaudevillian Bert Williams's assertion that popular melodies "were mostly made up of standard parts, like a motor car."

With new things to sell came new ways of selling, from the public "song-plugging" of the sheet-music era to the Victor Co.’s canny use of "Nipper," the dog that cocked an ear to “His Master’s Voice,” in one of the 20th century’s most recognizable corporate trademarks.

Phonograph manufacturers were also in the advance guard of consumer credit, specialized store window displays, and celebrity endorsement. Even more significantly, music publishers and songwriters led efforts to expand the law’s conception of intellectual property. A 1924 photograph depicts Berlin, John Phillip Sousa and operetta composer Victor Herbert preparing to lobby Congress for royalties on radio broadcasts of their music; to this day, their spiritual (and sometimes actual) descendants rally the troops when valuable copyrights are threatened by the Constitution's pesky "limited term" clause.

Though the story Suisman tells is a broadly familiar one, he has assembled valuable reminders of something many would rather ignore; namely, the extent to which the music we hear, and how we hear it, has less to do with our personal preferences than with what a large, well-organized sector of business makes available to us. Most listeners – and, I’d wager, artists – would surely prefer to see their musical experiences as a respite from capitalism, not a function of it. Still, it would be hard to deny that phenomena from the selling of youth culture back to itself in the form of rock and roll to the rise of ringtones as a tiny, publicly audible lifestyle indicator (and a fresh income stream) are rooted in structures and processes whose origins Suisman describes.

That said, Suisman sometimes overreaches in laying bare the nefarious consequences of his “revolution,” as when he claims that the “disembodiment” of music from its making was the “very purpose” of piano rolls and phonograph records. If so, why tie them so closely to the image of the performer, as in Victor’s Caruso ad? Suisman at times allows that popular song “brought real pleasure into people’s lives, and [that] through the music people formed meaningful social bonds.” These concessions read begrudgingly, as way-stations to his insistence that “the music industry was not connected or responsible [to its audience] except through the market.” Such bona fides, which owe an acknowledged debt to Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism and Theodor Adorno’s dismal view of “the culture industry,” are reproduced frequently -- even mechanically -- throughout the book.

I happened to read "Selling Sounds" not long after the death of two figures (among many others) whose careers complicate Suisman’s pessimistic outlook. Guitarist Les Paul, who died Aug. 13, invented the process of recording “sound on sound,” first on disc and then on multi-track tape. With this and other inventions, Paul did as much as anyone to make recorded music into an artistic medium in its own right. Thirteen days after Paul’s passing came that of Ellie Greenwich, who penned (with Jeff Barry) such girl-group gems as “Be My Baby” and “Leader of the Pack” as a staffer for companies housed in the Brill Building, the last stronghold of New York’s songwriting industry. Though these artists, like any artist at any time, would have produced something different, or nothing at all, under other conditions, they did their best work from within the belly of the technological-cum-corporate beast. More than that, their music has proved far more durable than the ephemeral assembly-line products suggested by "Selling Sounds." The existence of such work is another strain within the tangled history of American popular music, though not one that Suisman’s instrument is well-equipped to play.

-- Franklin Bruno

Photos taken by Takomabibelot via Flickr

Franklin Bruno is the author of "Armed Forces" (Continuum Books); his most recent recording is Local Currency (Fayettenam Records).  He lives and writes in Jackson Heights, Queens, and sometimes blogs at http://nervousuntothirst.blogspot.com.