- Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money
Mark Coleman's "story of machine-made music and those who made it possible" (p. xxiv) merits review here because its subject is technology and culture. It also bears notice because of the prospect that students will draw on it, and because their instructors should be forewarned. This could have been a fine synthesis. That it is not is a reflection of the subject's complexity, the author's background, and the paucity of academic sources that he has used. Coleman is a record reviewer who blends some scholarship with insider histories, specialist publications, and recent business journalism to explain the relationships between sound playback technology, business, and pop music [End Page 427] over the past 125 years. In nine chapters he focuses on what he ignored while reviewing hundreds of pop music albums: technology. Coleman wants to show that "technology enhances music. . . . Somebody—a person—still must program, produce, perform, and play the stuff" (p. xxv).
This argument echoes disco producer Giorgio Moroder's and comes as a surprise after Coleman's first twelve pages. He opens by asserting that "Suddenly, popular music resembles an alien landscape" and concludes his first paragraph thus: "In the twenty-first century, radical advances in music technology threaten to overshadow the music itself" (p. xiii). Coleman's concern seems less with musical artistry than with current styles in pop music, the homogenization of radio programming, the evaporation of playback media into intangible digital files, and the heterogeneity of taste in younger people who share music files over the internet.
The first three chapters run from Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph (inspiration credited to a Jew's harp) to the diffusion of high fidelity in the mid-1950s (for which Peter Goldmark receives more attention than he deserves). The remaining six chapters are synoptic, covering what consumers have heard over the last fifty years via radio (inexplicably titled "Ponytail Ribbons, Popsicles, and Peanut Brittle"); recording techniques and technologies from Les Paul to current synthesizers; the rise and collapse of disco music; the rise of hip-hop and related disc jockeys, techniques, and technologies; the demise of the vinyl record and the triumph of the compact disc; and the spread of on-line file sharing and apparent demise of the CD.
Coleman rarely connects the histories in these chapters with his thesis or his claim to objectivity, and business decisions that suffuse technological innovation are poorly explained or understood. He attributes technological changes to individual inventors, record producers, and DJs, but there is little here that explains changes in musical tastes. Protests to the contrary, Coleman is unhappy with pop music's artistic and technological directions. Disco, a phenomenon of the late 1970s, gets a chapter highlighting its soulless repetition and narcissism. A chapter titled "The Sudden Death of the Record" opens with a quotation in Jonathan Valin's The Music Lovers (1994), from a speaker who explains why "CDs are shit!" (p. 155). In his last two paragraphs Coleman concludes that the extinction of physical formats will enable musicians to focus on song production, not albums. This claim contradicts his own narrative. The final sentence, "Thanks to technology, the magic finally escaped from the can" (p. 208), can be read several ways, none of which crown Coleman's thesis.
Aside from the analytic incoherence, each chapter contains dubious assertions, such as: "Radio was the genesis of mass communications; it also gave birth to mass marketing" (p. 79). There are at least as many errors of fact as in André Millard's America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound (1995); various misspellings (James Kraft is twice called Joseph); technical [End Page 428] confusions ("riding across the grooves produces vibrations in the needle," p. 61); and annoying journalistic tropes ("Stay tuned, because this same question resurfaces during the ultimate format war," p. 92).
Coleman wrote this book in four years, while retaining his day job. Historians may find his...