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Making Easy Listening, Material Culture and Postwar American Recording

by Tim J. Anderson
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2006
280 pp., illus. 10 b/w. Trade, $69; paper, $23
ISBN: 0-8166-4517-5; ISBN 0-8166-4518-3.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent
Jan Delvinlaan 115, 9000 Gent, Belgium


The University of Minnesota Press has been publishing a number of outstanding studies in its "Commerce and Mass Media" series, and this twelfth title is certainly no exception. Tim Anderson, who is an assistant professor of communication at Denison University, has tackled the recording industry and the reception of its products in post-war America from three different angles and gives us an entirely new understanding of the fundamental changes in the means of interaction between musicians and their audiences. Instead of looking at the recording industry as the 'bad guys' who are curtailing musicians' creativity, suppressing authenticity and individuality and turning music into a mass commodity, he emphasizes the material changes that took place roughly between '48 and ‘64 — long before rock and roll became the dominant genre in the market. The central issue of course is the availability of affordable playback apparatus for affordable, robust records with an acceptable sound quality and an extended lifetime (vinyl stereo longplayings) and the gradual demise of sheet music publishing. American middle-class households gradually shifted from amateur performing stages where one or the other was banging out a tune on a honky tonk piano to pseudo theatres where would be connoisseurs could enjoy 'authentic' recordings in the quiet and comfort of their living room — in stereo!

Anderson focuses his analysis on three subjects: the recording process and the post-war recording bans; production and reproduction in the case of My Fair Lady and Stereo, Hi-Fi and the birth of Easy Listening. The chapters on the strike of the American Federation of Musicians essentially illustrate what constitutes a change in labour relations following a change in the mode of production. In marxist terms this is a simply illustration of a generic process: as capital accumulates and technology advances, the way commodities are produced undergoes a qualitative leap — in this case from live performance of compositions to recordings of performances — and a massive laying off of labourers follows. Anderson endeavours to explain the whole episode in non-marxist terms and in my opinion falls a bit short of getting a full grasp on the underlying dynamics of the strike and the issues at stake. But this is only a minor weakness.

In his analysis of the exploitation of the music of 'My Fair Lady', Anderson is at his best. He clearly describes the interplay between audiences, music, performers and genres, and the way the recording industry instantly fills each and every niche of the market with pre-cooked and easily digested stuff. How music becomes a property and how this property is made to be profitable clearly is what he understands best. This is the section where one gets a glimpse of why popular music is popular music at all. For the first time, I find here a convincing discussion of the gradual but unavoidable shift between two hierarchies. Before, the concert or theatrical performance came first. After, performances got reduced to promotional tools for the record. And this long before the worldwide promotional tours of the Rolling Stones or the merchandising of Kylie M. A similar shift, by the way, has been happening in the past with tunes from movies or TV-series becoming number one hits, and in a few years we will see how the Internet again changes the relationship between mode of production and mode of distribution of popular music.

In the last section, Tim Anderson discusses roughly the changes brought about by the introduction of hi-fi and stereo technology in the marketing and the reception of music. Similar studies have been done already extensively and more fully by Colin Symes for classical recording and Peter Doyle for popular music (see reviews elsewhere in LDR), so the benefit of Andersons approach lies in the connections he makes between this aspect of American recording history and the two other themes of his book.



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