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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review: America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound by Andre Millard

Book Review:
America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound
by  Andre Millard
Cambridge Unviersity Press, 2d Edition

  Here is an Amazon title that was added to my wish list back in 2010, when I had just started working with a record label and was trying to learn as much as I could about the history of the recorded music industry.  Glamorous, perhaps not.... but interesting, particularly if you are trying to figure out whether it is even worthwhile to try to be a part of an independent record label in terms of dedicating one's money or time.  At the time, I added this title because it was dead on point- literally a history of recorded sound, published by a top flight academic press.  I didn't buy it then or now because it is essentially a text book, and costs a hundred bucks in the hard cover edition that I borrowed via the UCSD library.

  Even though the second edition adds the period 1995-2005, it is astonishing at how much has happened since, America on Record literally ends with the Gray Album by Danger Mouse, and the emergence of a legal streaming industry isn't even hinted at.  Generally speaking, the four hundred page book is most valuable for the first 200 pages, roughly the period before the "Modern" era of LP's, CDs and MP3s.  First of all, this earlier period is lesser known and second of all, much has been written about the post rock and roll era of recorded music- it is, one could say, done to death.

  What is clear from the history of recorded sound is that trying to appreciate recorded music without acknowledging the enormous and divisive role played almost exclusively by gigantic corporations and trusts is ignorance embodied.   The romantic/"punk" attitude and it's more recent descendants are truly the reverse of false consciousness: instead of rejecting a liberation ideology because they think that their aristocratic "betters" are looking out for them, "punk" influenced fans and musicians embrace a rejection of the very entities that make their existence possible.

 Discussions of "values" in the world of recorded music often avoid historical subjects out of sheer ignorance, and I've yet to read an article on popular music that places the recent decline in physical sales in comparison to other, frequent declines that have accompanied external shocks like the great depression, the need for vinyl in the military during World War II and Vietnam and the impact of high gas prices in the late 70s early 80s.

  Furthermore, there is almost no understanding of the history of recorded sound before the LP/7" invention in the 50s.  As I far as I'm personally concerned, it's reassuring to see the periodic revival of independent record labels over a hundred years of recorded sound, but disheartening to see how few survive over the long term.  You could say I'm obsessed with the simple act of survival because of it.

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