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Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music

David Suisman

(Harvard University Press; US: May 2009)

Eleven-year-old Jay Witmark, a young resident of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, wins an arithmetic competition and receives a printing press as the prize. He and his brother print greeting cards and later, business cards. By 1885 the two young men were joined by their other brothers, had bought a steam-powered press, and were established in business as the Witmark Brothers at 402 West Fortieth Street.


Along with a few other printing houses in New York City, the Witmarks soon revolutionized the way printed music was marketed, how copyright laws could be applied to “intellectual property”, as well as the very sound of modern life itself by, in effect, transforming the soundscape of urban existence.Thus begins the fascinating narrative that David Suisman unfurls in his important new study Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music.


In essence, we might say that the young entrepreneurs that Suisman discusses along with their contemporaries invented the very notion of popular music. Such a seemingly bold statement requires justification. I am not claiming that no music was “popular” prior to 1885. But music that is popular is not necessarily popular music in this more specific sense. The distinction is vital.


Prior to the turn of the century, most musical successes were largely localized occurrences. What was popular in one region of the United States was often not popular elsewhere. While there were some national hits—most notably some songs by Stephen Foster—these were few and far between. Moreover, it is significant, of course, that even Foster was unable to maintain a decent living on music publications. While he made considerable sums for certain works, he still died impoverished and uncelebrated in one of the United States’ most notorious slums in New York’s Bowery.


Indeed, no one in the United States prior to the 1880s seemed to believe that music publishing could be a lucrative business at all. Most music publishing was something additional that instrument dealers might do as part of their overall service. What the Witmark Brothers and their competitors accomplished was to create a set of marketing tools (in some cases borrowed from vaudeville and in some cases entirely new) that would homogenize and vitalize the national taste for new, not traditional and not classic, music.


In other words, these publishers did more than satisfy a market because there was no wide market for these materials. These publishers created that market by convincing potential buyers to invest in the notion that music had a limited shelf life—like any other fashion item—and that therefore in order to remain current, one had to continually buy the latest music.


The way in which the music publishers accomplished this feat is quite a story and Suisman tells it exceedingly well. Here you learn everything from how the work of creating the songs is distributed to the various sales techniques employed by song pluggers (basically, the salesmen of music publishing), including the use of slides to add a visual component to the song. While there are numerous accounts of the position of so-called song pluggers in the development of popular music in the first decades of the 20th century, one rarely encounters a description that so accurately and compellingly details the quotidian life of these remarkable salesmen and the ways in which they learned to compete while peacefully coexisting.


Just to provide a taste of the delights awaiting readers in Suisman’s account: pluggers often began their days by performing the latest songs they were marketing for publishers at the music counters of various retail stores. One way in which the pluggers would try to promote sales was to bribe the salesgirls with small gifts such as perfume. The problem, of course, was that the very next plugger would use the same ploy. This rather hilariously culminates in the publication of the song “Ain’t My Baby Grand?”, which was shamelessly “Dedicated to the Girl Behind the Music Counter”.


But publishing is only half of the story. Around the time the Witmark Brothers were getting established, Emile Berliner was perfecting his gramophone, a marked improvement over Edison’s phonograph in numerous ways. However, as Suisman emphasizes, the most important difference between Edison’s phonograph and Berliner’s gramophone had less to do with issues of sound fidelity and more to do with the fact that one could not record one’s own sounds on the latter as one could on the former.


Edison had hoped that one of the main uses of his machine would be that of a sort of automated secretary. That is, he marketed his invention to businessmen for taking dictation and the minutes of meetings. Edison considered the reproduction of music as rather low on the continuum of possible uses for the machine. For Edison, as Suisman writes, “sound recording was something people could do” (page 5). Berliner severed the reception of music from the production of music and this cleft has informed the history of music in multivalent and often hidden ways ever since.

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Chadwick lives in New York City and teaches Music History and Theory at The City College of New York. He earned his doctorate in Musicology at Columbia University. He has given papers on topics ranging from 12th Century lament to Duke Ellington and early radio to the use of Wagner's music in Bugs Bunny cartoons. He has published in scholarly journals on the music of John Cage, Richard Strauss, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He has taught courses on music history, the history of rock, and the history of jazz at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Columbia University


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