“We had our music with us:” Does Recording Music Change its Value?

Does technology improve or degrade music? Are we more or less musical than we were in the past? Last year NPR’s James Jackson Toth struggled with these questions:

“Partly due to the ubiquity of music playlists and partly due to supply outweighing even my most insatiable of demands, all music was becoming Muzak. In the interest of trying to experience it all, I was fast approaching a saturation point that was rendering me numb. As a person who still legitimately believes in music’s potential to transcend life’s banalities, disappointments, and even its suffering, this was cause for concern.”

Black Boy With Radio
Negro child playing phonograph in cabin home. Transylvania Project, Louisiana, 1939. Library of Congress.

You might be interested to know that this is not just a modern-day issue.  Recent years have seen dramatic technological changes the internet and music streaming have had on how we create and enjoy music. But, as with most things, we can look to history and see that this is not new.

Almost 100 years ago sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd observed the dramatic changes that were happening after the introduction of radio and photograph at the turn of the century. People just weren’t signing anymore! A generation before their book Middletown hit shelves every town had a dozen singing groups. Casual singing at parties and events used to be the rule. But by the 1920s, they found it was an exception:

“Mechanical inventions such as the phonograph and radio are further bringing to Middletown more contacts with more kinds of music than ever before. Thirty-five years ago diffusion of musical knowledge was entirely in the handicraft stage; today it has entered a machine stage. The first phonograph was exhibited locally in 1890 and reported as “drawing large crowds. The Edison invention is undoubtedly the most wonderful of the age.” Now these phonographs have become so much a part of living that, for example, a family of three, when the father was laid off in the summer of 1923, “strapped a trunk on the running board of the Ford, put the Victrola in the back seat with the little girl, and went off job-hunting. Wherever we lived all summer we had our music with us.

White Woman With Radio
[White] Woman, with large bow in her hair, putting needle on record on phonograph, c. 1908. Library of Congress.

Even more characteristic of the nineties was spontaneous singing as a part of the fun of any and all gatherings. When a family reunion was held it began with a prayer and ended with the inevitable address and singing; at the lawn fetes of the day some of those present would sing or play while others sat in the windows or on the porch rail and listened. “Lay awake awhile last night,” says a local diary, “listening to serenaders.” the diary of the young baker mentions music of all sorts as an informal part of his “banging around town” night after night.

‘Went to L-s’ and serenaded them.’ ‘Gang over at N-s’. Singing, guitar, mouth harp, piano, cake, bananas, oranges and lemonade. Had a time!’ ‘Yesterday -‘s birthday, so he set up cigars and a keg at the union meeting. After the meeting we played cards and sang until eleven…Even at an ‘elegant party’ of ‘some of our society young men’ of the Success Club in 1900 the press states that “an entertainment of vocal solos and readings was enjoyed by those present.

Solo singing or group singing to jazz accompaniment still appears occasionally at small parties but it is far less common than a generation ago. Serenading is a thing of the past. Chorus choirs are disappearing in the churches most frequented by the business class. There is today no chorus of business class men. In the city of today, nearly three and one-half times as large as that of 1890, there are only two adult musical societies in which the earlier tradition survives, as over against four in 1890.”

White Man with Phonograph
[White] Man seated alongside phonograph, c. 1909. Library of Congress.
The Lynds weren’t the only critics in town. Throughout the first half of the 20th century scholars from the Frankfurt School of critical theory lambasted radio and other mechanical methods of reproducing music. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were among the most vocal critics, complaining recorded music “turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are exactly all the same [resulting in] the stunting of the mass-media consumer’s powers of imagination and spontaneity. The might of industrial society is lodged in men’s minds…[similarly] the sound film leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audiences…they react automatically…[and] fall helpless victims to what is offered them.”

In 1934, Adolus Huxley lamented that “the gramophone and the radio have created an audience of hearers who consume an amount of hearing-matter that has increased out of all proportion to the increase of population and the consequent natural increase of talented musicians. It follows from all this that in all the arts the output of trash is both absolutely and relatively greater than it was in the past; and that it must remain greater for just so long as the world continues to consume the present inordinate quantities of reading-matter, seeing-matter, and hearing-matter.” Harsh words, no doubt influenced by the dramatic increases in radio stations and records sold that decade. To these critics, being able to reproduce music and mass distribute it with technology could only detract from its beauty and value.

Mexican Boy and Girl Phonograph
Mexican boy and girl playing phonograph. San Antonio, Texas. The Mexicans love all forms of music, 1939. Library of Congress.

I’ve written previous posts about how I think these writers were overreacting and that just because music was different in the 20th century didn’t mean it was bad. There were plenty of new opportunities that mechanically-reproduced music created too.

In the 1930s, the Lynds returned to Middletown (actually Muncie, IN) to see how musical traditions and tastes had changed. In their second book Middletown Revisited they were surprised to see that the radio and record hadn’t taken over completely:

“At five points the musical life of Middletown has been rendered, temporarily at least, stronger in the depression. The women’s Matinee Musicale has strengthened somewhat its study and recital programs by its own members. Its student section, which died out in 1924, was revived in 1932; and in 1935 its membership included a senior section of adult women numbering 103, a student section of seventy high-school-age children of both sexes, and a junior section of one hundred younger children. A second development in the depression is the increase in popularity of all types of music — vocal and instrumental — in the high school. The advent of F.E.R.A. group music lessons at twenty-five cents an hour has also tended to strengthen musical participation among those of high-school age and younger. A fourth development has been the revival of chorus choirs, which were noted in 1925 as disappearing in business-class churches. In 1931 the Presbyterian Church introduced a chorus choir, followed by the leading Baptist and Methodist churches in 1932. Some local people believe that this revival of chorus singing is not primarily an economy move growing out of the depression but reflects a revival of popular taste for massed music stimulated by the radio. This view is supported by the fact that, even before the depression, the Matinee Musicale organized a women’s chorus which has continued to be popular and has even traveled to Chicago to sing. A final development apparent in the depression is the increased number of local orchestras, bands, amateur radio programs, and community singing events. The Federate Club of Clubs now has a women’s orchestra, and there is a F.ER..A. orchestra and a Municipal Band.”

Farmer and Wide Phonograph
[White] Farmer and wife examining phonograph at auction near Tenstrike, Minnesota, 1939. Library of Congress.

“Along with this increase in musical participation in the depression, one must also note that in the sponsorship of local concerts, as in art and public lectures, though not to so great a degree, the city has been becoming slowly more dependent upon the college. Before the depression and until 1933, the Civic Music Association, a nation-wide movement, was sponsored locally by the women of the Matinee Musicale. Concert-going is a decidedly marginal activity for perhaps two-thirds of the thousand people who were combed out of the homes of Middletown by the women for each of the winter series of four or five concerts which usually packed the Masonic Temple to its capacity of 1,000 to 1,100. The winter series of concerts was in 1934-35 run by the college, although occasional artists like Rachmaninoff continue to be brought in sporadically by the Business and Professional Women’s Club, the De Molays, and other organizations for money-raising purposes.”

So it appears that music was not killed by the radio or the record, it adapted and thrived. Technology was one factor in many that gave us new methods of making, finding, sharing, and enjoying music.

I know that Horkhiemer, Adorno, and the other folks in the Frankfurt School raised some valid points, but I have to admit that the more I read them the more I think of them as a bunch of grouchy guys who were spooked by technology and couldn’t imagine a world where technology had any positive impacts on culture.

I think, as we go forward in our brave new technological  21st century world, it would be wiser for us to frame our questions around how we can adapt and thrive with change instead of identifying why the differences are bad.


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