Playback: From The Victrola To Mp3, 100 Years Of Music, Machines, And Money
The subtitle to Mark Coleman’s Playback accurately outlines the tale told within. When Thomas Edison patented his first working phonograph in 1877, he promptly set up a new corporation under the name of the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company, to sell to businesses what he perceived as a dictation device. Following the assorted playback systems that appeared (and often disappeared) over the ensuing century and a quarter offers a portrait of a consumer culture finding its legs and running itself in circles.
As much as the styles of music and contraptions have changed, humans are still essentially creatures with a finite amount of time for work and play. From the operatic cylinders released by the world’s first music mogul, Gianni Bettini, to Shawn Fanning’s Napster (his childhood nickname), it’s all variations on getting people to listen to music through one means or another.
Records moved to radio, and disc jockeys rose to play a key role before being relegated to carrying out corporate directives as playlists came to rule the roost. In the space of four or five generations, music moved from parlors to dance floors to personal headphones. Well researched, Coleman’s narrative moves along with true drama. It’s as much a social history as it is a technological one. And it’s filled with countless delightful bonuses.
Did you ever wonder where the phrase “put a sock in it” came from? The volume of a Victrola could be regulated by opening or closing the cabinet doors, but Edison’s Diamond Disc machine, with its speaker horn, depended on the insertion of a soft cloth to turn it down. And the eight-track tape, which at one time accounted for 25 percent of all prerecorded music sales, caught on only in the car-crazed United States. Assorted format wars, in hindsight, provide glimpses of everything from entertaining lunacy to unmitigated greed.
While the music these machines played isn’t the focus of Playback, Coleman does have the ears and common sense to separate the fads from the art. A bit of sly humor even pops up from time to time — in describing the mellotron, he writes that it was used by “Pink Floyd on Dark Side Of The Moon and by the Moody Blues on everything.” Just like a good album, the book works as an extended whole, but is full of countless well-considered moments.