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They Don’t Sing Them Like They Used To

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              A Victor “talking machine”  circa, 1904 

The big difference between then and now is that pop music was intended to appeal to almost any member of the family. The industry had yet to stratify to more clearly resemble patterns in publishing.

Digging through a stack of old 78-rpm records can be a reminder that popular music in the 1920s and earlier doesn’t usually age well. These were records eagerly passed on to me from folks anxious to clean out their attics and perhaps guilty about tossing out pieces of family history. By and large, these are not recordings of great songs written by George Gershwin, Cole Porter or Irving Berlin.  Most featured music from dance and military bands, or unknown singers. Many are long forgotten vaudeville stars performing humorous songs that were part of their act.

In one sense, the short form of pop tunes hasn’t changed much. A song needed to be complete in just a few minutes, and offer an interesting “hook.” But the ditties folks were snapping up for their gramophones during and just after World War I were not quite the odes to teen angst that are still the norm today.

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Then, the buyers were mostly adults. Formats were still in flux, but the emerging preference was for the 78-rpm 10-inch disk selling for a little under a dollar (the equivalent of about 30 current US dollars.) It played for about 2 minutes, with two recorded sides for pop music, but only just one side for anything highbrow enough to be recorded on Victor’s Red Label. Think of Enrico Caruso singing a folk song or an early Puccini aria. Aware of the importance of the phonograph, Puccini often planned big arias that were short enough to fit on to one side of a record selling for about five dollars.

The big difference between then and now is that early records of popular music were recorded to appeal to almost any member of the family. Today, music and recording resembles publishing. Every taste and age segment can become a viable audience.

As I’ve noted, most recorded music came from singers–mostly men–working in revues. This partly explains the songs gathered in the random archeology of my accidental collecting. My stack of discards includes, Oh! Those Landlords, along with  And He Said Ooo-La-La! Wee Wee and Oh But I Hate to Go Home Alone, or the Sousa band playing the Second Connecticut March, or Bennie Kruger singing The Wild Gang of Mine. Bandleader Paul Whitman recorded constantly with pieces like Song of Songs and Irving Berlin’s then innocently named Lady of the Evening. Victor and Columbia dominated, but many other companies would soon follow. It seems that everyone wanted a gramophone; owning recorded music was becoming a thing.

The earliest of these recordings were made acoustically, without electrical assistance. Wax masters were made by a core group of players huddled around a large horn that condensed the sound onto a vibrating stylus. It etched the sound into the grooves.  And like so many waffles, records were then pressed from the master recording into shellac duplicates. Vinyl and electrical recording would come a bit later.

Visitors intrigued to listen to my attic trove on my 1904 Victor gramophone shown above are usually satisfied to only hear just a few bars. Their entertainment value has long faded, in part because most were far removed from their theater settings. A few are still fun to hear, mostly because they remain alive to our times. One of my favorites is  Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave, recorded electrically in the 1920s by Irving Aaronson and his Commanders.

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Media Companies that Expand into Incompetence

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The constant push to diversify through corporate mergers often ruins what is unique about particular enterprises.

Unless a person scours the business pages, they might miss the long-term consolidation of media companies into ever larger and more incompetent giants.  It has been a long time since the leaders of most news, film, recording and broadcast companies knew much about how the content that their businesses was produced. A case in point is CBS.  Once in the middle of the last century the folks who ran the company—Frank Stanton and William Paley—knew a lot about broadcasting and its peculiar demands. Depth of knowledge about your own business mattered. Since then, the company has been tossed between various corporate entities that consider over-the-air broadcasting and news as just slightly more than decorations in a much larger corporate organizational tree. It is now owned by Paramount Global which is owned by National Amusements.  Wikipedia lists 20 reformulations of CBS over the years, recounting how it was folded into business that ranged from Amusement parks to movies and theaters. Along the way, various owners reduced or shed most of its publishing businesses, a major recording company, and its once stellar news division. CBS typifies companies that were once more focused on their core enterprise of broadcasting. Similar companies like ABC television and NBC have had similar fates of merging into de-facto holding companies that are spread horizontally into many different fields. ABC is now part of the ABC entertainment group, a division of the Walt Disney Company. In turn, Disney owns a great deal, including ESPN sports, Century Fox Pictures, and even the long-running Broadway smash, The Lion King. Include licensing deals for these companies, and nearly every aspect of retail sales produces a revenue stream for corporate coffers.

One could argue that size itself is a problem. What CEO can claim to know how many of their divisions work or how content is generated for their outlets? These folks are talented, to be sure, but their talent is mostly in understanding how to finance acquisitions and please investors, not how to talk to the “creatives” who make their content.  Hence the Disney takeover of the innovative Pixar company was full of unpleasant surprises by the new media types at the animation upstart that was used to running their own show.  Among other things, Disney animation was a very different kind of process than what Pixar’s computer-based animators were used to. It took years and the loss of of key people to meld the more creative company into the Disney mold.

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I thought of all of this recently after reading of a decision stopping a planned merger that would have seen Penguin Random House—the county’s biggest publisher—from purchasing Simon & Schuster.  The two giants and their various imprints have competed for years to attract top writers. Their planned consolidation would have meant that scribes would have had even fewer companies to pitch their ideas to. Publishing, in particular, has always been prized for fostering voices representing a wide spectrum of values and ideals. How much would have been lost if new authors could only go to editors housed within one company?  In truth, there are still other independent publishers. But far fewer. My own field is typical: academic publishing has seen a dramatic decline in the number of independent publishers with access to a huge academic market. It is not unusual for an author to sign with one publisher, only to find that the finished book is now on the list of a different company. There may be no harm done. But its also common to discover that the new division has many more college texts on its list that will be competing with the new book. I can’t count the number of company reps who have visited my office pushing new editions to texts, unaware that I was one of their authors.

The recent divorce between A.T.T and Warner Media is another example. Executives agreed that the former company housing both was a mix akin to oil and water. In practice and in human terms, a company with roots in the common carrier business will have little in common with the wild thespians producing movies: a little like putting accountants with the occupants of a clown car on their way to the center ring. It’s no surprise this merger is now considered Exhibit A of what not to do.

Every company needs to diversify and adapt to survive. But we have too many self-styled experts on mergers and acquisitions, most of whom are oblivious to the chaos they can unleash.

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