The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Five

A few years back I was browsing a new-and-used record store in Kansas City.  It will surprise no one that my affection for old book sales also extends to the crates of old records at music stores, and I used to spend many happy hours browsing their shelves.  I drifted down into the basement, where there were quite a few CDs and records, including 78s, of early jazz, one of my passions.  I was looking over a CD of guitarist Eddie Lang’s collaborations with violinist Joe Venuti, chatting with the clerk, a guy with a handlebar moustache, horn-rimmed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt (this was about fifteen years ago, before such a combination would be so commonplace as to be a hipster cliché).  He was justifiably proud of the store’s selections of 78s, but when I mentioned I didn’t have a 78 player and mostly relied on compilations, he sniffed, “I don’t like to let anyone else tell me what I can and can’t listen to.”  The conversation was effectively over.

I didn’t take it too personally.  A run-in with a snooty record store clerk is practically as much a rite of passage as throwing away one’s old comic books only to regret it later, and in the broader sense I agree with him.  As much as I respect the anthologist’s art, I’m all too aware of how much is out there that won’t be repackaged in modern formats.  I have a 78 rpm record player now, but hardly any discs to play on it.  I’m grateful for such online institutions as the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, which makes very old and/or rare recordings available, the only filter being the rate at which its curators can acquire and digitize its holdings, but at the time of this conversation that would be a few years in the future.

What strikes me in hindsight is how different the attitude toward compilations is among music fans and readers of short stories.  I’ve never heard a sci-fi reader turn up his nose at a Groff Conklin anthology and say, “No thanks, I’ll stick to my issues of Astounding and Unknown Worlds.”  Very few will bother to track down a Kurt Vonnegut story in Playboy when it can easily be found between hard covers.  True, hardcore record collectors are also a minority, but the concepts of authenticity and authorial voice are different in the two areas.

To a large degree, this is due to the ephemeral nature of print magazines and the vital role anthologies have played in both keeping stories alive and developing a canon of widely-known and –respected work.  As anthology expert Bud Webster compellingly argues in his Anthopology 101,

There were paper drives here in the US well into the 1960s, and had been since the war years; thousands of old magazines were recycled in these drives, not counting the ones that were simply tossed out after reading, or the collections “cleared away” by well-meaning mothers when their sons and daughters went off to college.  Were it not for the anthologies and their editors and publishers, much of the science fiction we grew up reading and wondering over might never have been reprinted.

It should be obvious that this goes double for comic books and triple for newspapers.

By comparison, there was nothing ephemeral in the way recorded music was packaged and sold.  Quite the opposite: before the advent of recording, a performance could be heard only once and was then gone forever.  Recording, in the words of David Suisman in Selling Sounds, stopped the flow of time “as a dam holds back the flow of a river,” storing sounds indefinitely in the grooves of a cylinder or disc.  The permanence of records didn’t always live up to the hype (records could warp, scratch or crack from mistreatment, or wear out through overplaying; even compact discs weren’t quite as invulnerable as they were originally made out to be), but it represented a huge change, and one that took nearly a decade for both consumers and producers to get their head around.

From about 1890 to 1900, Edison cylinder phonographs and competing disc-based gramophones were known as “talking machines;” Edison predicted that his device would find its greatest utility in business as a dictation aid, and a great deal of the recordings commercially sold were famous speeches, passages from the Bible, and the like.  Up until the turn of the century, such machines were little more than a novelty.

Criticisms of “disposable” pop music and novelties are as old as the music industry itself, and that label adhered to both Tin Pan Alley pop songs (which pioneered the kind of built-in obsolescence associated with “one-hit wonders” and prefab stars), most commercial records, and the machines themselves. It was the Victor Talking Machine Company, a competitor of Edison and Columbia, that realized they could sell more machines by creating a musical product with cultural cachet—in modern terms, hardware sales could be driven by providing desirable software—and in 1902 the Victor Red Seal series was born.

The Red Seal records featured respected musical artists (most famously the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso; the Red Seal artists were predominantly European, an important signifier of quality in American culture) performing operatic excerpts and other high-status repertoire, recorded with the best quality possible.  Just as important, the Red Seal records were set apart from the regular “Black Seal” series by their packaging (the “Red Seal” refers to the red paper labels on the records) and by a higher price; they were even listed in a separate section of the Victor catalog, printed on pink pages.  Their desirability was part of a marketing strategy; even Victor’s executives admitted that the Red Seal records didn’t sell as well as the Black Seals, but they were an effective advertisement for the line as a whole. More to our point, as Suisman says, “the Red Seal records were quintessentially middlebrow; they presented an ad hoc assortment of digestible classics [the length of a record side was only two to four minutes] as a timeless and definitive canon.”  They made it psychologically okay to value records as something other than a passing fad, and transformed the fledgling industry.

Feodor_Chaliapin_-_Song_of_the_Flea_-_Victor_14901B

So we’ve established that records, once they found a foothold and adjusted listeners’ expectations, aspired to a permanence that fiction might only attain when safely preserved in book form.  There is also the difference between recorded sound and print media: the words of a story are the same (barring drastic editorial change) whether in a magazine or a book; they can even be translated into another language. In some cases, the book versions of stories are more definitive, removing editorial changes (or misprints) and allowing the author’s original voice to come through more clearly.  By contrast, the promise of audio recording is its faithfulness, the idea that you are hearing a piece of music just as it was performed by the artist; what could be more authentic than that?  The transfer of music from one format to another has been fraught with controversy among listeners; indeed, Victor and the other record companies had to work very hard to make their limited recording facilities sound as good as they did before the introduction of electrical recording in 1925 (they weren’t necessarily trying to convince listeners that a recording was “just as good” as a live concert; they counted on the fact that for most people, a record would be as close to hearing Caruso as they ever got).  In converting monophonic recordings from 78s to LP, producers sometimes introduced “fake stereo,” the aural equivalent of colorizing a black and white movie. The debates over the merits of analog vs. digital sound are well known, and the primary appeal of mp3s has been convenience, not sound quality.

Finally, there is the context of the individual song itself, and I think this is where anthologies become suspect for many purists.  In my next installment, I’ll look at the concept of the album, and its rise and fall in importance to recorded music.

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