Composer John Philip Sousa Warns of the Threat Posed by Recorded Music (1906)

When did you last hear live music? Grant­ed, this isn’t an ide­al time to ask, what with the ongo­ing pan­dem­ic still can­cel­ing con­certs the world over. But even before, no mat­ter how enthu­si­as­tic a show-goer you con­sid­ered your­self, your life of music con­sump­tion almost cer­tain­ly leaned toward the record­ed vari­ety. This is just as John Philip Sousa feared. In 1906, when record­ed music itself was still more or less a nov­el­ty, the com­pos­er of “The Stars and Stripes For­ev­er” pub­lished an essay in Apple­ton’s Mag­a­zine proph­esy­ing a world in which, thanks to “the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of the var­i­ous music-repro­duc­ing machines,” human­i­ty has lost its abil­i­ty, feel, and appre­ci­a­tion for the art itself.

“Hereto­fore, the whole course of music, from its first day to this, has been along the line of mak­ing it the expres­sion of soul states,” writes Sousa. “Now, in this the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, come these talk­ing and play­ing machines, and offer again to reduce the expres­sion of music to a math­e­mat­i­cal sys­tem of mega­phones, wheels, cogs, disks, cylin­ders,” all “as like real art as the mar­ble stat­ue of Eve is like her beau­ti­ful, liv­ing, breath­ing daugh­ters.” With music in such easy reach, who will both­er learn­ing to per­form it them­selves? “What of the nation­al throat? Will it not weak­en? What of the nation­al chest? Will it not shrink? 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 lul­labys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machin­ery?”

The grandil­o­quence of Sousa’s writ­ing, which you can hear per­formed in the clip from the Pes­simists Archive Pod­cast above, encour­ages us to enjoy a know­ing chuck­le, but some of his points may give us pause. He fore­sees the decline of “domes­tic music,” and indeed, how many house­holds do we know whose mem­bers all share in the mak­ing of music, or for that mat­ter the lis­ten­ing? “Before you dis­miss Sousa as a nut­ty old codger,” writes New York­er music crit­ic Alex Ross, “you might pon­der how much has changed in the past hun­dred years.” With more music at our com­mand than ever before, music itself “has become a rad­i­cal­ly vir­tu­al medi­um, an art with­out a face. In the future, Sousa’s ghost might say, repro­duc­tion will replace pro­duc­tion entire­ly. Zomb­i­fied lis­ten­ers will shuf­fle through the archives of the past, and new music will con­sist of rearrange­ments of the old.”

The aes­thet­ic half of Sousa’s argu­ment has its descen­dants today in nar­ra­tives of rock­’s ruina­tion by com­put­ers, diag­noses of pop­u­lar cul­ture’s addic­tion to its own past, and “DRUM MACHINES HAVE NO SOUL” stick­ers. The com­mer­cial half will also sound famil­iar: “The com­pos­er of the most pop­u­lar waltz or march of the year must see it seized, repro­duced at will on wax cylin­der, brass disk, or strip of per­fo­rat­ed paper, mul­ti­plied indef­i­nite­ly, and sold at large prof­it all over the coun­try, with­out a pen­ny of remu­ner­a­tion to him­self for the use of this orig­i­nal prod­uct of his brain,” Sousa writes. 114 years lat­er, the rel­a­tive enti­tle­ment of com­posers, lyri­cists, and per­form­ers (not to men­tion labels, dis­trib­u­tors, and oth­er busi­ness enti­ties) to prof­its from record­ings remains a hot­ly debat­ed mat­ter, due in no small part to the rise of stream­ing music ser­vices like Spo­ti­fy. That prob­a­bly would­n’t sur­prise Sousa — nor would the long­ing, felt by increas­ing­ly many of us, to expe­ri­ence live music once again.

via @PessimistsArc

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bri­an Eno Lists the Ben­e­fits of Singing: A Long Life, Increased Intel­li­gence, and a Sound Civ­i­liza­tion

Home Tap­ing Is Killing Music: When the Music Indus­try Waged War on the Cas­sette Tape in the 1980s, and Punk Bands Fought Back

The Dis­tor­tion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Cre­at­ed “a McDonald’s Gen­er­a­tion of Music Con­sumers”

Down­load 10,000 of the First Record­ings of Music Ever Made, Thanks to the UCSB Cylin­der Audio Archive

Hear Con­tro­ver­sial Ver­sions of “The Star Span­gled Ban­ner” by Igor Stravin­sky, Jimi Hen­drix, José Feli­ciano & John Philip Sousa

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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