In the 1920s, the recording industry faced a new medium that threatened to make it obsolete: commercial radio. Suddenly, stations around the country could broadcast music hundreds of miles in every direction, which meant listeners could hear for free the same songs they had previously purchased. Record companies went into a frenzy. As Sean Wilentz writes in “360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story,” “Record company executives blamed their new troubles less on the sweeping forces of politics, law, and economics than on the arrival of commercial radio, and with good reason.”
Radio proved immensely popular, thanks to crisper sounds and lower prices. That meant, of course, that record sales tanked. “The record companies claimed that existing copyright law permitted them to ban the radio stations from broadcasting commercially recorded music and, in effect, stealing their product. Records appeared with labels warning that they were not licensed for broadcasting, and, even though the claim lacked formal legal sanction, live music did remain the rule on radio through the 1920s.”
Eventually, of course, record companies — Columbia included — realized that radio could be a highly effective promotional tool, helping rather than hindering sales. Any sense of a lesson learned through this incident, however, would be false, as the same sky-is-falling paranoia erupted over jukeboxes in the 1930s, recordable cassette tapes and Walkmen in the 1980s, and Napster in the late 1990s. In fact, major labels tend to fear any technology that doesn’t originate within their own offices. According to “360 Sound,” that hasn’t happened since Columbia developed the 12-inch long-playing record in the 1940s.
Wilentz, a Princeton-based historian whose previous volumes include “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln” and “Bob Dylan in America,” has written not simply a history of Columbia Records, but a chronicle of recording and playback technology throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. He does run through the artists signed to the label as well as to its sisters and subsidiaries, including Okeh and eventually Epic, making clear that Columbia was “more like an emporium than a boutique.” It’s certainly an incredible roster: Its first star was John Phillip Sousa, its latest is Adele, and in between are Bessie Smith, Roy Acuff, Al Jolson, Leonard Bernstein, Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen.
Inevitably, Wilentz summarizes the major trends and movements in pop music: the popularity of race records in the early 20th century, the rise of youth culture at mid-century, the reduced popularity of jazz and classical, and the various permutations of rock and rap in the second half of the century. But Wilentz seems much more interested in the technology that captured and disseminated this music, and this approach makes “360 Sound” more than just another rock history or an elaborate shill for Columbia. The label commissioned the project, but according to the New York Times, Wilentz insisted on — and received — full editorial control of the book, which makes it a warts-and-all portrait of the company. Recounting the boneheaded decisions and missed opportunities alongside the undeniable triumphs and achievements, he doesn’t ignore Columbia’s early success with blackface musicians, for instance, whose music proved influential but so culturally disreputable that the label would probably rather write it out of its musical history.
In fact, Columbia’s origins are hardly musical at all. The company was founded as the American Graphophone Co. in 1887 as a means to market and improve upon Thomas Edison’s technology, finally settling on a “cardboard cylinder coated in ozocerite (a kind of wax) instead of tin foil, and employing a floating stylus instead of Edison's rigid needle.” The inventor originally intended the graphophone as an office product that would make dictation much easier and more convenient, but the machine proved so unwieldy and expensive, however, that few companies adopted the technology. It was easier just to have a phalanx of secretaries — at that time, almost all male — take dictation or record the minutes of meetings.
“Columbia's original directors decided in 1889 to record a variety of musical performances not because they loved music but because they loved making money,” Wilentz writes. “Columbia has offered a wide selection of music chiefly for business reasons, not artistic ones.” Such an admission does not diminish the power of the music released through the label, whatever the driving motives. At that time, however, Edison loudly denounced the gramophone’s use as a means of playing and replaying songs, believing it a lowly — and, worse, unprofitable — use for his technology.
In a sense the gramophone professionalized music. Previously in America, music had been the province of amateurs. Most families had someone who could play a piano or a guitar or a fiddle with reasonable facility, either to lead group singing or simply to entertain a small audience. The gramophone, however, necessitated highly talented musicians who could play in a proficient and distinctive style. Early on, the most coveted talent was stamina. Due to the limitations of recording and pressing technology, musicians needed to perform a song over and over, often spending days on the same song. Sousa in particular chafed against such tedium, and he was absent during the recording of some of his most famous marches in the very early 1900s. Later, he would decry the entire concept of recorded music as an affront to professional musicians and a criminally poor substitute for hearing live music. On the other hand, he is largely responsible for ensuring that composers receive royalties for their contributions.
Columbia was, according to “360 Sound,” “the first recording company to embrace electrical recording entirely.” This was an enormous opportunity, especially considering that its closest competitor, RCA Victor, had passed on exclusive rights to the technology. AT&T’s research department had actually developed a contraption to record electronically, which greatly improved the quality and range of sounds that could be captured and reproduced. Suddenly, companies could record entire orchestras rather than small groups crouched around a recording funnel.
Building on that innovation, microphone technology improved by leaps and bounds, allowing artists to capture warmer instrumental tones, especially in the human voice. As a result, singers began to occupy the spotlight, a development that eventually culminated in the crooner trend in the 1940s. No other crooner was more popular than a young Italian American named Frank Sinatra, and Wilentz locates the beginnings of American youth culture not with Elvis Presley or rock 'n' roll, but with the bobby-soxers who screamed themselves hoarse for Old Blue Eyes. While such a claim is certainly debatable (youth culture, like rock 'n' roll, wasn’t invented so much as it was developed gradually and haphazardly), Wilentz does persuasively argue for the microphone’s primacy in creating teen idols like Sinatra and Presley.
Around this time, Columbia’s primary competitor, RCA Victor, attempted to introduce a long-player record that would hold more data on a more accessible format, but consumers scoffed at the new medium and the new equipment it would necessitate. It wasn’t until the late 1940s, following the end of World War II and its shellac ban, that the label recruited a group of scientists to devise a more usable long-player. Columbia president Ted Wallerstein emerges as the hero of this episode, as his drive and perfectionism forced his team to throw out several early solutions that proved either too costly or too limited. “Each version — first, one that ran from seven to eight minutes per side, then ten to twelve minutes, then eighteen minutes — was inadequate, Wallerstein insisted, as none was suitable to the lengths of most symphonic works, the classical standard by which Wallerstein stood,” Wilentz explains. “Ever cautious, Wallerstein was also quick to pounce on the slightest imperfection of sound quality.”
But the result — a 12-inch record that could hold much more music — revolutionized the industry. Classical musicians could record full suites uninterrupted on a single side, and pop singers could create tonally or thematically cohesive records. Of the latter, Tony Bennett was one of the first to take advantage of the new possibilities in 1944: “His record, ‘Cloud 7,’” writes Wilentz, “was one of the first ‘concept’ albums with a unified musical theme, which presented Bennett performing in a quiet, jazz-inflected mellow style.”
On the other hand, this technology, among other concerns, meant that Columbia was very slow to sign rock 'n' roll musicians. Aside from Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins — who signed as country artists — the company missed out on the first waves of rock 'n' roll altogether, largely because the new genre was motivated by sales of 45 singles rather than longer 33 1/3 records. While Elvis was ascendant, Columbia focused on show tunes, pop standards, jazz, and classical, which sold reasonably well but portrayed the company as fussy, unhip and out of touch.
Even with the early success of Cash and Bob Dylan, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Columbia began signing rock acts like Janis Joplin, Blood Sweat & Tears and Johnny Winter — and, later, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and, well, Toto. During this time, the company adopted as its advertising motto “360 Sound,” which promised a new emphasis on high-fidelity recording. This period is arguably the label’s heyday, and Wilentz treats executives like Clive Davis and Walter Yetnikoff, not to mention talent scouts like Art Satherley and the infamous John Hammond, with as much reverence as the popular artists they signed and shepherded.
That approach makes for an odd but necessary history, especially considering that major labels and the people who run them are regularly vilified by many listeners. But the primary impression of “360 Sound” is that the current dire straits of the recording industry are nothing new. Labels remain slow to adopt new technology but quick to exploit trends, always on the hunt for the elusive crossover artist and always flooding the market with knockoffs of whatever may be popular. Slumping sales and fading relevance, however, may in fact be the default mode of the industry, with the successes of the 1940s and the 1960s little more than flukes — sharp spikes in a rather static line.
And yet, just a few weeks ago, “Red,” the fourth album by Nashville-based singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, became only the 18th long-player to sell more than a million copies in its first week of release (at least since SoundScan began tracking sales about 20 years ago). Three of those 18 best-sellers have been released in the past four years alone (Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III”). Those may not be early '90s numbers, when every release by Nirvana or Pearl Jam was a pop-cultural event, but they do suggest a major-label market defined by aggressive promotional tactics (“Red” could be ordered with a Papa John’s pizza) and a handful of huge stars on their rosters.
None of those artists, however, is signed to Columbia. But don’t cry for the label: In addition to the cast of “Glee” and the anonymous rockers Train, the label is still riding high on the incredible success of Adele’s “21,” which set up residence on the Billboard album charts in 2011, sold more than 10 million copies, won more Grammys than the singer could carry, and proved that “good” and “popular” need not be mutually exclusive. More important, she became that rare thing record companies dream about: a crossover hit, appealing to a wide swath of audiences. “360 Sound” is full of photos of the photogenic artist, whose music — which updates old pop styles into what she calls “heartbroken soul” — neatly sums up Columbia’s past. It’s not hard to imagine the label signing her in the 1950s or 1960 and putting her in a studio with Mitch Miller or John Hammond.
Adele also defines the company’s future, pointing a way forward. Columbia’s slow, careful promotion of “21” may have paid off, but her success, however sustaining, is unrepeatable. Rather than hope to sell millions upon millions of a smash album, labels in the digital age must learn to find new opportunities to create, disseminate and profit from music of all kinds. As this hefty and fascinating history makes clear, technology not only drives music and pop culture, but also defines and redefines our very notions of success.