Perfect Sound Forever


Book excerpt by Kyle Barnett
(February/March 2020)

While most books about modern music history focus on particular artists, Kyle Barnett's Record Cultures traces the beginning of the recording industry and major labels in the early 20th century and how they intersected, collided and expanded with competing media (film, radio) while consolidating styles and artists/performers into categories such as 'race' (later R&B), 'hillbilly' (later, country music) and jazz. All the while, the fight for dominance involved tech companies, publishers, manufacturers and record companies which waged war and alliances as necessary. As Barnett himself puts it, his mission is finding the intersection between these behemoths and the art that come out the other end somehow:

"How do we account for the practices of the recording industry as reflected in its decision-making and culture-shaping/reflecting mode, both as an industry involved in manufacturing culture and reflecting its own participation as a cultural institution?"

In this excerpt, Barnett examines the relationship between the labels and radio in the 1920's, which ranged from outright hostile to a grudging alliance. The way that it played out has a lot of obvious parallels to the way that labels are now trying to figure out how take advantage of streaming services. Record Cultures is for sale at the University of Michigan Press website- you can use the discount code ‘UMRecord' (without the quotes).

The Recording Industry in the Age of Radio

The simultaneous benefits and threats represented in radio's ascendance made recording companies both curious and reticent about the medium's promotional possibilities. Radio promised a new kind of simultaneity (roughly speaking) that marked a key difference when compared to common consumption of phonograph records. "Insofar as popular music conflated entertainment and indirect product promotion, it was an ideal vehicle for broadcast advertising," in that, on radio, "songs were endowed with audience appeal, and their capacity to seize a listener's attention and capitalize on the power of association made them effective agents of indirect selling—not only of affiliated products but also of themselves." In a 1924 Radio News interview, then secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover ("chief of police of the ether") pronounced radio programming (in its local and what he saw as inevitable network forms) as an edifying social force and bolster for family life: "For in the comfort of our own firesides, father can smoke, mother can knit and the family can make remarks upon the performance with informality not permitted in public places."

By 1928, popular songs (recorded as well as live) had come to play "indispensable roles in the acceptance of radio as a medium for mass advertising." By the mid-1920s, novelty tunes like "I Wish There Was a Wireless to Heaven (Then Mama Would Not Seem So Far Away," "Mister Radio Man (Tell My Mammy To Come Back Home)," "Tune In L-O-V-E," and "Love Her By Radio" were in circulation. But amid these adjustments and assimilations, Thomas Edison emerged as one of the recording companies' loudest voices in denouncing radio as a medium. Edison, eighty years old by 1927, had largely steered his company to focus on increasing audio quality and playing time length, while dismissing radio's growing influence. "It's awful—I don't see how they can listen to it," Edison said. "There isn't ten percent of the interest in radio that there was last year. . . . It's a highly complicated machine in the hands of people who know nothing about it," adding that Edison dealers were "rapidly abandoning" the technology. Radio audiences were fiercely loyal and often wrote in to discuss their preferences on what they wanted to listen to and how they wanted to do so. With the end of local radio's dominance in the late 1920s, listeners "articulated an anticorporate moral economy implicit in the reciprocal relationships independent stations forged with their audiences." Meanwhile, phonography's oldest champion continued to speak out against radio in general. In a 1925 item that could not have surprised anyone, a Talking Machine World article announced, "Thos. A. Edison, Inc., to Not Enter Radio Field." As radio continued to gain popularity, Edison increasingly became a target for satire in cartoons that largely appeared in radio magazines, as in an October 15, 1926, Radio Digest cartoon titled "Tommy's Only Foolin'," in which the inventor announces, "Radio Is the Bunk!" to which a radio fan replies "Aw—So's Your Old Phonograph!"

Recording companies continued to follow both long-term and short term generic niches, though they were not always clear on which was which. After incorporating the earlier insurgent musical styles of the 1920s into marketable genre categories, Victor and Columbia had by the second half of the decade increasingly sought a broader generic hybridity that sought the national audiences that radio had started to identify and the talking picture had reinforced in certain ways. By the mid-1920s, Brunswick-Balke-Collender replaced Edison at second position (ahead of Columbia, behind Victor) as the U.S. recording industry's Big Three. In 1924, Brunswick signed Al Jolson away after many years at Columbia. The announcement was meant for March 1, but Jolson let his enthusiasm get the best of him in an informal announcement at a mid-February Chicago stage performance.15 Jolson was paired with Isham Jones' orchestra, one of the label's (and nation's) most popular bands, which helped ensure the greatest impact for Jolson's first Brunswick releases.

The Big Three were predictably concerned by the emergence of radio and eventually sought ways to make radio's reliance on music work for them. As radio entered American life, fierce battles were waged between advocates for commercial vs. educational uses (which are ongoing today). For much of the 1920s, music on radio meant live performances and an emphasis on "quality music," "potted palm" tunes of classical and light opera that were such a part of the medium in those days. At least initially, not a lot of the music released on recordings were heard on radio. But as early as February 1924, an article in Voice of the Victor, the company's in-house trade publication geared towards retail dealers, addressed the radio boom. "When radio first began to fill the ether it was thought to be the chief bogey of the instrument and record business. Yet, little by little, the contrary is proving true, and radio is helping to increase business, for the Dealer who knows how to use the advertising power which a radio broadcast brings into the radius of his business." The article emphasizes the "evanescent" nature of the radio song, heard once and perhaps not again, which was an area in which the phonograph record—which could be played anytime a listener desired—had a distinct advantage: "At this point the record seller steps in with a reproduction of the selection which can be called forth whenever wanted," by the finest bands and vocalists that Victor could offer. As David Ewen writes, "Hearing a good song or favorite singer was one thing," but "to renew that pleasure at will through a record was quite another." As we will discuss later, radio sought to distinguish itself from phonography, both in terms of radio's superior sonic qualities compared to the acoustic phonograph and in the dual discourses inscribed into the medium's regulations: the centrality of live transmissions and coast-to-coast networks' ability to unify the nation.

While cross-promotional relationships between music publishing companies, recording companies, and film companies had some substantive historical precedents by the mid-1920s, radio's emergence forced recording companies to decide upon their relationship to the technology. Would it be seen by the recording industry as a new and unique promotion opportunity or as a hostile interloper that would cut into companies' profits or even topple its dominance in entertainment media? Recording companies' initial takes were closer to the latter than the former, though by the mid1920s, companies were especially eager to offer combination phonograph and-radio cabinets for their consumers as well as to convert and adapt to "electrical recording," which radio had made a new gold standard of sorts in discourses surrounding audio quality.

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