- Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music
The study of popular music has held a tenuous position in the United States, scattered across academic disciplines, each with its own specific agenda. In Media Studies, popular music is sometimes included in a constellation of old and new academic areas known as Sound Studies—an area that Michele Hilmes has suggested appears doomed to be a permanently "emerging field," while Norma Coates has rightly worried that the Society for Cinema and Media Studies' embrace of sound may only extend to what she calls "Soundtrack Studies."1 Despite increasing interest, these concerns indicate the continued marginal academic status of popular music and sound across media.
While clearly influenced by Media Studies in general and Sound Studies in particular, David Suisman comes to his subject as a historian. This allows him to generally sidestep some of the academic gatekeeping common in other popular music research to provide a broader understanding of musical production, distribution, and consumption in terms of song-writing, publishing, recording, and live performance. His ability to bridge these various facets of popular music culture makes Suisman's account of the US music industry's rise a welcome addition to existing research.
Suisman's book is episodic and thematic more than encyclopedic, shifting between industrial, cultural, technological, and legal concerns. The study begins in the 1880s, a period in which songwriting was transformed into a highly regimented profession. Suisman quotes prolific songwriter Harry Von Tilzer, who noted that "the writing of songs was play, a relaxation from daily cares, but today it is a business and demands businesslike methods."2 Roughly half of Selling Sounds: The [End Page 179] Commercial Revolution in American Music is focused on Tin Pan Alley, its production culture, and its key role in commercializing music. Suisman's coverage of Tin Pan Alley is exemplary in its focus on its various attributes: the regimentation the trade brought to the songwriting process, the role of song plugging across sociospatial contexts, and the connection between song publishers and the player-piano industry, as well as song plugging via song slide sing-alongs in early film exhibition. "Musical Properties," Suisman's chapter on copyright, recounts Tin Pan Alley's economic skirmishes in the aftermath of the Copyright Act of 1909 and subsequent legal decisions.3 This allows him to contextualize the rise of copyright law amid existing songwriting and publishing practices as well as the interests and concerns of musical performance and musical reproduction. In his substantive overview of Tin Pan Alley's fundamental importance to the commercial rise of American popular music, Suisman makes a compelling case that the rise of the music industry cannot be understood without accounting for the songwriting and sheet music industries, which took shape in roughly the same era as the phonograph's emergence.
Suisman's analysis of the recording industry is primarily based on two companies. The first is Victor, a company whose phonographs and recordings had tremendous societal impact for much of the twentieth century. Victor's dominance was fueled by one of the most aggressive advertising campaigns in US history, with ubiquitous ads featuring Nipper the Dog listening to "His Master's Voice" through the phonograph horn. Suisman is able to link Victor with the emergence of US advertising, tracing Eldridge Johnson's utilization of advertising agencies and a long-term collaboration with advertising executive F. Wallis Armstrong, and with Raymond Rubicam, who also managed the Victor account during the 1910s.4 The subsequent chapter on Victor's Enrico Caruso (and the use of his recordings on the Red Seal label to further the Victor brand) intersects with star studies, and while Suisman does not spend a lot of time on this point, there are interesting analogies to be drawn between the rise of stardom via the phonograph and via film. The chapter's comparative work on the other two labels that made up "The Big Three," Edison and Columbia, is most welcome even if these labels are considerably less important than Victor.