- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009



By David Suisman

Harvard University Press, $29.95, 356 pages, illus.

Reviewed by William F. Gavin

When I was a little boy, in the late 1930s, the voices of my parents were as familiar to me as their faces. But there were two other distinctive voices, of men I had never seen, that I also recognized immediately. The first was that of singer Bing Crosby, a favorite in our house, and the second was that of Martin Block, a New York disc jockey whose popular radio program, “Make Believe Ballroom,” often showcased Mr. Crosby’s recordings. Mr. Block’s show was broadcast at the dinner hour, and I can recall my mother, as she prepared our meal, singing along with Bing. Mom had a good voice, and, as they used to say in those days, she could carry a tune.

The disembodied voices came into our home over the small radio perched on top of the refrigerator. Like any child, I took for granted that when my mother turned a dial on the radio, voices or music would emerge into our kitchen. What I did not know, of course, was the role that inventions, technology, commerce, government regulations, swift-changing popular tastes, copyright disputes, advertising and larger-than-life personalities played in the process of making it possible for Bing Crosby to sing to us or for Martin Block to try to sell us products advertised on his show.

Well, now I know. In “Selling Sounds,” David Suisman, assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware, has produced a fascinating, well-written, richly detailed story of how music became a commodity in America. From the last decade of the 19th century, when sheet music was king, a time when consumers chose the music to be played on the piano, until the triumph of radio in the 1920s, when consumers listened to tunes chosen by others, music increasingly became a product in the marketplace, not something to be heard but something to be sold.

What Mr. Suisman calls “the commercialization of public spaces” developed through a series of music-selling revolutions. From pianos to player pianos, from phonographs and recordings to radio broadcasts, music was packaged and sold in an industry that became increasingly more organized, sophisticated, ruthless and successful.

In the second and third decades of the 20th century, Tin Pan Alley songsmiths churned out similar-sounding tunes (the public didn’t want anything shockingly new but demanded something different, if only slightly), song pluggers gave the new songs exposure in a variety of ways, vaudevillians were paid to use the songs in their acts, and “boosters” in the audience, paid by music publishers, “spontaneously” cheered. However, none of these could guarantee a big hit, which is what publishers needed to survive. Only a superstar could convince an audience that a new tune was worth hearing again. And during that period, there was only one superstar: Al Jolson.

“Irving Ceasar remembered,” Mr. Suisman writes, “that ‘Swanee,’ which he co-wrote with George Gershwin, sold unimpressively after a lavish debut at which an ensemble cast sang, sixty females appeared ‘with electric lights on their shoes,’ and music was provided by Arthur Pryor’s seventy-piece band at the mammoth Capitol Theatre, but that the song had become a huge success ‘within three or four days’ of being adopted by Al Jolson.”

Once phonographs became popular, no one had a more profound influence on the selling of recordings than Enrico Caruso. Like most music superstars, then and now, Mr. Caruso was more than a gifted singer. He was a public personality, known and beloved by millions who had never heard him sing in an opera house. Mr. Suisman recounts in detail the immortal tenor’s longtime and lucrative association with the Victor Talking Machine Co.’s prestigious, high-priced Red Label recordings and recounts Victor’s systematic exploitation of Mr. Caruso’s recordings through advertising to target audiences.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter devoted to Harry Pace, a student of W.E.B. Du Bois’ and a partner of W.C. Handy’s. Mr. Pace, a black businessman, created Black Swan Records, a short-lived (1921-23) company devoted to recording black entertainers, particularly “respectable” acts such as Ethel Waters. Black Swan Record’s initial success led to its downfall, as larger, better-financed recording companies, seeing a chance for profits, created their own subsidiaries to produce “race” records.

Mr. Suisman has a left-of-center point of view on all this. Despite the musical stars and the advertising, the music business itself was, he says, invisible to the public. This invisibility, according to the author, “grew out of the production of commodities particularly suited to becoming fetishes, as Marx referred to them - that is objects that took on a magical power by obscuring the social and economic relations intrinsic to their production … [a]s music producing objects, their very purpose was disembodiment; the sundering of body and voice in the case of phonograph recordings, the substitution of a mechanical algorithm for physical and mental labor in the case of piano rolls. This division was reinforced by the material characteristics of the objects themselves, which bore few traces of the production process …”

I have quoted Mr. Suisman’s Marx-speak at length to give an idea of his underlying thesis, which, if I understand it correctly, is that the capitalist capture, transformation and exploitation of music “drove a wedge between production and consumption - between making music and listening to it - and invested music with new meaning in such a way that obscured the commercial architecture of the new cultural order.”

I once fell asleep trying to read “Das Kapital,” so, for all I know, none, all or parts of Mr. Suisman’s thesis may be true, but I think the success of his book will depend not on his ideological views as much as it will on his scholarship, which is amazingly wide-ranging. Where else could I have discovered that Igor Stravinsky, from 1917 until around 1930, “composed or arranged numerous works for both regular and reproducing player-pianos …”? Or that from 1919 to 1925 “more player-pianos were produced each year in the United States than exclusively manual pianos”?

William. F. Gavin is a writer who lives in McLean.

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