In a Land Before iTunes

A review of Michael Denning’s new book Noise Uprising – which sounds fascinating – in New Republic:

Denning’s story starts in 1925, when engineers perfected the technique of electrical recording and the 78 RPM phonograph record supplanted sheet music as the basic unit of the music industry. A handful of Western record companies spent the next five years recording local music across the world. Some of the music they recorded—Indonesian kroncong, South African marabi, Shanghainese huangse yinyue—remains unfamiliar to most Americans. Others, like jazz and tango, have become ubiquitous. The quantity and diversity of recordings from this period reflect the record companies’ basic indifference to the music they put out: They were willing to record anything that might persuade local consumers they needed a record player.

The varieties of local music recorded during the phonograph boom were not quite “folk” music rooted in the rhythms of rural life. Instead Denning calls them “vernacular” music—music performed and listened to by the people, as opposed to the high tradition of “classical music,” guarded by a small, highly trained group of musicians and mostly performed in formal settings. Vernacular music, like vernacular languages—Spanish, Italian, etc—belongs to everyday life, whereas classical music is more like Latin, used by officials and in high art. And just as vernacular literature gained strength with the invention of the printing press, the rise of vernacular music began with the phonograph.


As the article points out, the fact that the publisher has supplied a follow-along Spotify playlist for the book creates a comment about the continuing evolution of these themes:

But accessing these songs as streaming data, rather than shellac 78s or expensive CD reissues, also suggests that the way we experience music is still being relentlessly transformed. Like the phonograph boom, the digital era combines elements of democratization with the persistence of large corporations and the commodity form. Perhaps more than any of its specific conclusions, Noise Uprising is valuable as a challenge to think through the audio politics of today.