Book Review: "Selling Sounds" by David Suisman, "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll" by Elijah Wald, "Perfecting Sound Forever" by Greg Milner, "Ripped" by Greg Kot

By Mark Athitakis
Sunday, August 23, 2009


The Commercial Revolution in American Music

By David Suisman

Harvard Univ. 356 pp. $29.95

The music industry is supposedly dying, but it's not going away quietly. A contentious debate this year over online radio royalties turned on who gets paid what in the pop economy. Congressional hearings on a proposed merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster delved into whether one company would monopolize a corner of the concert business. Michael Jackson's death not only prompted a massive sales boost for his recordings but also brought a rare moment of agreement between fans and critics on the musical icon's legacy. As four new books make clear, these stories are just the latest iterations of decades-long arguments over how music gets played, heard, admired and paid for.

The music industry was a dirty business long ago, as David Suisman explains in "Selling Sounds," his meticulously researched history of its early days. In the 1890s Charles K. Harris brazenly boosted sheet-music sales of his song "After the Ball" by paying singers as much as $50 a week to perform it. By the 20th century, publishers planted boosters in the audiences of vaudeville shows to stand up and applaud new songs, while hired "pluggers" pushed songs at parks, ballgames, dances and at least one nudist resort. By 1914, music publishers were spending so much money paying off their hires they agreed to ban the fakery. Then they ignored their own ban.

Suisman's book isn't strictly an exposé of old-time payola. It traces how quickly commerce took shape in the music business. The Copyright Act made music more potentially profitable. and recording companies fought for their share of Americans' entertainment dollars. The Victor Talking Machine Company became a leader thanks to the star power of tenor Enrico Caruso. But no less important, it did so by making home listening feel natural to skeptical consumers. It was no accident, Suisman notes, that Victor used a cute dog as a mascot, driving home the idea that newfangled phonographs were domesticated creatures, "trained, groomed, and well-behaved." Copyright law and phonographs, Suisman argues, transformed the musical landscape, making it easier to sell brief pop songs instead of narrative ballads, new songs instead of traditionals, catchiness instead of thought. Failure awaited those who ignored the rules. Suisman tells the story of Black Swan, the first major black-owned record label, which was launched in 1921 and sold spirituals, opera and songs promoting African-American uplift. But the label was dead by 1923, largely because it couldn't compete with the hot jazz and blues songs the larger labels were selling and with the popular stereotypes those labels were using to promote them.


An Alternative History of American Popular Music

By Elijah Wald

Oxford. 352 pp. $24.95

In "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll," Elijah Wald constructs a history of pop that challenges received wisdom. He resists the bomb-throwing tone of the title and, like many scholars, routinely qualifies his assertions. But his version of history is provocative in several ways. For one, he gives more importance to a bandleader like Paul Whiteman; instead of blasting him for softening jazz with orchestral arrangements, as many critics have, Wald argues that Whiteman in fact broadened jazz's possibilities by forcing other bandleaders to innovate. And though Wald doesn't exactly embrace post-World War II curiosities like exotica and calypso, he respects the commingling of the musical forces they represented.

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