Books

Selling Sounds by David Suisman

Well-researched and beautifully documented, replete with beautiful illustrations and photographs, this book belongs on the shelf of any reader serious about popular music and the music industry.


Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 368 pages
Author: David Suisman
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-05
Amazon

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.

Next Page
8

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta


Keep reading... Show less
Film

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less
6

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image