- Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music by David Suisman
David Suisman’s Selling Sounds traces the rise of the commercial music industry and creation of a new “national musical culture” in the United States from 1890 to 1930. The industry’s power dramatically expanded during this period, Suisman argues, beginning with the rise of Tin Pan Alley in the 1890s, increasing with the spread of the phonograph in the early twentieth century, then entering a period of consolidation and entrenchment in the years leading up to the Great Depression. Documenting the growth of new technologies, production strategies, and marketing practices that permanently “altered the way music was made and heard,” Suisman’s study addresses industry sectors ranging from sheet music to player pianos and phonograph records to radio and sound cinema (p. 11). Moving its products across a wide range of media and increasingly broad national territory, the music industry swiftly transformed popular taste and created a musical culture that was “inseparable from the technology and business of mechanical reproduction” (p. 16).
Providing a valuable corrective to more phonograph-centric accounts of the industry’s origins, Suisman begins his study with an analysis of sheet music sales in chapters 1 and 2, documenting Tin Pan Alley’s cultivation of national marketing and distribution strategies and its impact on musical taste. Chapters 3 and 4 explore industry efforts to sever music production from music consumption through the technologies of the player piano and phonograph, stressing the importance of Victor’s Red Seal records and promotion of “star” performers for establishing the phonograph’s legitimacy as a music medium. After an excursus into copyright law in chapter 5, showing how newly awarded mechanical and performing rights aided industry expansion efforts, Suisman resumes his discussion of promotion and distribution strategies in chapter 6. This chapter documents the complex series of local negotiations involved in Victor’s bids for national expansion, doing so through an analysis of its often uneasy relationships with local dealers and educational institutions. The final two chapters move beyond Victor to neighboring sound media, with chapter 7 exploring independent labels’ struggles to compete in an expanding commercial market (developed through an in-depth case study of the African American–owned Black Swan Records), and chapter 8 considering the role that radio, sound cinema, and other technologies of electric sound reproduction played in the industry’s further expansion leading up to the Great Depression.
While his book addresses a wide range of music technologies and broader shifts in cultural taste, Suisman contends that “technological developments … alone did not determine [the] course” of this history and [End Page 758] insists “the creation of modern musical culture was not a consumer-driven phenomenon” (p. 15). Rather, his account emphasizes the “commercial architecture of the new cultural order,” arguing that the technologies and taste cultures he analyzes were products of industrial design, determined principally by market forces (p. 17). His primary document research, conducted in the nation’s leading phonograph, music, and business archives, correspondingly privileges trade publications, corporate records, and the personal papers of leading industry figures.
Impressively researched, bold in its multimedia sweep, and of unquestionable value for historians of sound technology, Suisman’s study also leaves much ground for future scholars to till. His final chapter, for instance, suggests important differences between the acoustic-era technologies on which most of the book focuses and the electric-era technologies that expanded commercial music’s reach in the 1920s, while leaving a more detailed study of synergies and tensions between the evolving record, radio, and film industries open for further exploration. Within the phonograph industry itself, closer analysis of strategies pursued by manufacturers such as Edison and Brunswick may reveal important departures from those documented for Victor. Suisman’s chapters on localism and independent labels point toward competing cultural priorities, alternative tastes, and non-hegemonic listening practices at the subnational level, suggesting that market demand may not have been manipulated in a straightforward or strictly top-down fashion. Finally, while Suisman’s own focus is...