Words On Words

Playback: From the Victrola to Mp3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money.
Mark Coleman. DaCapo Press. 268 pages.
(Click here or on the cover image to purchase this book.)

Click here to buy Playback.



Originally published on Monday, March 8, 2004 in The Miami Herald.

Feb. 24, 2004 was Grey Tuesday. Did you miss it?

On that day, a collection of recorded music combining raps from The Black
Album, by hip-hop artist Jay-Z, with audio samples from The White Album,
which The Beatles produced in 1968, was downloaded by thousands, if not
millions of people.

The music was posted on more than 170 websites to protest EMI Music, owner of The Beatles tracks, and their policies. The same policies had prevented Danger Mouse, the artist responsible for the combined work called The Grey Album, from legally distributing his collection, Mouse said.

The episode is a perfect example of some of the most serious challenges facing the music industry: digital downloads, sampling, copyright law, distribution and more. It may involve cutting edge technology, but it's nothing new.

Mark Coleman's recent book, Playback, is a compact history of the technology of the music business. He says that this project was originally supposed to be a history of the turntable, but he eventually realized that the real story was about the technology that has reproduced music, of which the
turntable is only a small part.

At almost every turn, music's mercantile status quo vigorously resisted new technology, viewing it as a threat. Sound familiar? Today's protestations by record companies and music publishers echo their past refrains. When radio stations began playing recordings of popular bands in the 1920s, musicians' union chief James Petrillo railed against ''canned music'' and did everything he could to prevent the broadcasts. He failed.

Coleman goes on to discuss the various high- and low-lights of the business and its technology, each of which seemed to pose a colossal, cataclysmic, survival-threatening challenge to the health and vitality of the music business. Generally, he gets high marks for covering such a vast amount of material, with diverse personalities, technologies and other issues.

His informal prose style is certainly appropriate to the subject matter, and his background as a journalist ensures that pertinent names, dates and other facts are included. As well, his general familiarity with the music industry's idiosyncratic and arcane business practices is useful, though apparently limited.

While it's clear, for example, that shortsightedness, ignorance and avarice are leading contributors to the current dire straits of the music business, the problem is much deeper. The latest strategy involving stupidly suing its would-be customers for downloading songs, instead of wisely monetizing thisbehavior, is just the most recent repackaging of an old stiff.

Observers such as writer Bob Lefsetz and musician Todd Rundgren advocate embracing the opportunities created by file-sharing and digital downloads, but industry executives resist. It's the same old song and dance.

Coleman does a good job of reporting history, but gets only a passing grade for his analysis. Just as the turntable was only a component of a larger story, so too is the use and misuse of technology. How record companies and music publishers deal with the artists who create the content they trade in and the customers to whom they promote it is the bigger, more textured and meaningful story.

Coleman's book is a decent single, but where's the album?


Todd Rundgren's commentary in The Hollywood Reporter.

Commentarries by Lefsetz are here and here.

To learn more about 'The Grey Album,' go to: http://www.greytuesday.org

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