DEMOCRACY OF SOUND, by Alex Sayf Cummings

Title: Democracy of Sound

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Publication Date: April 05, 2013

Democracy of Sound book


 This one is for all of you who, like me, savor in-depth, scrupulously annotated, brainy-yet-accessible examinations of music industry issues. Yeah, you can find me haunting the SXSX panels that concern legal matters in Austin each year. (I can’t help it if I dropped out of law school in the late ‘70s and have been trying to regroup ever since.) Admittedly, a look at—as per the subtitle of Democracy of Sound—“music piracy and the remaking of American copyright in the twentieth century” doesn’t exactly summon images of debauched musicians doing mounds of blow off the succulent asses of young groupies, i.e., typical music book fare. But there’s still something oh-so-rock ‘n’ roll about the topic as far as I’m concerned: not only have I been fascinated by it ever since I first learned about bootleg albums in an early issue of Rolling Stone, I later inherited the “Going Underground” bootleg column in Ice Magazine in the late ‘90s and penned each monthly installment for the final 4 or 5 years of that publication’s existence.

 Author Cummings, an assistant history prof at the University of Georgia, outlines the history of the music biz as viewed through the ever-evolving lens of copyright, touching upon, for example, how Congress stepped decisively into the fray as early as 1905 when composers of songs were demanding protection from unauthorized copying of player piano rolls. Cut to 1972 and the implementation of The Sound Recording Act: the RIAA summarily lights a fire under the collective ass of law enforcement officials to track down and prosecute the cassette-duplicating gangster likes of (as Cummings writes) “Mom-and-pop pirates [who] relied on mom-and-pop outfits such as the local drug store to sell their products without anyone important noticing.” (Hey, what about bootleg 8-tracks, guys!)

 Cut to the recent era: the advent of sampling as well as the deluge of CD bootlegs initially roiled the industry, then Napster and widespread file-sharing exploded it, leaving executives and legislators alike shaking their heads in frustration as they tried to keep up (read: contain) all the changes. Nowadays internet radio and streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are among the discussions dominating the industry, with Congress and sometimes even the Supreme Court getting dragged into the fray. Cummings sorts through all this quite efficiently, keeping the tech-speak and legalese to a minimum  and explaining, for example, how “in the emerging media environment of the early 21st century… selling a disc or even an MP3 may not be the dominant way that people receive or experience music or that artists make money. A new model may look more like radio, offering free access to sound, than the traditional recording industry that manufactured and sold sound as a scarce good.”

 And yes, there’s a ton of minutiae here, but there’s also plenty of food for thought. Plus, far from being a dry dissertation, the book has loads of humorous anecdotes and behind-the-scenes details—such as a mini-history of underground/illicit records that will ring true for anyone who’s ever read Clinton Heylin’s brilliant ’96 book Bootleg—that will keep your inner geek a-geekin’. Maybe I’ll go back to law school one of these days after all—this might be an area I could specialize and thrive in.

An edited version of this review appears in issue #14 of BLURT.

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