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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.

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