Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music
by David Suisman

Reviewed by Joshua Busman


Published by Harvard University Press, 2012   |   368 pages

For most people (academic historians unfortunately included), the history of American popular music begins in the enormous cultural shifts that followed World War II. The story goes that American popular music developed alongside other post-war inventions such as the television, the suburbs, and the teenager. Those with somewhat longer perspectives might begin in the 1920s, citing landmark recordings which laid the foundations for country, blues, and jazz, as well as, crucially, the increasing ubiquity of the commercially available gramophone player. David Suisman pushes back even further, locating American popular music’s origins in the final decades of the nineteenth century, nearly half a century before the advent of jazz, and more than eight decades before the world first heard of “rock ‘n’ roll.” By casting his critical eye on these crucial early decades of the American music industry, Suisman is able to unearth some of American popular music’s unexpected roots.

The crux of his project here is an examination of the historical factors that aligned to bring about the invention of “popular” music as such. Indeed, the very idea of making music under such an elastic and commercially-minded designation as “popular” was historically unprecedented. This development, Suisman ultimately contends, resulted from the attempt to align the logic of music publishing with other burgeoning “industries” of the time. Which is to say, from the attempt to articulate a commercial, rather than an aesthetic or utilitarian, identity.

The first stars in Suisman’s account are Marcus Witmark and his four sons, founders of the M. Witmark & Sons publishing company, established in 1886 in New York City. Witmark & Sons bought and sold sheet music, a form of musical production and consumption then profitable to a degree that is difficult to fathom today. Suisman argues that companies like Witmark & Sons oversaw “nothing less than a commercial revolution in music,” in which “music developed new functions and new meanings” and as a result “became stitched into the fabric of the nation as never before.” The prolific rise of firms like Witmark meant that Americans suddenly had access to an unprecedented variety of new music, simply by visiting the music counter of any major department store in the country. This music, almost instantly, helped to construct an American musical commons, a small repertory of songs which could be sung and enjoyed regardless of one’s social, geographic, or economic location. Another crucial development, perhaps the crucial development, was the proliferation of gramophone recordings in the early decades of the 20th century. Before the arrival of the phonograph, systems of musical notation had made it possible to store musical ideas on paper. Tunes written in Vienna or London could suddenly be purchased at the corner store and realized in living rooms across America by musically-literate amateurs. With the arrival of the phonograph, mechanical reproduction made it possible to separate execution from audition, embedding the musical sounds themselves into inexpensive, fungible, durable objects. Placing a needle on the newest 78 RPM record suddenly filled the room with musical sounds, not of amateurs, but rather of the world’s most coveted performers. Perhaps the greatest conceptual contribution of Selling Sounds, is Suisman’s analysis of this point: of the ways in which musical technologies drive an ever-widening wedge between the modes of musical production and consumption.

In tracing the evolution of popular music from a period of mass musical literacy though the introduction of “automatic machines,” Suisman’s historical analysis of musical ideas is rooted in the classic Marxist idea of “alienation.” His reading is noteworthy in the ways that it helps establish a middle-ground between the divergent Frankfurt School perspectives of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Traditionally, Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction has been seen to contain an idealistic hope that the advent of “mass culture” may allow for the democratization of cultural production––artistic production and consumption might no longer be reserved for the wealthiest members of society. Adorno’s analysis of the “culture industry,” on the other hand, decries “mass culture” as a colonization or co-optation of artistic production and consumption by the capitalist system. Suisman charts a course between these two poles by focusing his analysis on the finely-textured social realities of mass culture (as opposed to the birds-eye view generalizations of both Frankfurt readings). Suisman’s notion of “alienation” is not explicitly tied to one camp or the other––positing either total “democratization” or total “co-optation”––which allows him to demonstrate just how complicated these cultural situations are.

No chapter bears out this analysis more clearly than Suisman’s fantastic case study of the short-lived and ill-fated Black Swan Records, in which one can clearly see how alienation is at-once an asset and a liability. Founded in 1921 by Harry Pace, an African American music publisher and student of W.E.B. DuBois, Black Swan devoted itself to “every type of race music, including sacred and spiritual songs, the popular music of the day, and the high-class ballads and operatic selections.” The release of spirituals and African American ballads was of special importance to Pace’s goals of racial uplift, but the biggest sellers in his catalog were always blues and jazz records. Though these genres were increasingly crucial to the financial stability of his business, Pace believed that they were ultimately damaging to Black Swan’s “middle class” ideals due to their highly sexualized public image. Pace’s suspicion of jazz and blues proved prescient, for it was precisely because of their popularity that Black Swan ultimately declared bankruptcy in 1923. Black Swan’s strong sales in these genres encouraged other, larger companies (the soon to be “major” labels) to produce and market jazz and blues records, which eliminated the need for a specialty “race records” label like Black Swan, and ultimately marginalized the spirituals and African American ballads which had been so central to Pace’s vision. In this particular case study, categories of race, class, and sexuality are intimately bound together and do not divide along clean historical lines. Suisman demonstrates the ways that Black Swan symbolizes “the possibilities and limitations of realizing social and political change through music and markets.” The same alienating market mechanisms that allowed African American music to reach an unprecedentedly large and diverse audience during these years were precisely the means through which they would be co-opted by white-owned record labels and re-inscribed with racial difference.

Stylistically, Suisman demonstrates nearly all the virtues of the best historical writing. His prose is compelling, almost journalistic, and filled with the voices of those whom the book attempts to describe; his endnotes are detailed and copious; his arguments carefully balance individual cases with broad cultural trends. Unfortunately, he also suffers some of the classic pitfalls of Marxist historiography, particularly in his overemphasis on innovation and discontinuity throughout his suspiciously linear narrative. This is especially striking with respect to the category of “popular music” itself. Obviously, the marketplace had a profound effect on the ways that music was produced during the past 150 years. At times, however, Suisman seems to imply that this period marks the first time a profit motive had entered the history of musical production. Whatever the unique context late capitalism provides to this particular history of music-making, it seems unlikely that composers and performers in earlier historical periods were not working explicitly “for profit” in equally calculated ways. And besides, an argument for the “uniqueness” of this particular time period – should such an argument be necessary at all – could be more convincingly established by simply appealing to the host of technological developments that Suisman already identifies.

On the whole, Suisman’s account is valuable for its probing examination of the historical contingencies on which so much of our contemporary musical bureaucracy rests. His omnivorous and exhaustive historical research creates a cogent and wide-ranging account of popular music’s prehistory. Suisman unearths new insights about the ways that popular music built its empire from the ground up, and how it became so deeply enmeshed in our public spaces, our homes, and ultimately, our ears.

Joshua Busman is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His dissertation research uses ethnography and phenomenological analysis to examine rock-styled “praise and worship” music among American evangelicals. Joshua also serves as musical director for Gamelan Nyai Saraswati , a central Javanese music ensemble based in Chapel Hill.

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