American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years, by Russell Sanjek

October 1, 1990

American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years, by Russell Sanjek. 

 Volume I: The Beginning to 1790. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. xvi + 469 pp. ISBN 0-19-504028-7

Volume II: From 1790 to 1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. vi + 482 pp. ISBN 0-19-504310-3

Volume III: From 1900 to 1984. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. vi + 734 pp. ISBN 0-19-504311-1

These volumes hold out the promise of something monumental by bulk alone, for this project is some 1496 pages long, without a single illustration or example to pad the total. The bibliography itself runs seventy-nine pages; the index is 102 pages. The publisher, of course, is one of the most respected in the field. And the author has credentials to fit the topic. Sanjek worked in the American music business all his adult life, most importantly as an executive at BMI from its founding in 1940 until very near his death in 1986. As an insider, he surely had access to information, materials, and collections unavailable to many other researchers. In addition he was a dedicated habitué of libraries, archives, and special collections. If the bibliography is any test, Sanjek read just about every source on American Music worth a glance. Then, outside the academic reality of publish-or-perish, he took a dozen years to write the book—a deliberate five pages at a time, according to his son in the "Preface" to the first volume.

There is much to recommend American Popular Music and Its Business, not the least of which is that there is not another book remotely like this one in its all-embracing scope. The book starts in 1579 and marches in roughly chronological order to the near past, encompassing even more than the four hundred years claimed in the title. Almost the entire first volume is concerned with the business of American instrumental popular music when there wasn't much popular music as we know it now, when there wasn't a United States, and when there wasn't much business in the national music trade. Sanjek clearly wished to make his case from the ground up. His work on early developments in the business is about its contexts, especially social and economic, which were so often fundamental to the formation of the music. Accordingly, the first two volumes have chapters on broad subjects, such as "The Business of Music Publishing" and "The Music of Black Americans." (Both of these titles are used several times, depending on the period under discussion.) The third volume is different, with shorter, punchier titles such as "A Glut of Movie Music" and "ASCAP and BMI Face the Reality of Television." Given Sanjek's personal involvement in many of the issues, it should not be surprising that this volume, dealing most with the nuts and bolts of the music business, is especially strong. There is a wealth of data here, much of it never collected together before. Details abound, and they usually speak to the story. Other virtues include the bibliographies, which are exhaustive (save for a curious lack of article citations in the first two volumes) and usefully organized by subject matter (but not by chapter, which is a shame). The indexes are nicely done and are bound to become reference aids on the music business in the United States. Binding the project is Sanjek's skill as a writer, no small point after fifteen hundred pages. His prose is assured, lucid and refreshingly straightforward.

Sanjek's primary approach to the vast material he collected follows from his career near the centers of music-business power. The story he tells is that of the rise and development of urban, centralized business. He is not much concerned with the nonurban, nonbig business world and how it affects music in the lives of Americans. One might have some qualms about the wisdom of his tack. In point of fact, for most consumers of popular music, the decisions made at the microlevel influence them as much, sometimes more, than those made at the macrolevel. The bins in my small, locally-owned record store affect my pattern of consumption directly, in a way I perceive as somehow more human, surely more personal. I suspect my experience is shared with other consumers of popular music, whether living in the present or in the past, near and distant. Scholars have recently discovered that some important cultural truths can only be learned by focusing on the little people and institutions. Sanjek takes the traditional, and contrary, view that the great composers/lyricists/institutions/corporations give definition to the epoch. His is the music business of producers, not consumers. In fact, it may well be that the people at the bottom are the ones who usually build the culture. Those times in the political economy of a culture when it is not manifestly built from the bottom up are by definition times of monopolies. Sanjek is particularly concerned with the development of monopolies in the music business. He tends to see the process moving ineluctably from idea (usually generated by one of the "greats") to capitalization by business (usually big) to monopolization (implicitly big). Coming from BMI, a second-generation trust buster (ASCAP was a first-generation trust buster, but it in turn became a monopoly), perhaps his sensitivity to this pattern is not surprising. This is not to say that this is the only way to understand the music and its business, nor maybe even the best, but the perspective has its utility and offers new ways of seeing the material.

Sanjek has an abiding reverence for the narrative structure. He tries to fit his almost encyclopedic information into a seamless epic chronicle. This often does not work, for we find ourselves backtracking, running ahead, or digressing. A single example among many candidates: we learn on five different occasions that hymnwriter Fanny J. Crosby was blind, surely more than necessary. His epic also gets bogged down in trivia and details that contribute little or nothing. Consider the inclusion of information on lumber exported from the Jamestown colony to make a profit when sold in early 17th century England (1:48). The connection between that and the business of American popular music is tenuous at best. Aren't twelve pages on Haydn about ten pages too many? There is a point where the structure becomes the content, something Sanjek seems not always to have realized, especially in the first two volumes. Somewhat paradoxically, he may have been closest to the structural heart of his subject at those precise moments when the narrative becomes hopelessly entangled in a web of seemingly unrelated facts. Popular music is America's music and it would seem that business is America's religion. Both of these forms of expression are central to any definition of the American experience. Is it any surprise that once Sanjek starts looking for the social, cultural, political, and economic contexts of the business of American popular song, there are no clear lines of development, nor a unifying story? It is rather that everything is diachronically related, because it is part of itself. Sanjek's utter reverence for the chrono-narrative complicates necessarily any reader's realization that a more appropriate approach to the study of this topic is recursion.

Not surprisingly, Sanjek is a firm believer in the unqualified—and too often uninterpreted—assertion. This book is filled with strong, active verbs that leave no room for doubt. That would be fine were there no errors, but of course there are. It is virtually impossible for anyone to be knowledgeable enough in everything covered in Sanjek's book to pass judgment on all the facts and assertions, so little known is the subject area that the book encompasses. (For sheer weight of data, surely no book on the topic will come along for many years, even decades, that will even begin to challenge it.) I fear for the accuracy of that data though, for each time Sanjek touches on a subject I know from my own research, I find errors and discrepancies. For example, the eight pages on the Hutchinson Family Singers in Volume II are lifted unassayed from the self-aggrandizing pages of John Hutchinson's autobiography; they are accordingly filled with many errors and skewed perspectives. It is clear that the critic was not present when these pages were written. A volume later, page 382 recounts the Beatles' first trip to the United States. They arrived in New York City on February 7, 1964, not in January as Sanjek states. The Beatles were not to begin filming A Hard Day's Night until March 2, contrary to Sanjek's confident assertion that the film had already been distributed by United Artists before their arrival. Simple errors of chronology like these, within six lines of each other, and one wonders if Sanjek's reach toward the utterly comprehensive has not exceeded his grasp.

As unbelievable as it may seem in a major work by a capable researcher, there is not a single reference citation: no footnotes, no endnotes. I would not allow one of my students to turn in a paper without bibliographical citations. Nor can I recommend Sanjek as exemplary of current scholarship on the American musical economy. In his useful little monograph From Print to Plastic: Publishing and Promoting America's Popular Music (1900-1980) (Brooklyn: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1983) he was unafraid of documentation. Why does the imposing and potentially monumental American Popular Music and Its Business preclude accountability? A lack of documentation, coupled with Sanjek's absolutism, and the book becomes somewhat cloying. Surely there are some things we cannot know, or of which we aren't exactly sure. But one would never know it from a reading of this book alone. I am in complete sympathy with Sanjek's wish to impart to his work the type of novelistic flow found in some outstanding works of historical research and writing, such as those by Barbara Tuchman. Writing history and spinning yarns are closely related activities. One of the techniques often used to impart narrative motion in historical writing is to avoid disruptive superscripts. Tuchman often does this, but still gives the reader a way to check her research. Sanjek uses no superscripts, and might then achieve a degree of linearity. But, he does not allow for the querying of his sources. This single, ill-considered decision fatally flaws the work. I am left to wonder if the editors at Oxford might have saved the book, had Sanjek lived and had they convinced him of the utter wisdom of citation.

It is not clear who will use this book. I doubt if there are many general readers on the subject willing to part with $135 and several weeks of reading time, to trip over myriad details of the business of American popular music. The books read something like a textbook, suggesting that students might be the audience, but few courses are offered on the subject in American colleges and universities, and it is much too long and too detailed for a text. For scholars, the book has an encyclopedic quality that promises utility as a reference source. But as much as I have craved a book on the topic, and as much as I respect the research, passion, even obsession that went into this effort, it is with reluctance that I am forced to acknowledge that this is not what I had hoped it to be. I can and will go to it to determine the outline of the subject and to collect anecdotal material. But, tragically, the matter of the book is something I cannot test, therefore cannot trust.

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