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  • The North American Aboriginal Recording Industry
  • Christopher A. Scales
The North American Aboriginal Recording Industry

This review essay will focus on current structural conditions of what I will refer to as the “Aboriginal recording industry” and the specific historical, cultural, social, and economic conditions under which commercial recordings come into being. More specifically, I want to examine the particular economic institutions—record labels—responsible for the creation and distribution of these products. Record labels are unique kinds of North American industrial and social spaces producing a particular kind of commercial music. In reviewing the different kinds of products that these labels produce, we can more clearly see how musical styles and genres are actively imagined and created in response to various historical developments and within a specific set of social arrangements that stand in relation to (sometimes challenging, sometimes accommodating) practices that have been generated by the larger North American music industry.

In focusing on record labels and their catalogs, I also want to explicitly acknowledge that recorded musical performances are very special kinds of performances, and the conditions of their production differ in important ways from other contexts for musical performance that occur during the regular flow of life. The creation of a commercial recording typically involves a very specific set of collaborations and negotiations between different parties with different musical and economic interests: musicians, songwriters, publishers, recording engineers, producers, A&R (artist and repertoire) people, graphic artists, salespeople marketers, and distributors all collectively negotiate how the final recorded product will look, sound, and how it will be brought to market. These social actors must collectively imagine the particular markets they wish to address with the music, they must grapple with the various recording and performance conventions of particular genres, deciding whether they will adhere to or attempt to challenge these conventions, and they must ultimately determine how the product will be advertised and distributed (see Scales 2002).

Finally, in examining the catalogs of record labels and how they are developed and maintained, we can learn a lot about the place of Native American music recordings in the lives of Natives themselves as well as their place within the larger North American public. Because a great many of these labels exist to serve a mainly Native American audience, these catalogs can tell us about changes in the musical preferences of Native American record-buying publics. We can also learn from what is not in the catalogs, as these collections contain not only what is of interest to Natives, but also what is allowed to be recorded and consumed by a wider public. Thus there are many genres of Native American music that are purposely not recorded and not made available to a larger audience, often due to the sacred nature of the genre or text, or because the songs are tied too closely to a specific event, person, or instrument and are deemed impossible to “schizophonically” (Feld 1995:97) separate from their source. In this way, we can understand recordings as having their own “social lives” (Appadurai 1986) that exist quite apart from any particular song or performance.

Sites of North American Indigenous Musical Creativity

Music industry scholars typically have categorized record labels as either “majors” or “independents.” Major labels are large, multi-national media corporations characterized by both vertical [End Page 81] integration of all aspects of record production and horizontal integration with other media such as film, television, video games, radio, etc. Since the 2004 merger of Sony and BMG, there are currently four majors: Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony Music Entertainment, and Universal Music Group. In contrast, independent labels (“indies”) are generally smaller in both scale and scope, and typically specialize in a narrower range of musical genres, catering to a more targeted, smaller market demographic. Not unexpectedly, a majority share of the Aboriginal recording industry is composed of independents, as these kinds of labels have historically been sites of musical diversity and innovation (Peterson and Berger 1990).

Apart from the indie-major distinction, the other important way that North American indigenous music can be organized is through the broad generic classifications of “contemporary” music and “traditional” music, and many of the labels dedicated to this...


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