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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Recorded Music in American Life: 1890-1945

Recorded Music in American Life:
The Phonograph and Popular Memory 1890-1945
by William Howland Kenney
p. 1999
Oxford University Press

   I've observed that a common mistake that contemporary observers of popular music make is to equate the industry which has developed to sell recorded music with the subject of music itself.  For someone whose time horizon is bounded by the period after WWII, this equation makes some amount of sense.  After all, the story of music between 1945 and say.... 2005 is the story of  the recorded music industry itself.

  But it wasn't always the case, especially when you consider that the phonograph and recorded music itself did not exist prior to 1890.  People had to learn the relationship between recorded sound, music and their own lives.  It's an interesting subject, and quite a pity that it has been so thoroughly neglected- to the point where this was the single book I could find on the subject.  In the first chapter, Kenney defines the significance of recorded music in American life during this period as follows:

  The phonograph and recorded sound served as instruments in an ongoing process of individual and group recognition in which images of the past and the present could be mixed in an apparently timeless suspension that often seemed to defy the relentless corrosion of historical change. (Introduction XIX)
  Unfortunately, the ten page introduction is the high point of this book.  What follows the introduction is occasionally interesting, such as the chapter focusing on the marketing and sale of recorded music prior to the depression.  Kenney points out the development of an industry focused on "hits" was something that arose only AFTER the depression brought the recorded music business to its knees.  Prior to the depression, companies sought to sell and stock the widest possible range of types of recordings in an effort to achieve something like corporate omnipotence.

  Kenney includes chapters on the African American and Hillbilly experience with the recorded music industry that sounded like they had been lifted from other books- nothing new there.  If I have to read one more description of how African American recording artists were stripped of their copyrights and cheated out of money owed them, I will scream.  To his credit, Kenney notes that to a man, all of the artists who are now seen as "victims" were beyond eager to offer up their services- often willing to be recorded for free just to get their music "out there."  Huh- does that sound familiar to anyone in the audience?

  I've been doing my best to read about the history of the recorded music industry in an attempt to find some reassurance that the recent cratering of the sale of recorded music is an anomaly.   Honestly, I do believe that to be the case.  Recorded music sales in the US have cratered on multiple occasions: the introduction of radio in the 1920s, the great depression in the 30s, the ban on recordings during World War II in the 40s and the rise of the mp3 in the 90s.  Recorded music has survived all of these traumas, because, at a very basic level recorded music and the purveyors of recorded music help audiences deal with the confusion, displacement and anomie that seem to characterize modern life.  Record companies may go bankrupt, specific artists may live and die in poverty, but recorded music serves an important function in society as a preserver of collective memory, and that function is stronger then the destruction allegedly wrought by Mediafire and Napster(or the Great Depression, World War II or the invention of Radio.)

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