Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Soundtrack of Life: Edison’s 1921 Music Survey

All of us have a soundtrack to our lives. 

For me, Three Dog Night’s Joy to the World means breaking my leg playing baseball in junior high.  America’s Sister Golden Hair was on the radio the evening of my high school graduation.  Steely Dan’s My Old School was blasting from the third floor of my dorm at Brown University as I was laying my dirty socks out on the window sill, letting them “air out” in the breeze so I could avoid doing laundry another weekend.

I know you have a soundtrack to your life as well, because Apple reported last week that its 10 BILLIONTH song had been downloaded from iTunes.  That’s a lot of music, and a lot of memories.  As I was pondering this enormous number, I bumped into one of the most interesting marketing studies I have ever seen.

It was 1921.  The idea of consumer markets, marketing, and actually asking customers what they might want were all still novel ideas.  It would be two years before Alfred Sloan became president of General Motors, and longer still before he came up with the startling innovation of “lifestyle marketing” around the development of Chevrolet (Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac) concepts.  There was no easy access to consumer information and no incessant polling of consumer tastes. 

Into this world stepped the Edison Recording Company.  At the time, Edison was in a pitched battle with the Victor Talking Machine Company and Columbia Phonograph Company for a share of the skyrocketing record business, riding the success of their affordable home phonographs.  And Edison had carved out a segment of the market that considered music to be uplifting and edifying—a high-brow approach that emphasized classical, the best European ethnic music, and “hearth and home” recordings that pulled the beloved songs of the nineteenth century forward into the twentieth century, everything from Swanee River to My Old Kentucky Home to Abide with Me, Rock of Ages and The Old Oaken Bucket.

The other musical genre that got lots of Edison support and home play in 1921 was military marches.  Despite John Philip Souza’s well publicized ambivalence to recorded music—“When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabies, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?”-- his marches could be heard emanating from phonographs all over America.

What Edison specifically avoided was jazz, blues and the so-called “race records” that were being embraced by youth and filling the air in urban areas.  This kind of “vulgar,” “out of control” music, produced by great old labels like Okeh, Gennett, Vocalion, Brunswick and Paramount was, in the minds of many, turning the Victorian “Cathedral of Culture” into a supermarket.

So in 1921, against all odds (and with inspiration from a group of psychologists from the Carnegie Institute), Edison, Inc. sent 20,000 surveys to the record-buying public in 43 states asking them to list their “favorite tunes.”  A wondrous 2,644 responses were received.  And, upon reading them, I concluded that we have all been building soundtracks to our lives for as long as there has been music.  In fact, the ability to repeat meaningful music at will, with a phonograph or cassette tape or an iPod, allows us to relive our past in a comforting, almost healing way unavailable to anyone before 1890.

See what I mean.  Here are some of the responses to Edison’s 1921 survey:
One man loved I’m in Heaven in My Mother’s Arms, writing “I loved Mother as well as one could love and I had to part from her about two months ago never to see her in this world again.”
Another adored a certain folk song because “It used to be sung by a loved one.  It recalls a love one who is no more.”
Another favored an old popular song he associated with “my brothers before we were all married and away from home.”
Still another felt moved by patriotic marches: Just as the Sun Went Down, and On the Banks of the Wabash, Faraway. . .”I heard them during the War with Spain and I never hear one but what I’m thankful for the quick work we done.”
Surprisingly, many people personalized their phonograph, or their response, writing to “My Dear Mr. Edison.”  (Edison lived until 1931.) 
One woman wrote, “I really can’t find words strong enough to express my love for my Edison.  I have had my life made worth living since it came into my home.  I am a poor widow with five children.  My husband died 2 years ago this month.  My baby was only ten days old.  I know the comfort this invention has given me is beyond explanation.  It is the best tonic I ever had.
Others talked about the emotions it created, or quieted.
One female respondent noted that Edison’s recordings “strengthened family ties in those tired irritable hours late in the afternoon when relations became brittle.”  Another got her children to dance to The Home Dances.  Another mentioned that when “someone looks blue or a little peeved I go in and start Henry Jones’ Your Honeymoon is Over and at once everybody smiles and the white flag waves.”
One man said that he and his wife enjoyed When I’m Gone You’ll Soon Forget after they had had a “row.”  Another liked Dardanella and Laughing Trombone because “they make old Folks young and young folks crazy.”
Another woman wrote, “We love our machine so much.  If we had to part with any piece of furniture in our home, we would give our bed up before we would part with our Edison.”
There may be more to that last answer than meets the eye.  In any event, it appears women were the primary purchasers of music, and would set aside discretionary money each week to purchase one or two new records.

And it seems clear that Edison’s records, in the words of author William Howland Keeney, “stirred the kinds of memories that for significant numbers of Americans reinforced. . .the Victorian sense of cross-generational continuity in family, community, ethnicity and nationality.”

Kind of like old Steely Dan and dirty socks still do for me.

NB: My source for much of this material is William Howard Kenney’s Recorded Music in American Life

Those interested in the rise of “repeatable culture,” including the phonograph and camera, should see Daniel Boorstin’s brilliant The Americans: The Democratic Experience where he talks about “mass-producing the moment” and the rise of “consumption communities.”  Foreshadowing the Web, Boorstin (in 1973) described these “consumption communities” as “quick to form, nonideological, democratic, public, vague and rapidly-shifting.”  Sounds like a meetup via Twitter!  It’s further proof that the technology may change, but human beings are awfully consistent.

Or, as Claude S. Fischer wrote, “As much as people adapt their lives to the changed circumstances created by a new technology, they also adapt that technology to their lives.”