Records and Revolutions: The Music Industry as an Agent of Change

AHA Session 193
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Virginia Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
David Suisman, University of Delaware
David Suisman, University of Delaware

Session Abstract

Cultural industries made crucial contributions to the fundamental transformations of the twentieth century. From dime novels off the steam-powered printing press at its dawn to digitally streaming blockbuster movies by its conclusion—the commercial producers of popular content advanced modernity by shaping the ways in which people accessed art and experienced entertainment. At the very center of this process, the music industry commodified popular culture and catalyzed cultural globalization over the full course of the century, and oftentimes long before other branches of business followed suit.

This panel examines processes of historical change that occurred as results of the production, distribution, and consumption of recorded music. At the broadest level, its three papers investigate instances when technological progress and economic expansion enabled cultural content to drive social, racial, and political change. They approach the music industry as both a quintessential twentieth-century business that flourished once reproductive technologies had liberated sound from the moment and place of performance, and a powerful broker of cultural commodities that supplied music from virtually all periods to consumers in the most far-flung places. Beyond advancing global connectedness, the endeavors of the music industry buttressed efforts toward social progress, racial empowerment, and political liberalization in some key arenas of twentieth-century Western civilization. Taking into consideration the contributions of artists, entrepreneurs, and audiences, the panel attempts to ignite a conversation on the perhaps most frequently overlooked industry of mass culture production as a catalyst of modernization. In response to popular portrayals of the music industry as harmful to creative vitality and exploitative of the music scene, the panel proposes that a deeper glimpse at the mechanics of culture markets reveals the transformative power that music possesses if captured and circulated on sound carriers.

The three papers illuminate how the mass medium of recorded popular music influenced developments within societies and relations between countries in the period between the peak of the Progressive Era and the resolution of the Cold War. Each of the presenters applies a distinctly transnational perspective to their examination. Investigating the Latin American field recording expeditions of an early major record company during the 1910s and 1920s, Sergio Ospina-Romero’s research reveals how enterprises diversified the American music market by targeting immigrants from south of the border as consumers of culture. Celeste Day Moore’s case study on the bluesman Big Bill Broonzy exemplifies how Western European record labels contributed to the reshaping of racial perceptions by marketing black jazz and blues artists as ambassadors of authentic American culture to postwar audiences in the Old World. Focusing on the music market of the German Democratic Republic, Sven Kube’s paper illuminates how commerce between record companies in capitalist and communist countries undermined the Cold War divide of the Iron Curtain by facilitating cultural liberalization as a prologue to political revolution. Probing the connections between record production and historical change in three periods and settings, the panel offers a comprehensive perspective of an industry that emblematized the industrial production of culture during the twentieth century.

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