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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.

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.

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