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Friday, December 17, 2010

THE LABEL: THE STORY OF COLUMBIA RECORDS

BOOK REVIEW

The Label:
The Story of Columbia Records
by Gary Marmostein
p. Thunders Mouth Press 2007


   I grew up basically in ignorance of everything associated with Columbia Records.  When I did learn about Columbia, it was in the period after they had been sold to Sony Corp., which is where this book ends.  The Columbia Records of today is like a ghost of the original.

  The glory days of Columbia Records came in the pre-rock era.  You can actually feel the domination coming to an end during the chapter in which Clive Davis is described cavorting at the Monterey Jazz and Pop Festival while long-time head of label Gordon Lierberson broods in his suite of offices in New York City.

  Today, we think of Record Labels as being little more then a generic off shoot of the global culture industrial complex, but twas a time, my children, when bold entrepreneurs invested millions in the idea that Americans and the World would buy recorded music in large numbers.  In the beginning, there was classical music.  In particular, the early chapters of The Label are devoted almost entirely by the high minded attempts by Columbia to bring the best in classical music to the masses.   In attitude they resemble the indie tape labels of today, determined to bring the music to the audience whether the audience wanted to hear it or not.

  In the 30s and 40s, Columbia developed a catalogue of Jazz and Pop music, but eschewed blues and rhythm and blues- let alone rock and roll.   Columbia is like...the label of the world of Mad Men: smooth, suave but kind of scared of black people and smug and superior about rock and roll and country music.

  At the same time, it was Columbia Records where Bob Dylan recorded his most seminal albums of the 60s.   In the 70s, Epic Records (a subsidiary) brought the world arena rock- one of the most interesting asides in the entire book is when Marmorstein's describes how Columbia had to bend "Union Rules" to allow producers to work in the basement studio of  Boston writer/singer Tom Scholz- how DIY is that?  And of course... there was Michael Jackson.  Columbia Records continued to pump out hits, but they didn't really control the Zeitgeist after the one-two punch of the Beatles and the "Summer of Love."

  Once again, the mid-60s proves crucial in the story of a large American culture corporation.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Columbia Records Invented the LP

      I love giant businesses.  I know that isn't a very "DIY" attitude, but most people who subscribe to the ole' DIY ethic are poor failures and that ain't me, babe. One of my favorite writers about business is Alfred Chandler and if you are ever looking to understand modern business corporations without being indoctrinated or terrified, Chandler is your guy.  The fact is, enormous corporations exist because they get the job done.  One of the great things about corporations in the context of capitalism, is that if they fail, they cease to exist.  No one ever give Corporations credit for that quality.  This is especially true as we move closer to the present day:  Longetivity...is impressive.


     Music is no exception.  For most listeners, the fact that large corporations control the distribution of music is of no concern.  For those to whom it is a concern, 95% of the people who have stopped to think about it HATE the role that giant corporations play in distributing music.  This is an attitude that was carved out by Theodor Adorno in the 20s and 30s.  It's not like this viewpoint was a given.  Adorno's contemporary, Walter Benjamin, thought that mechanical reproduction of sound had a liberating quality regardless of it's mode of distribution.  It is most ironic that the discourse surrounding the role of business in culture has been shaped by a bunch of European intellectuals who didn't understand anything about genres like jazz, let alone rock and roll.

     The fact is that music has a liberating quality even when it is distributed by giant corporations and it is in fact true that we have giant corporations- and only- giant corporations to thank for fantastic innovations that make modern diy culture feasible.  This point is brought out in a book I'm currently reading about Columbia Records.  It is called, Columbia Records: The Label by Gary Marmorstein and it is quite incredible because it is a business, rather then artistic history of Columbia Records.

  Columbia Records invented the LP record in 1948.  Before this point, records were made out of shellac and played at 78 rpms.  These records were bulky, could only hold a song a two a side, expensive and broke easily.  At the time of the invention of the LP, Columbia is one of only two companies that had the resources to create something like the LP- the other was RCA/Victor.  Neither Columbia NOR RCA/Victor had any real interest in upgrading from the 78- they just saw it as what they had to deal with.  Everyone had record players that played 78s- in order to accommodate the LP people would need to buy new record players.

  After that, RCA/Victor responded with the 45, or as the kids know them "7"s."  So...your punk as fuck vinyl record that you just made 300 of to sell at shows- wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for two enormous corporations battling for market share in the recorded music industry in the 1940s.  And let me tell you something else: It's not like everyone was like "OH- the LP AWESOME- thanks COLUMBIA RECORDS!!!"  No- they bitched and moaned, and people predicted catastrophe.

  All in all, it's a great example of a major corporation- a record company- no less- making the world a better place. Stick that in your DIY pipe and smoke it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

THE TRIUMPH OF MUSIC

BOOK REVIEW
The Triumph of Music:
The Rise of Composers and Their Art
by Tim Blanning
p. 2008
Belknap/Harvard University Press

    I don't like to start book reviews by quoting a paragraph from the introduction, but I think it's the best move here:

    Status, purpose, places and spaces, technology, and liberation- these are the five categories I will explore to explain music's march to cultural supremacy.  What follows is an exercise in social, cultural and political history, not musicology- no technical knowledge of music is required.

      Often when I read a good book, I'm unsure whether I find the thesis convincing because I already agreed before I read the specific book (the book just reinforced pre existing belief) or whether the argument was just objectively convincing.  In this case, i can firmly declare that both are true- first- I totally agreed with the above stated thesis before I picked up this book AND that Blanning- the Professor of Modern European History at Cambridge University- writes in such an objectively pleasing fashion that is hard not to get swept up in his five stage analysis of "the triumph of music."

   When this book begins, musicians are servants and slaves.  The examples selected are the German composers of the 18th century.  At the beginning of Chapter one, musicians like Handel, Haydn and Mozart are writing their masterpieces at the bequest of various German princes, and for them alone.  Over the course of the 18th century and into the 19th century, this model of musicianship is overwhelmed by the now familiar idea of musicians as cultural celebrity.  A recent still-relevant example is Liszt- whose "demonic" piano playing inspired the kind of swoons a modern associates with the Beatles.  This initial transformation from musician/composer from court servant to celebrity is  embodied by Wagner.  Wagner's triumph in German culture remains largely unequalled, at it is to Wagner that all subsequent musicians must look for a benchmark of "how far you can go."

   The role of the purpose of music in the march towards triumph is the focus of the second chapter.  Here, the point is embodied by a sub chapter heading "The Secularization of Society, the Sacralization of Music."  Blanning described- in matter of fact fashion how music moved from being an Assertion of Power on behalf of a specific monarch, to an instrument used in worship, to it's more or less present state as a good to be consumed by the public in the form of concert.  Along the way, music audiences were convinced to take music very seriously, a process referred to by Blanning as "Sacralization"(i.e. making something sacred) at the same time, the movement of music appreciation out of the court and into the bourgeois and working classed meant that the audience for music exploded.

   Then he is on to the role of physical space (an interesting summary of work about how places to hear music became more 'church like' and how the number of places to hear music expanded to included venues for the middle and lower classes (specifically pleasure gardens and music halls in the late 18th century and 19th century.)

  Finally, Blanning handles the role of technology- a subject I've written about so often here that I found his writing duplicative of books I've already read and a final, weak, chapter on the liberating power of music for disempowered minorities.  On the whole, it's an excellent, recent summary of the ways in which music is a social project composed of composers, performers and audiences.  Blanning assumes that music does not actually exist without all three individuals- music is a social experience, no matter what romanticists and their followers may claim.  I recommend this book for anyone looking for a cogent  thesis about the role of music in modern society.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

We Are What We Speak

BOOK REVIEW
Ad Infinitvm
A Biography of Latin
by Nicholas Ostler
p.  2007
Published by Walker and Company

       I like author Nicholas Ostler because he is one of those folks trying to write about academic subjects in a popular way.  So far I've read Empires of the Word, which was basically a history of the world from a llinguistic perspective.  Then I read the Last Lingua Franca, his most recent book, which focused in on the historical career of English.  Ad Infinitum is his biography of Latin, and it was published in between the first two books.  Like the other two, the idea is to bring a historical sense to bear on a specific language.  Here, the language is Latin.

       Ostler starts off with a bang, showing the great extent to which Latin was influenced in it's infancy by its northern neighbor, Etruscan.  Ostler even illustrates that point with an appendix which contains a glossary of Latin words that came directly from Etruscan.   From then on it's a familiar history written from a novel history.  Basically, Ostler tells the story of the rise of Europe through the eyes of its common language.    The split up of Latin into the descendant languages of French, Italian and Spanish is perhaps the best attested example we have in all of human history of that the process by which one language becomes many languages.  Ostler, both int his book and in the last Lingua Franca, uses this example to illustrate what might happen to English in the future.  Of course, the split up of Latin was contemporatenous with nasty events like barbarian invasions and a general break down in civilization, so the possibility of the same thing happening to English is not a particularly positive prospect.

    As the story draws closer to the present day, Ostler shows the ways in which Latin lost its role in the world, a process which was still being completed during the 20th century.  Today, Latin is an archaic relic, it's use limited to arcane fields like botany and it's influence more likely to be demonstrated through the use of its descendant languages than Latin itself.

   Perhaps Ostler's main point is that Latin speakers always had a somewhat unique viewpoint that saw the limits of Latin and the Roman Empire as the limits of their world.  This perspsective: That of the Latin speaker as the only meaningful agent in world history, has been transmitted quite directly to successor cultures around the world. 

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