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End of the Century | The Nation

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End of the Century

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When music became reproducible and more portable, first with player pianos and later with cylinders and discs, the industry was no less calculating, carefully inventing brands, stars and new ways of enticing customers. The Victor company exploited the runaway fame of its top artist, Enrico Caruso, and touted the exclusivity, sophistication and value of its "Red Seal" line of recordings, which though of no higher quality than most discs, were pricier. The Red Seal records, Suisman explains, "consecrated a single and singular musical performance," transmitting that esteem to the consumer, though truly it was "an illusion of uniqueness based on mass-produced intimacy." Victor and the other companies manufactured need as much as they did albums. One industry magazine claimed, "Children are everywhere, and how they do talk!" and went on to suggest cultivating future consumers by selling them on the magic of the phonograph. Music was sent to troops fighting in World War I and played in factories to improve morale.

About the Author

J. Gabriel Boylan
J. Gabriel Boylan is a freelance writer on music and art.

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The Copyright Act of 1909 ensured the protection of profits for music publishers and, Suisman notes, defined music as "product, not process," by enshrining its commercial imperative. Suisman traces the act's impact with two divergent case studies: one is a consideration of changes in the landscape of popular entertainments like movie theaters, which snapped up phonographs and laid off thousands of musicians; the other, an account of the black-owned record label Black Swan. Suisman claims that the great artist and the profit motive are not separate, and the career of Irving Berlin epitomizes their union. An enormously respected artist, Berlin thought the most important of his nine rules for writing a hit song was the following: "The song writer must look upon his work as a business." Berlin was instrumental in the formation of ASCAP, an organization that still ensures and enshrines the moneymaking power of songwriters. As a high-level figure in the group, he was further responsible for helping along royalties legislation for recordings and the radio.

Suisman portrays Black Swan as an alternative commercial enterprise trying to compete with the established players in the label game. Founded by Harry Pace (a former protégé of W.E.B. Du Bois), and catering to African-American audiences, the label thrived for a time despite its tendency to promote classical works over blues and jazz. The choice of classical works was part of Black Swan's mandate to encourage black uplift and white tolerance through its vision of music and cultural refinement. (This ethos would later draw the ire of LeRoi Jones in Blues People.) The label relied on standard marketing ploys, from the establishment of a brand associated with quality to eye-catching ads, while also advocating a specific racial politics. Unable to withstand the initial surge of radio's popularity, Black Swan died a casualty of commerce. Suisman's portrait of Black Swan's history is an effective riposte to those who accused the label of selling out: the label succeeded, for a time, as a business that cared about more than business.

Whereas Suisman's materialist study of the record industry's beginnings focuses on market creation and slights artistic fruition, Greg Milner is on the side of the sensible audiophile, someone who cares most about what's lost in the way most people experience music today. In Perfecting Sound Forever, an exhaustive history of recorded sound, Milner is honest enough to admit that the "warm" sound of LPs that vinyl maniacs crave is not some Platonic quality but the product of the way sound is processed by the apparatus--the amp, turntable and speakers. Yet no amount of "warmth" can combat the more insidious developments of our age of Pro Tools and MP3s. Music now flows through various channels in digital form, often never hitting tape of any kind; scrunched into a tiny file containing a fraction of its original sonic information, it passes through tiny cubicle speakers or tinier earbuds blaring at dangerous volumes. Compression might indeed be killing pop music by flattening it out, lopping off its highs while boosting its lows to yield songs boiling over at a fever pitch every moment. Certain pop albums become so loud and distorted that choruses are at the same sonic level as verses, creating a feeling of unending blast and total boredom. Compression has certainly left serious listeners in a crummy cul-de-sac of insufficient quality and decreased dynamism.

For Milner, a longtime music journalist, the history of recorded sound is the story of the tension between verisimilitude and manipulation, authenticity and convenience. He begins with an investigation of Thomas Edison's famed "tone tests," produced to convince listeners that the sound of his phonograph was as genuine as the human voice. In auditoriums throughout the United States, Edison presented singers performing alongside his audio devices. Audiences had to play a guessing game--Is it live, or is it phonograph?--and were nearly always fooled into amazement. An operatic singer would launch into an aria, and suddenly the lights would be cut; when they came back on, the aria was still being belted out but by the phonograph.

The tests were hardly scientific. Most listeners, especially in more far-flung locales, had heard few phonograph recordings, and like the apocryphal crowds who panicked on seeing early silent films of approaching trains, they were dazzled enough by the new medium to suspend any disbelief about its verisimilitude. And the tests were flat-out rigged by Edison, who instructed vocalists to lower the volume and modulate the sound of their voices to match the output of the phonographs. But Edison's obsession with the quality of recordings proved to be his undoing as discs gained mass appeal. Though he had the upper hand in terms of audio quality, he could not compete with Victor, which focused mainly on branding and selling the quality and image of its artists (like the much-ballyhooed Caruso) rather than its products. The myths proved to be more alluring than sonic spectacle.

Throughout the century, tone tests (utilizing more or less spectacle and premeditated sleight of hand) would be staged to herald every new development in audio technology: microphones, tape, multi-track recording, digital recording, CDs and on into the present day's toys (think of a turtlenecked Steve Jobs presenting this year's latest magic to salivating geeks). Milner's account of his own private tone test conducted in a Canadian audio research center sounds like something out of The X-Files. Milner was asked to spot the differences between CD recordings and songs archived in lossless codecs, compressed data files that are said to match CD files to the human ear despite containing less audio information. The ear fills in the gaps--or at least that's the idea the tests aim to prove. Milner thought he could detect the difference immediately, but as he sat alone in the soundproof room he felt perplexed and befuddled. In keeping with the mysterious nature of the project, his lab coat-wearing hosts wouldn't divulge whether his final estimations were correct. In the end it didn't matter, since as Milner argues, the very idea of "fidelity," though a prime motivator for audio development, has always been slippery, its history one of fabrication, of deformed and reformed and unreal noises coming out of our stereos.

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