Going to Market
Diane Pecknold’s The Selling Sound makes an important and lively foray in the field of country music studies. It offers a smart, historicized account of how complex the dynamics of commercialism and audience reception were in the formative decades of the country music industry. Her book is engaging because it gives a vivid account of country music fans who have always had complicated, deeply emotional connections to the genre.
It also fleshes out the role of industry professionals, from deejays to song publishers, who were all fighting for control of the industry’s products, profits and cultural meanings. Covering the period from the 1920s to the 1970s, her book not only illuminates the evolution of country music but also sheds new light on the degree to which production and consumption forces can be deeply nuanced and often surprising in their effects on popular music and popular culture.
Pecknold’s real innovation is her analysis of both production and consumption in a way other scholars have not fully done. Critics have traditionally pointed out that country music’s construction of authenticity involves a perceived tension between art and the market, the music’s anti-modern nostalgia for rural agrarianism versus modernity and the commercialization of the mass media marketplace. In such commentary, those narratives of authenticity are viewed as constructed ones, stories different cultural actors (from singers and songwriters to record producers and radio programmers) wish to tell about a popular music genre at a particular socio-historical moment. Pecknold’s book complicates that picture.
Pecknold goes back and uncovers what performers, fans, and producers were thinking about this perceived tension between art and commerce at any given time. What she finds is revelatory. Over the course of this time period, the industry used commercialism to advance itself, often by creating images of professional musicians and respectable “affluent” working class fans (even though the genre started out with broader audience appeals), which it used to counterbalance negative stereotypes of “hillbillies” or backwoods country bumpkins.
Meanwhile, the fans used what they understood to be self-consciously theatrical representations of a rural past in order to create an identity for themselves (since many of these fans were rural to urban migrants from the South in the 1920s through 1960s). Always aware of country music’s commercial level, the fans sometimes embraced commercialism in the music and sometimes resisted it.
Digging deeply into fan accounts from fan publications and archival records from the Country Music Foundation at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville (and about the founding of the Hall of Fame), Pecknold provides an especially important analysis of fandom. While traditional histories suggest that country fans were resistant to commercialism in their embrace of traditional, even past-obsessed culture, Pecknold demonstrates that it would be more accurate to say that fans were aware of commercialism and often embraced it because the mass media (especially radio) is precisely what would allow them to engage with a national imagined community formed through appreciation of this music. That paradoxical merger of tradition with modernity is what defines the genre.
Pecknold demonstrates audience savvy, showing that the genre’s earliest fans, from country music’s first commercialization as what was then called “hillbilly” music in the 1920s, were aware of commercialism and did not perceive it as a contaminating agent. Her evidence shifts our understanding of the history of the genre, from the rural performers in the 1920s who knew their music was both things—their cultural heritage and a way to make a buck—to industry insiders in the 1950s trying to consolidate country music, specifically as a business, in Nashville even before rock ‘n’ roll forced them to compete for listeners.
Pecknold explicates different audience trends in various historical moments and contexts. One 1960s trend has fans embracing the commercialism because it validated their own class aspirations, allowing them to see their entrance into US consumer culture as empowering for them. Fans who celebrated commercialism saw a consumer democracy in which they could choose what tastes to purchase and thus validate. For fans who objected to commercialism, Pecknold demonstrates that the dynamic there is not simple rejection or some high brow dismissal of inauthentic commodity culture but rather a sense that fans had the right to have agency within the industry and when commercial imperatives blocked them from having active roles (beyond being consumers), they were angry.
For example, one especially strong chapter on fan clubs examines how over the course of the 1960s, as the country industry kept professionalizing and the major industry organization, the Country Music Association (founded in 1958), began the annual Fan Fair meeting (separating out the fans from the annual industry meeting), women fan club presidents, who formerly performed unpaid public relations work for stars, were marginalized within the industry and tried to retain some agency for themselves. Such careful research should delight media studies scholars invested in active audience models, or anyone else interested in fan club history and activities, for that matter.
The audience itself, she convincingly details, became the product sold by industry organizations such as the Country Music Association. The CMA’s marketing campaigns, such as “The Selling Sound” speech from which Pecknold takes her title, tried to frame country audiences as loyal respectable working class consumers who were a unique market niche liable to listen only to country music radio and were unreachable through other advertising means.
Tracing the formative developments in the genre, Pecknold excavates how people were framing issues of class, taste, and the mass media in relation to country music at each moment. She provides deep context, for example, for how early fan cultures during the period from 1920 to the late 1940s saw “hillbilly” music as cultural validation for folk traditions that were otherwise stereotyped as ‘backwards,’ and that this dynamic contributed to them framing commercialism as a positive aspect of the music. Her chapter on the 1950s is particularly astute, providing detailed historical accounts of how country music became a way for people to think about the nation’s rural past (with ambivalence) as well as the effects of the mass media and a consumer society on the present, popping up as a lightning rod in on-going music industry struggles, such BMI and ASCAP’s clash of the titans over licensing fees.
Likewise, in the 1960s and 1970s, country music was perceived as a symbol of the right-wing working class masses (with different groups interpreting working class politics differently). From the high brow versus low brow culture wars of the 1950s to the urban folk revival of the 1960s to the 1970s efforts of Republican conservative politicians, like Nixon, to court a country audience, Pecknold illustrates how class and cultural politics around country music were always shifting and complex. For example, she shows that rather than being inherently conservative in its politics, country became stereotypically associated with Right-wing politics because the politicians tried to solicit that audience, adapting their efforts to that group.
One of the most compelling pay-offs of her quite convincing argument is that Pecknold is able to account for how audiences were responding to obvious artifice in the genre. As performers and promoters offered stylized versions of rural history, the stylization was evident to both producers and consumers of those images.
For example, studying early country broadcasts, advertising, and fan club and industry publications, Pecknold finds evidence of “a frank display of the threatricality and fabrication of the hillbilly image.” Fans consumed a stylized image of the rural past the country had been leaving behind during rural to urban migration patterns in the 20th century, and they shaped a sense of identity from their self-conscious collective consumption of those purposely fabricated images, inspiring deep attachment to the genre.
Pecknold tells a vibrant and exciting story of the fans and the industry. Such a full account of both consumers and producers fills in the gaps in scholarly narratives of country music history. Her book is an important and welcome addition to the field.