Thursday, September 3, 2009

John Philip Sousa on the recording industry

I'm currently reading Elijah Wald's book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll. In it he discusses the views of John Philip Sousa towards recording and the dissemination of "machine-made music." The quote below is from Sousa's essay "The Menace of Mechanical Music" [published in 1906]. The essay made me think of Jason Heath's recent blog post on why teenagers don't listen to classical music.

Right here is the menace in machine-made music! The first rift in the lute has appeared. The cheaper of these instruments of the home are no longer being purchased as formerly, and all because the automatic music devices are usurping their places.

And what is the result? The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technic, it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling.

Great Britain is experiencing this decline in domestic music and the English press is discussing it seriously in its editorials. A recent writer in the London Spectator dwells at considerable length upon the prevailing condition, and points to the novel as a sign of the times. The present-day fashionable writer of society fiction, he declares, does not find it necessary to re├źnforce his heroine with vocal accomplishment, "as in the good old days." He ascribes the passing of home performance, both vocal and instrumental, to the newborn love of athletics among the maids of Albion, together with the introduction of the phonograph as a mechanical substitute for amateur performances....

Under such conditions the tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant. Singing will no longer be a fine accomplishment; vocal exercises, so important a factor in the curriculum of physical culture, will be out of vogue!

Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink? When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?

Children are naturally imitative, and if, in their infancy, they hear only phonographs, will they not sing, if they sing at all, in imitation and finally become simply human phonographs -- without soul or expression? Congregational singing will suffer also, which, though crude at times, at least improves the respiration of many a weary sinner and softens the voices of those who live amid tumult and noise.

Just so far as a spirit of emulation once inspired proud parent or aspiring daughter to send for the music teacher when the neighbor child across the way began to take lessons, the emulation is turning to the purchase of a rival piano player in each house, and the hope of developing the local musical personality is eliminated.

The country dance orchestra of violin, guitar and melodeon had to rest at times, and the resultant interruption afforded the opportunity for general sociability and rest among the entire company. Now a tireless mechanism can keep everlastingly at it, and much of what made the dance a wholesome recreation is eliminated.

The country band with its energetic renditions, its loyal support by local merchants, its benefit concerts, band wagon, gay uniforms, state tournaments, and the attendant pride and gayety, is apparently doomed to vanish in the general assault on personality in music.


Remember, his was written in 1906. I, like Sousa and Heath, think that the changes in music listening habits has a large part to do with the way teenagers (and the rest of us) listen to music today. With the easy availability of MP3 players and the internet providing quick access to literally hundreds of thousands of listening options, classical music is just not properly "placed" to be consumed like other genres: the pieces are significantly longer; the pieces vary in tempi, dynamics and other ways that don't catch people's attention in a world where individuals can listen to their iPod for 3 minutes at a time between classes, meetings, and other friendly interruptions.

The way we consume music has also affected jazz. The fact that individual's purchase their music online now (more than ever) suggests that the art of writing liner notes is being lost. For jazz fans and musicians, the liner notes of an album provide important information on, among other things, the side-men on a given recording date. This has changed (I believe) how people listen to a jazz recording: if the side-men are not mentioned, what are the chances that the average listener will be noticing their contribution to the recording. Now it is harder to follow the contributions of side-men like Larry Grenadier, Eric Alexander, or Terrel Stafford in their contributions to the recordings of others. As a result, I think the way we are currently listening to music also has something to do with the perception (real or not) that jazz is in need of saving.

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