- Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music
Writing on the popular music industry's business model in 1926, songwriter and music publisher Charles K. Harris stated that for a song to become a hit it "must be sung, played, hummed, and drummed into the ears of the public, not in one city alone, but in every city, town, and village, before it ever becomes popular" (p. 29). In Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, David Suisman engages critically with Harris's summation, using this notion of musical saturation as a heuristic for interrogating the complex, highly organized production and distribution of a new genre of music known as "popular song." Selling Sounds is a substantial contribution to the study of American popular music, and the commercial production of culture in general, that urges scholars to consider more fully the means of production as a diverse and contentious social and political process. Suisman's text not only provides a more thorough understanding of commercial music's formative years; his analysis also provides an understanding of how these early business practices continue to affect our listening experiences.
Suisman's primary argument is that the coalescence of the music industry at the turn of the twentieth century produced a "new musical culture" in terms of musical production and audienceship (p. 9). This commercial revolution relied on the convergence of market capitalism and musical aesthetics, a strategy that fostered consumer desire for musical commodities by permeating the modern soundscape with the latest hit songs. As the pursuit of profit became the motivating factor for musical production, companies systematized the manufacturing of musical commodities (from composing, publishing, and recording to advertising and sales practices) in order to reduce fluctuations in sales. This meant producing a constant, and consistent, stream of new songs rather than relying on older music that sold steadily, but slowly. That Tin Pan Alley composers and publishers relied on successful, well-honed models of songwriting to ensure profits has long been known; Selling Sounds, however, documents just how assiduously managed and far-reaching these practices were. Relying on a wide array of primary resources (including the business files of the Victor Talking Machine Company and the Gramophone Company as well as the various trade publications authored by the industry), Suisman details how these managerial concerns extended beyond the manufacturing of musical commodities to the production of consumers who were invested with a desire for more, and new, musical experiences.
The companies, in turn, sought to exploit consumer desire by introducing musical commodities into the everyday lives of the buying public, taking advantage of the new forms of leisure enabled by recent technological innovations such as the phonograph. Their marketing and distribution strategies relied on "an extensive personal and financial apparatus that commercialized public space as it consolidated private musical interests," a model that lay the groundwork for what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would later term the culture industry (p. 57). Whether through the sale of sheet music or phonographs and recordings, the music industries strove to sell the idea of music consumption as an essential characteristic of modern life. [End Page 92] Musical commodities, Suisman argues, were drawn into the "rising tide of consumer capitalism" defined, in part, by "the promise that consumption was the path to personal fulfillment" (p. 10). But musical commodities differed from other everyday goods in that music's affective qualities could be mobilized in pursuit of market dominance as a way of personalizing the consuming experience. In other words, sound itself became the advertising medium through which companies vied for audiences, and the publishing houses and recording companies literally sought control over public spaces by filling theaters, parks, trains, factories, and schools with performances and recordings of the latest hit songs. One of the primary consequences of this marketing strategy was the creation of a "shared national culture," with products manufactured in New York City and circulated throughout the country via vaudeville circuits, department stores and, later, film and radio (p. 89). Such...