'I Don't Sound like Nobody' Sheds New Light on the Birth of the Modern Music Industry

Albin J. Zak III argues that rock 'n' roll evolved more than it spontaneously erupted, with much of what came to be associated with rock having roots in music that had nothing to do with rock.

I Don't Sound like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America

Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Length: 308 pages
Author: Albin J. Zak III
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-12

All the old models are crashing. Technology has transformed how people make, distribute and consume music. A new generation of artists and entrepreneurs is leading the charge. They’re nimbler, hungrier and better able to take advantage of the emerging opportunities. The old guard, accustomed to having its way, now has to contend with audiences that are moving away from the conventional offerings and m.o., and deeper into this wild new frontier of sound.

Relax, Internet. I’m talking about the '50s.

Close study of the recording industry’s history virtually defines the canard "the past is prologue". What we’re living through now – the whole file sharing/death of record labels/new economic models for musicians thing – we’ve seen at two other critical junctures. In the late '10s and early ‘20s, small companies with big dreams were able to enter the business, and capitalize on styles the major labels of the day ignored – that’s essentially how the blues and country music industries were born. The same thing happened after World War II, only on a larger scale, establishing what became the groundwork for the pop music industry of the last 50 years. In both of those instances, just as we’ve seen the last ten years, perfect storms of technological breakthroughs, shifting consumer tastes, and people with the requisite hustle and drive created seismic disruptions to the industry’s status quo.

It might have been illuminating had Albin J. Zak III teased some of that out in this counter-intuitive history of the birth of the modern music industry. But he doesn’t much have to, because the parallels all but scream from every page. The period from 1945 to 1955 was marked by the birth of modern pop, R&B and country, and how those movements and more joined hands to give rise to what became rock 'n' roll. But Zak is less interested in the music itself than in the economic and technological forces that allowed the new sounds to enter consumers’ consciousness, and eventually the entertainment mainstream.

Zak identifies the vehicle of that entrée as the record, not the singer or the song. He starts his consideration in a location most rock writers never consider: Bing Crosby as pop innovator. The popular ‘30s singing star wanted to pre-record his radio variety shows – producing them in advance for maximum artistic control and entertainment impact – instead of performing them live each week, but ran into resistance from the radio industry and musicians’ unions. Zak’s unpacking of the backstory goes even further into the past, reviewing the legal battles between music and radio of the ‘30s and ‘40s. All music was performed live by studio orchestras back then, and musicians’ unions fought bitterly against the advent of playing pre-recorded music on the radio, fearing the loss of employment opportunities. Past-Is-Prologue Alert: the courts waded in on the issue, artists got a little more freedom (and eventually Crosby got to pre-record his shows), and the industry figured out how to deal with the new business model.

Not surprisingly, there were some unforeseen consequences. One was the expansion of the marketplace, in this case to include audiences for black music. Post-World War II indie start-ups began recording new black acts, mostly departures from the prevailing swing and pop models. Freed to play records (and now serviced by an infrastructure of industry figures supplying those records), radio stations used the new sounds to fill airtime, with black and white disc jockeys (the term no longer a pejorative) creating larger-than-life personas as the hep shamans with the hot sounds. This meant that listeners didn’t have to venture into an unfamiliar ‘hood to hear the latest cutting-edge jams. They could do it from the comfort of their own bedrooms, and then send off to places like Randy’s Record Shop in Nashville (or some other similar establishment, which often sponsored the broadcasts) to mail order the hits if they couldn’t find them locally. From those roots sprang the modern black pop music industry.

But most comprehensive rock histories tell that story to one extent or another. Zak continues on to a second unforeseen consequence, again with a central figure usually considered far afield from rock & roll: Mitch Miller, the in-house producer of pop records at Columbia in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. His output, a long string of hits for a gamut of white-bread singers including Frankie Laine, Kay Starr and a young Tony Bennett, came to define bland, disposable “middle-of-the-road” music. But Zak argues that Miller was the first studio producer as auteur: it was his choices of material, his often-gimmicky arrangements and his work with the singers that defined the records he made. There was criticism aplenty of Miller’s approach (Frank Sinatra was especially dismissive), but not only did it move a ton of product, it created a way to consider records as concrete works of art in and of themselves, above and beyond the actual song being performed.

Zak follows that thread throughout the rest of the ‘50s, exploring how performers from Les Paul to Buddy Holly used the studio to become, well, Les Paul and Buddy Holly (his mini-profiles of Holly and Bill Haley are especially helpful for understanding how they fit into the music’s development). At the same time, the explosion of r&b set off ripple effects all over the place, with black artists becoming overnight stars, white artists covering their hits, and (another past-is-prologue alert!) issues of cultural authenticity being played out in the marketplace. The end result, Zak writes, is that the musical landscape of the ‘50s was anything but static. Nor did the rise of rock present as abrupt a cultural shift as rock historians like to claim. Rather, the tastes of the marketplace evolved over time, as did performance styles and choices of songs to sing. All that change created an incredibly diverse musical landscape, one in which artists and record companies often found themselves trying to catch up to their audiences, and (past-is-prologue alert!) throwing some spaghetti at the same spot on the wall where the last strand stuck.

Zak’s premise is counter-intuitive in that it departs from the Great Man and Big Bang theories of rock’s birth. As espoused by rock critic-historians, they hold that various strands all came together in the epiphanies laid down in 1955-57 by rock’s Mount Rushmore: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Broader perspectives on the creation myth give greater emphasis to the crazyquilt network of upstart labels, radio stations, recording studios, producers and performers from which these stars arose. Zak deviates from that line of reasoning to argue that rock and roll evolved more than it spontaneously erupted, with much of what came to be associated almost exclusively with rock having roots in music that, on the surface at least, had nothing to do with rock.

Zak’s reading of the pop music landscape in the early ‘60s - an era rock critics regard with disdain for its lack of Great Man-type figures dominating the scene - reflects his appreciation for the marketplace’s diversity. Even as the seeds for the artistic breakthroughs mid-decade were being sown in seemingly innocuous (some would say bland) pop concoctions, Zak indicates that they reflected the advances and approaches that had taken hold in the previous decade. Championing the hitmaking likes of the Brill Building songwriters, girl groups and others, Zak’s analysis of that period of rock’s history would seem to square with (past-is-prologue alert!) the popism side of the rockism-v.-popism debate that was all the rage among certain music writers a few years back.

I Don’t Sound Like Nobody prompts a reconsideration of its central subject, as any solid music history book ought to do. But in this case, Zak’s central subject isn’t the music itself, but how it came to be. As it happened, the broader music industry eventually found a way to bring the upstart entrepreneurs and performers into the fold, and the business model continued more-or-less apace even as the artistic models shifted virtually with the tides. The major labels of the late ‘40s and ‘50s found a way to adapt to the new developments and keep dominating the market. Today, the Big 4 labels account for roughly 80 percent of all music sales, Internet-driven market dispersion, the growth of indie genres and labels, and brick-and-mortar shrinkage be damned. The past is prologue, indeed.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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