Selling Sounds by David Suisman

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.

Enjoyment of the Unfree

One of the most intriguing aspects of Suisman’s narrative is his account of how advertisers and manufacturers of music reproducing machines (the phonograph, gramophone, and player pianos) attempted to convince potential purchasers that it required taste and ability to operate the machinery. Advertisers made a concerted effort to sell the idea of taste and discernment, but meanwhile the private sales literature (that is, literature distributed to salesmen with advice for talking about the products) recommended that they force the potential buyer to choose a music selection first and to use that first selection to guide the buyer — thus, taste is being sold but it is a taste that is already possessed by the buyer. That is to say, advertisers were simultaneously selling the idea that one ought continually to cultivate taste and that taste was something innate in the good buyer (after all, it is their taste that led them to looking into the products in the first place).

This leads us to an overarching theme of Selling Sounds: the fact that people find aesthetic value in popular music does not mean that it was manufactured in order to produce aesthetic value; it was made to sell. This is a familiar argument perhaps formulated in its most austere fashion by the culture critic Theodor W. Adorno in his notion (along with Max Horkheimer) of the Culture Industry.

Mass-produced items of popular culture (and remember that according to our narrower definition of popular music, it is necessarily mass produced) appeal to the lowest common denominator. Such items exude the illusion of originality (hence, the desire for the constantly new) while simply ever producing the same old formulas (hence, the easy salability of the items). This is illusory difference predicated upon the comfort of familiarity. Our individuality, the Culture Industry assures us, requires that we purchase what everyone else has while believing that acquisition to be our choice—our sense of personal agency is thus transformed (and seemingly validated) by our so-called purchasing power. However, in reality we have no power at all. We are victims of the eternally same.

Thankfully, Suisman does not quite fall into this pessimistic trap. He repeatedly reminds the reader that while producers create products for profit, consumers find use value in those products that may radically differ from the supposed “intentions” behind their creation. This is a valuable point. And yet Suisman never accounts for how the divide between production and consumption can be understood. What exactly is the relationship between the profit motive of the producers and the use motives of the consumers?

Does the manner in which the product is formed have no impact on how it is used? Clearly that cannot be the case. If it were, then anything could be used in any way and there would be no reason that consumer A should choose to listen to Rap while consumer B should choose to listen to Big Band Jazz. And yet, if we believe people find value in specific kinds of music and particular pieces of music then are we not forced to assume that those differences mean something (not necessarily inherent in any metaphysical sense in individual pieces but certainly wrapped up in their social existences) and that we are not arbitrarily using any random item in any random way?

But if our use of these products is somehow dependent upon the way they are formed, then isn’t the notion that we are somehow aesthetically free of the coercive nature of the Culture Industry just a blithe bit of false consciousness? Ought there not be a way for Suisman and like-minded individuals to account for use value without making it out to be some unfathomable quasi-Kierkegaardian leap of faith?

One would hope so, but Suisman doesn’t really consider the issue. He wants there to be a way out of the conundrum but he does such an incredibly good job of demonstrating the ways in which the music industry developed the tools of manipulation that one cannot help but wonder how Suisman would envisage a serious listener escaping from the stranglehold of the industry’s tentacles. In fact, Suisman directly engages Adorno’s concerns regarding music’s omnipresence within the modern soundscape in the final chapter of his book. But this chapter, the weakest of the book by far, spins itself out, addressing numerous issues without ever mounting a defense against Adorno.

Indeed, one gets the sense that although Suisman peppered his earlier chapters with assurances that the enjoyment listeners derive from popular music is not necessarily false consciousness, by the last chapter, the overwhelming weight of his analyses of the music industry has forced him into a tacit agreement with Adorno’s position. For Suisman as for Adorno, our enjoyment is necessarily the enjoyment of the unfree.

Such a pessimistic outlook, however, ought not to dissuade the reader from digging into this really wonderful book. It warrants repeated readings and deep consideration. It is full of surprising revelations and some truly hilarious anecdotes. 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 and given the impact of that industry on our daily lives, that really ought to be all of us.

RATING 8 / 10
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