Academic journal article Current Musicology

Representing Recording Studios of the Past: A Review Essay

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Representing Recording Studios of the Past: A Review Essay

Article excerpt

Andy Bradley and Roger Wood. 2010. House of Hits: The Story of Houston's Gold Star/Sugarhill Recording Studios. Austin: University of Texas Press.

John Hartley Fox. 2009. King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records. Urbana: University of Illinois Press

Roben Jones. 2010. Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

The recording studio, a site that music makers use to represent and produce sonic culture, is not merely a musical place. Recording studios are social, electronic, architectural, acoustic, and creative technologies of representation. Throughout recording processes, music industries seek to mystify the functional status of the studio among consumers of pop music. This encourages alienation between consumers and producers of popular music, rendering the agency of music business interests invisible, inaudible, and transparent. Roben Jones's Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios, John Hartley Fox's King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records, and Andy Bradley and Roger Wood's House of Hits: The Story of Houston's Gold Star/Sugarhill Recording Studios present music scholarship with three recording studios that significantly contributed to American popular music. These works successfully document the local and national contexts in which these studios produced, as well as many accounts of individuals who were involved in the studios and specific recording sessions; however, these are books in which the representation of recording studios weighs heavily on celebrations of illustrious music makers and the popular music they produce. Jones and Fox are not as careful in attending to the diverse artistic and technological agencies of architects, carpenters, acousticians, engineers, musicians, producers, and business people in the history of the recording studios as are Bradley and Wood. Works such as these perpetuate readers' misunderstanding of the complexities involved in recording studio labor and inhibit scholarly analyses of popular music production. Representations of recording studio life comprise a small category of scholarship on popular music.

In addition to the three examples of histories about studios that this essay reviews, social scientists analyze the dynamics between individuals, technologies, and sounds in order to understand the role of music production in shaping popular cultures. These contributions primarily divide between those that describe the experiences of recording studio workers (Horning 2004; Jones 1992; Kealy 1979; Porcello 2003) and those that describe how the efforts of studio workers shape sounds that propagate in both local and global music markets (Green and Porcello 2005' Meintjes 2003; Veal 2007).

This sort of social scientific writing favors descriptions of the processes of record production. These works present studios as sites of labor in which social actions shape musical sounds and personhood in ways that blur the supposed boundary between the technological and the creative. Ethnographic methods afford greater access to the details of recording studio labor. Ethnographers such as Meintjes and Porcello, in their respective contexts, are able to directly encounter challenges associated with recording, experiencing the collaborations between producers, agents, musicians, and engineers, among other workers, as well as the studios' placement within specific genres and related industrial flows.

The three reviewed texts are not ethnographies. The authors of the texts write in a context that is temporally distinct from the now historical moments associated with the studios about which they write. This determines the primary question that organizes this review: How can histories of recording studios gain greater proximity to workers and recording processes without the benefit of physically co-present ethnographic methods?

Writing about recording studios that demystifies the myth of intimacy between the consumer and the recording artist facilitates music scholarship that explains the cultural tensions that determine the sounds and social lives of a pop album. …

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