The Music Never Stopped: Recordings Depend on Music, Not Vice Versa

By Doherty, Brian | Reason, March 2004 | Go to article overview

The Music Never Stopped: Recordings Depend on Music, Not Vice Versa


Doherty, Brian, Reason


When I was young, I thought the music I heard on the radio was coming from live bands performing in the studios as I listened. I imagined pop groups frantically packing up to make room for the next one, then dashing across town to perform their new hit on another station.

I can't explain why I held this weird belief, especially since I knew that records existed. What I didn't know is that my delusional world was the dream of a tough union leader in the first half of the 20th century, James Caesar Petrillo of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). He saw that recorded music, and the broadcasting of that music on radio and jukeboxes, was a threat to his boys' jobs (and his).

AFM strikes brought the recording of new music to a halt in 1943 and 1948, but when the union tried again in 1958 it just didn't work. Live musicians' cultural and political influence had waned too much, even as the average Joe had more access to more songs than anyone in history. (That statement only gets more and more true every year, with every technological advance.) And nowadays--well, one Los Angeles session drummer told me his AFM rep blithely advised him to cross his own union's picket line to avoid inconveniencing himself.

As music journalist Mark Coleman notes in his new book Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money (Da Capo), "It's a pity [Petril[o] didn't live to hear the record industry unload on Napster and file sharing in much the same way he denounced canned music. The echoes are pitch-perfect." Coleman's book documents how new technologies-from the player piano to the iPod--have always rattled to their core the powers that dominate the business of making, distributing, and selling music.

Those powers are right to be disturbed. They tend to become entrenched in selling music in particular manners and styles and systems. New technologies inevitably shake all those things up. Coleman tells us about many such technologies and shakeups: home phonographs and radios that sealed the fate of player pianos and sheet music in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s; the invention of the long-playing record in the late '40s and multitracking in the '50s, which created space for unified 40-to-50-minute works of musical recording art; the late '70s introduction of portable cassette/earphone devices that elevated the cassette to the best-selling recorded-music format in just six years; the electronic synthesizer of the '80s that drove out of business many of Petrillo's boys who somehow had managed to survive the onslaught of canned music in the first half of the 20th century. …

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