The Beat Goes On

By Mark Athitakis
Sunday, August 23, 2009

SELLING SOUNDS

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.

HOW THE BEATLES DESTROYED ROCK 'N' ROLL

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.

Wald asserts that pop reached its high point in 1964 when genres were so well-integrated musically and racially that Billboard briefly stopped keeping separate R&B and pop charts. And what was so awful about the Beatles? In the closing pages, Wald asserts that their later albums were so influential in defining rock's boundaries that they drove a lasting wedge between black and white pop. The Beatles "were the catalysts for a divide between rock and soul that, rather than being mended in later years, would only grow wider with the emergence of disco and hip-hop." That's a debatable point, and unfortunately he doesn't wrestle much with it, limiting the span of his research to the release of "Sgt. Pepper." His book demands a sequel, "What Happened After the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll," that might bring the same intellectual rigor to hip-hop that he uses on the racial politics of cakewalks and swing music.

PERFECTING SOUND FOREVER

An Aural History of Recorded Music

By Greg Milner

Faber and Faber. 432 pp. $35

Like Wald's book, Greg Milner's "Perfecting Sound Forever" is sprawling and ambitious, covering the entire history of music recording, from Edison cylinders to ProTools. And it has flaws: Milner's narrative is larded with minutiae, including discussions of magnetic tape, 45s and the drums on Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight." But when his record-geek's affection for rock music is allowed to blossom in the second half of the book, his thesis becomes clearer: In recent years, the desperate need to mint hits has made pop music absurdly overprocessed. Producers today will occasionally broker "shootouts," in which multiple engineers compete to create the "hottest," or loudest-sounding, version of a record. Though the resulting songs blast out of the speakers, they also grate on the ears, even those of fans. Today, Milner writes, "we're surrounded by music that does nothing but shout."

But however much knob-twiddling engineers have alienated consumers in recent years, Greg Kot argues, record labels and their litigious associates have done much more harm. In "Ripped," the longtime Chicago Tribune music critic assembles profiles of recent alt-rock causes celebres like Arcade Fire, Girl Talk and Conor Oberst, whose successes were largely sparked online, via filesharing, iTunes and tastemakers like Pitchfork.

For Kot, this is a great moment in pop, both for what you can hear and how you can hear it, and the fun is dampened only by major-label greed and the recording industry's killjoy lawyers. Public Enemy's Chuck D nicely summarizes the point: "Piracy? The biggest pirates have been the record companies." Kot's philosophy is appealingly simple -- anything serving fans and artists is good, anything serving corporate honchos isn't -- though it sometimes seems overly rosy. Discussing Radiohead's pioneering pay-what-you-like concept for its 2007 album, "In Rainbows," Kot congratulates the band for innovating when it could have charged standard retail prices: "Rest assured that most of its fans would gladly pay." But Radiohead also had the cachet to charge nothing for its music and to rest assured that enough paying fans would keep the band solvent; upstart bands lack that luxury, and Kot's discussion of the Internet as an excellent distributor gives short shrift to its failings as a moneymaker.

Still, Kot's instincts are on-point: His skepticism about the corporate record industry is inspired by recent events, and there are decades of bad behavior to back him up. Twenty years from now we'll be hearing about new artists and listening to them on new devices, but the din of squabbling over who ought to be popular and who deserves to get paid will be as loud as ever.

Mark Athitakis is a D.C.-based culture critic. He blogs at markathitakis.com.

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