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The Music Business of ‘Selling Sounds’

David Suisman documents the rise and fall of aural culture

Mar. 1, 2010
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David Suisman’s Selling Sounds (Harvard University Press) accurately and with remarkable insight traces the rise of the modern music industry at a time when it is at its downfall in ways unexpected. The book is ever so relevant, as we discover not only how and why the industry took shape, but also comprehend the misshapen condition it is now experiencing.

With a scholar’s eye, Selling Sounds moves with the grace of a good storyteller’s ear for aural culture in America. Replete with solid research on everything from Tin Pan Alley song pushers to Supreme Court rulings that defined music in ways that both preserved the artist’s rights as well as dismantled the oral process of folk music, this text provides us with all of the paradoxes that come with popularity or, rather, commercialization.

Perhaps the most intriguing area of the book is the history of Black Swan Records, the first large, black-run recording business. Suisman writes that in the 1910s and ’20s the music industry “achieved a certain invisibility…[that] was actively created. It grew out of the production of commodities particularly well suited to becoming fetishes.” Music became a commodity in the form of sheet music, piano rolls and phonograph records: “As music-producing objects, their very purpose was disembodiment: the sundering of body and voice.” From its inception in 1921, Black Swan was a “radical attempt to confront, challenge, and disrupt the invisibility of the modern music industry.”

Black Swan sought to build the case that black recording artists deserved the same entitlement as white artists—and were not merely rural, bumpkin and outsider participants. “The short history of this one small company says a great deal about the music industry and its relations with society at large,” Suisman writes. If a song by a black artist caught on, Tin Pan Alley churned out countless variants. The original was inconsequential or at best limited to a narrow audience. Black Swan was determined to issue music it considered better than that of what now is deemed as folk-oriented, oral tradition music (i.e. the stuff serious listeners of Americana love in the 21st century). Although the label went under in 1923, the victim of an overall drop in record sales caused by the popularity of radio, the Black Swan project—where the careers of Fletcher Henderson and Ethel Waters began—demonstrated that reconciling lofty, high-culture music and mundane, low-culture music was much more complex than imagined.

Selling Sounds explores the idea that the music industry will artificially stimulate a genre whether there is musical content or not, turning the sound object into a fetish in complete disregard for the music or artist. It’s not as simple as pure marketing or, better yet, branding voodoo, but rather the invisibility of the machine that introduces its assembled parts for sale. Commerciality above all else becomes better than serious listening. The end result is pop genre upon genre, empty of anything but sonic posturing that falls on ears deaf to music.

By now, high culture has mimicked low, and there is no middle ground upon which to stand artistically if one is to be commercially viable. We are searching for roots and doing so in confusion over what began as “authentic folk music” versus commercial product. In writing about ’60s rock, Suisman wisely notes that “recordings had always been artificial creations, but never before had the artifice been so conspicuous” and that nothing symbolized this more than “decisions by musicians…to abandon live performance in favor of the manipulation and control of magnetic tape and multi-track recording.” In the process we have become more oblivious to the difference between music made for hire, not desire.


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