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'Selling Sounds' explores commercialism's influence on the music we listen to

September 20, 2009

Among the fascinating examples of early music-industry advertising in "Selling Sounds," the most striking is a 1913 image of legendary tenor Enrico Caruso with one of his Victor Red Seal recordings. "Both are Caruso," the text reads, adding that the owner of the disc hears the singer "just as truly as if you were listening to him in the Metropolitan Opera House." For author David Suisman, this identification of a person with an inert hunk of shellac that encodes his voice isn't merely a clever promotional ploy but an emblem of a century-old transformation in the ways we understand, experience and consume music.

Subtitled "The Commercial Revolution in American Music," Suisman's book (Harvard University Press) focuses on the 1880s through the mid-1920s, a period that saw the growth of sheet-music publishing, the rise of the player piano and its displacement in American homes by the gramophone. These innovations made professionally composed and performed music available to a wider range of Americans than ever before. At the same time, music increasingly became something to be passively appreciated rather than actively made.

Though individual songs had become "hits" since the days of American minstrels and the English music halls, it wasn't until the 1910s that the writers and publishers of Tin Pan Alley organized their production into a consistently profitable enterprise. As older balladry gave way to short, catchy choruses meant to be remembered in seconds and forgotten in weeks, these commodities formed the cornerstone of what could be called, for the first time, an American music "industry." With new things to sell came new ways of selling, from the public "song-plugging" of the sheet-music era to the Victor Co.'s canny use of "Nipper," the dog that cocked an ear to "His Master's Voice," in one of the 20th century's most recognizable corporate trademarks.

Though the story Suisman tells is a broadly familiar one, he has assembled valuable reminders of something many would rather ignore; namely, the extent to which the music we hear, and how we hear it, has less to do with our personal preferences than with what a large, well-organized sector of business makes available to us.

I read "Selling Sounds" not long after the death of two figures (among many others) whose careers complicate Suisman's pessimistic outlook. Guitarist Les Paul and songwriter Ellie Greenwich, who penned (with Jeff Barry) such girl-group gems as "Be My Baby" and "Leader of the Pack." Though these artists would have produced something different, or nothing at all, under other conditions, they did their best work from within the belly of the technological-cum-corporate beast.

More than that, their music has proved far more durable than the ephemeral assembly-line products suggested by "Selling Sounds." The existence of such work is another strain within the tangled history of American popular music, though not one that Suisman's instrument is well-equipped to play.

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Bruno is the author of "Armed Forces."

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