Cover: Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, from Harvard University PressCover: Selling Sounds in PAPERBACK

Selling Sounds

The Commercial Revolution in American Music

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Product Details


$30.00 • £24.95 • €27.00

ISBN 9780674064041

Publication Date: 05/07/2012


368 pages

5-11/16 x 8-15/16 inches

41 halftones


With Selling Sounds, David Suisman kicks the legs out from the romantic account of the music industry’s innocent start and slow move to commercial heartlessness. Suisman investigates the early decades of the popular music industry, from 1880 to 1930, and his descriptions of the upstart crews of scrappy entrepreneurs who hawked sheet music in the old days call to mind the corporate suits at major labels plugging the next Disney-spawned tween star or mall punk band. Put it in a pretty package and the kids will go ape for it. For Suisman popular music has always been heavily commercialized (songs, albums and artists are just more widgets to be peddled), and his book leaves one wondering whether the history of commercial music resembles the aesthetics of the pop song: the pattern has little variation but has proved to be endlessly repeatable, and mostly profitable.—J. Gabriel Boylan, The Nation

[A] meticulously researched history of [the music industry’s] early days.—Mark Athitakis, The Washington Post

Virgin’s music emporium will soon become a thing of the past: Like so many other retail music stores of late, it has announced that it is going out of business. The story of Selling Sounds, then, is especially timely.—Ken Emerson, The Wall Street Journal

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. Most listeners—and, I’d wager, artists—would surely prefer to see their musical experiences as a respite from capitalism, not a function of it. Still, it would be hard to deny that phenomena from the selling of youth culture back to itself in the form of rock and roll to the rise of ringtones as a tiny, publicly audible lifestyle indicator (and a fresh income stream) are rooted in structures and processes whose origins Suisman describes.—Franklin Bruno, The Los Angeles Times blog

Inventors ran wild during the years bracketing the turn of the 20th century, creating technology that repeatedly transformed the ways people heard and consumed music. It happened again a hundred years later, which makes David Suisman’s lucid account of the emergence and consolidation of the music industry particularly welcome.—Grant Alden, Wilson Quarterly

A fascinating new book about the formative history of the American music business.—Matt Miller, The Deal Magazine

If you’re interested in the history of the music industry, or have wondered idly how the song that’s stuck in your head got to be there, you should read David Suisman’s detailed and entertaining Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music. Every page held a new discovery for me, from the competitive world of song pluggers (piano-and-crooner teams hired to perform songs in advance of the sheet music publication, often to ‘spontaneous’ applause from plants in the audience), to the rise of the player-piano (in 1900, it would have been regarded as more potentially culture-transforming than phonographs), to the reason tenors surpassed sopranos in popularity (their voices better masked deficiencies in early recording), to Irving Berlin’s nine rules—some seemingly contradictory—to writing a hit song. The chapter on Black Swan Records alone, which from 1921 to 1923 attempted to combine racial uplift with a viable business model, is worth the price of admission. Selling Sounds is a profound and fascinating book, not just for academics but for anyone with ears.—Ed Park, The Millions

[It’s a] fascinating narrative that David Suisman unfurls… Here you learn everything from how the work of creating the songs is distributed to the various sales techniques employed by song pluggers (basically, the salesmen of music publishing), including the use of slides to add a visual component to the song. While there are numerous accounts of the position of so-called song pluggers in the development of popular music in the first decades of the 20th century, one rarely encounters a description that so accurately and compellingly details the quotidian life of these remarkable salesmen and the ways in which they learned to compete while peacefully coexisting… This [is a] really wonderful book. It warrants repeated readings and deep consideration. It is full of surprising revelations and some truly hilarious anecdotes. Well-researched and beautifully documented, replete with beautiful illustrations and photographs, this book belongs on the shelf of any reader serious about popular music and the music industry and given the impact of that industry on our daily lives, that really ought to be all of us.—Chadwick Jenkins, PopMatters

Suisman…tell[s] an alluring story.—George Anders,

A fascinating, well-written, richly detailed story of how music became a commodity in America… [Suisman’s] scholarship is amazingly wide-ranging.—William F. Gavin, The Washington Times

This book is music to my ears—a much needed history of the rise of the commercial music industry in the first decades of the twentieth century. Deeply researched, smartly argued, and engagingly written, Selling Sounds will sweep you off your feet.—Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America

Ranging from Tin Pan Alley song pluggers to Supreme Court decisions on copyright, from Caruso’s Victor Red Seal records to Black Swan, the first major black-owned record company, David Suisman’s Selling Sounds is a marvelous cultural history of the ways the music industry retuned the soundscape of modern times in the United States.—Michael Denning, Yale University

Selling Sounds masterfully charts the rise of the modern music industry in all its commercial complexity. As engaging as the new popular music Suisman describes, his account deserves an audience as wide as that music enjoyed.—Emily Thompson, author of The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933

Awards & Accolades

  • Certificate of Merit, 2010 ARSC Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research, Best Research in General History of Recorded Sound Category, Association for Recorded Sound Collections
  • Honorable Mention, 2010 Woody Guthrie Award, US Branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music
  • A Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2009
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