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From recording performances to performing recordings. Recording technology and shifting ideologies of authorship in popular music.

Daniela Furini

The advent of recording technology at the turn of the 19th century contributed to a set of dramatic changes in the way popular music is produced and consumed. Since then, the record has stood in a crucial, ever-changing, relationship with its “other”, performance. This relationship has never been a straightforward one: recording has never really been, either materially or ideologically, about the faithful reproduction of a live performance on a physical support. The distance – real or imagined – between the live performance and what can be found on the record has been a crucial point around which practices of music production and consumption – as well as notions of authorship – began to revolve since the emergence of the recording industry. In this article I examine the impact of recording technology on practices of production and consumption of popular music and I argue that recording technology, while contributing to the establishment of a Romantic notion of authorship in the popular music industry, has also promoted practices of production and consumption that undermine that very notion of authorship from both an aesthetic and an economic point of view. Ultimately, I suggest that a focus on the relationship between the recording and performance may prove useful in the analysis of authorship in mashup and other contemporary forms of production and consumption of music facilitated by the Internet and digital technologies.

Keywords: Recording, record industry, performance, authorship, composition, creativity.

1. Recording and live performance in the early 20th century

The advent of recording technology at the turn of the 19th century contributed to a set of significant changes in the way popular music is produced and consumed. Advances in recording technology that eventually allowed new forms of treatment of sound, in combination with structural changes in the music and leisure industry and the emergence of new forms and habits of consumption, caused a shift in the way people thought of and consumed popular music. As I will argue below, recorded music became the primary commodity in the popular music industry, displacing live performance and sheet music. The record acquired a primary role over live performance, not only from an economic point of view, but also on an aesthetic level. Moreover, the production and consumption of popular music became centred on a Romantic notion of authorship. These significant shifts, however, did not happen at once: in the first couple of decades since its advent, recording technology was employed in the music industry with the aim of producing a faithful and permanent record of a live performance, and music on records was promoted and consumed much in the same way and with the same approach as sheet music and live performances.

Well into the 1920s, domestic music making remained a strong component of leisure activities. In the home, music was live and “self-made” – the public were also performers – and was thus based on a significant consumption of sheet music and musical instruments for private use. As a study of the music publishing and the music instrument trade in the United Kingdom suggests (Nott 2010: 100), however, from the 1920s onwards there began a shift away from private performance in the home, and a significant increase in public performance of live music – with the general public turning from performers into listeners. Eventually, by the end of the 1930s a wide range of public leisure activities centred on live music had emerged, in theatres, pubs, restaurants, hotels and parks throughout Britain – which displaced private music making in the home.

At the time of emergence of recorded music, music publishers and instrument manufacturers were amongst the most influential institutions in the popular music industry: an analysis of advertisements in music magazines of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s – such as the British Melody Maker or the American Billboard – suggests that sheet music and music instruments, not records, were the most heavily promoted musical commodities throughout the 1920s and 1930s. At first, records adapted to the needs and leisure activities of the time, acquiring a secondary role to live performance, both aesthetically and economically speaking.

Aesthetically speaking, recording technology was initially used in order to produce a faithful reproduction of live performance. However, due to the poor quality of early recording equipment (especially until the advent of electrical recording in the late 1920s) this was a rather ambitious proposition. In its initial phases recording was not so much the production of a permanent, faithful, record of a real live performance, but rather a careful attempt to reproduce the illusion of listening to a real live performance, through various stratagems employed during recording sessions. Before the introduction of microphones, electrical recording and amplification, acoustic recording equipment could only reproduce a limited range of frequency and dynamics. It was difficult to record large groups of instruments, or particular instruments producing low-frequency or high-frequency sounds. The singing voice, especially the trained voices of operatic singers, could be recorded with good results, if the singer was placed as close to the horn as possible. The accompanying instruments would then be placed accordingly, sometimes in rather unnatural positions: for example, pianists had to perform on upright pianos, which had to be put on platforms in order to be at the same level as the singers’ head (Philip 2004: 27).

Even in instrumental pieces some measures had to be taken to obtain a decent sound quality. Orchestras were drastically reduced in size in order to fit into the small recording room and be close enough to the acoustic horn. The louder instruments had to be positioned further away from the horn, yet close enough that their contribution to the piece could be heard. The instruments themselves were occasionally modified: for example, string sections included especially devised instruments such as the “Stroh Violin” – a violin amplified by a horn – so that their sound could be picked up by the horn over the sound of the singer and the remaining instruments (ibid). Therefore, even though the illusion of performance was an important goal of the recording session, both for classical and popular music, at least until electrical recording became possible, the musicians standing in a recording studio and performing for a recording were doing something very different from what they normally did onstage, during a “live” performance. The recording was not a “transparent” reproduction, but rather a carefully crafted sonic artefact.

Well into the 1930s, performance was still central to practices of music consumption. Records were promoted as substitutes: to persuade potential customers of the sound quality of the records, manufacturers of record-playing equipment focused on how close to a real live performance record listening would be. In order to do this, a certain amount of trickery was employed in the promotion of recordings and recording equipment to try and bridge the gap between what was on the record and the acoustic experience of live performance. As early as 1915 Thomas Edison was promoting his Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph by staging demonstration events known as “tone tests”. These were public “performances” in which a singer would appear onstage, side by side with a phonograph playing a recording of their voice. Members of the audience were then asked to see if they could tell the difference between the recording played on the Diamond Disc Phonograph and the voice of the performer onstage. Notes from a programme of a tone test performed by Glenn Ellison and the Edison Diamond Disc read:

We believe that every music lover has looked forward eagerly to the day when just such a demonstration of tone re-creation as we are offering today could be made. Those who hear this test will realize fully for the first time how literally true it is that Mr. Edison has made possible the re-creation of the artist’s voice. No more exacting test could be made to demonstrate that the New Edison actually does recreate the voice of the artist than to play it side by side with the artist who made the records. This is the final proof. Close your eyes. See if you can distinguish the voice of the New Edison from that of the artist. Did you ever believe it possible to re-create a voice? Note that the voice of the artist and the voice of the Edison are indistinguishable. (Edison Tone Test Demonstration Programme)

However, in spite of such claims to sound fidelity, before the introduction of microphones, electrical recording and amplification, acoustic recording equipment could only reproduce a limited range of frequency and dynamics. It appears that singers participating in Edison’s tone tests were in fact adapting their voice to imitate the sonic characteristics of the record, as this quote of singer Anna Case about a tone test held at Carnegie Hall shows:

I remember I stood right by the machine […] the audience was there, and there was nobody on stage with me. The machine played and I sang with it. Of course, if I had sung loud, it would have been louder than the machine, but I gave my voice the same quality as the machine so they couldn’t tell. (Milner 2009: 7)

Other stratagems to compensate for what the phonographic experience was lacking were also devised at the time: Edison himself introduces in 1895 the Kinetophone, a mechanical device attached to a cylinder phonograph, which would project images in time with the music. Other pieces of equipment such as the Illustrated Song Machine, the Scope-o-phone and the Cail-o-scope were marketed, in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. When attached to record-playing equipment, such machines would display or rotate images in time with the music, in order to restore the missing visual dimension to the phonographic experience (Katz 2004: 19).

Limitations to sound quality in both recording and reproduction were eventually overcome with the advent, in the late 1920s, of microphones and electrical recording. This significant improvement boosted record sales and kick-started the process by which, eventually, records would become the main object of popular music consumption. While the wholesale value of sheet music in the 1890’s America more than tripled between 1890 and 1909 (Starr 2003: 29), by the early 1920s, 100 million discs were pressed each year, and records were no longer a by-product of the production of gramophones, but the record companies’ first and foremost product. Indeed, by the mid-1920s US sales of records surpassed those of sheet music (Starr 2003: 41). But how were records consumed?

In an article on an February 1926 issue of Melody Maker, a journalist comments on the dynamics of record production and consumption of the time, stressing the importance of songs rather than recording artists as a driving force in the popular music record market:

There are so many excellent makes of records on the market at present, with such a uniform standard of excellence due to the improved systems of recording, and each maker has the services of such excellent artistes and bands, that non excels the other by virtue of these attributes. Where then does the greater success of the one over the other lie? It is admitted and proved beyond argument that a good popular title made and played on an inferior record by a nonentity band has frequently enjoyed a much larger sale to the general public, if not to musicians, than a more obscure number recorded by a big-feature band on a first-class make. It is undoubtedly the title which matters, first and foremost, hence the reason why the leading recording companies strive their outmost to outdo each other in getting hold of the biggest “hits” first. (Melody Maker, February 1926)

While record labels were going from strength to strength, publishers were still the leading institutions in the popular music business. Up until the 1930s it was quite common for any hit song to be available on all the major labels, recorded by different artists. Leafing through music magazines of the time, it appears evident that songs, rather than specific recordings of them, were central to the experience of popular music lovers. Sheet music advertisements on Billboard and Melody Maker of the period used to provide the list of performers and record labels that had committed that specific song to record. By providing a list of labels and artists, publishers were certainly promoting the business of the record labels mentioned in the ads, but they were primarily supporting their own interest. In a time when live performance was still a significant portion of the music business, it was clearly in the economic interest of publishers for songs to be recorded and made popular by as many artists as possible, in order to promote sheet music sales. As Wald observes, In the days when printed music was the lifeblood of the music business, this was vitally important, because if a song became so closely associated with a single performer that no one else wanted to sing it, that would hurt the sheet music sales […] the idea was to get it sung and played by as many different artists and in as many different venues as possible. (Wald 2009: 87)

Not only adverts, but also popularity charts compiled by the magazines were centred on songs and publishers, rather than records and recording artists. Still in 1942 Billboard issues a chart based on radio plays listed the most popular songs’ titles, accompanied not by the name of the performer or the record label that had made that particular song popular, but by the name of the publisher.

On their part, in the 1920s and early 1930s record labels tended not to promote records or recording artist individually, but generally advertised several at once and functioned almost as at-a-glance catalogues of the label’s output in a specific style. In a January 1930 issue of Melody Maker issue, Parlophone promotes “More new rhythm-style records”, printed in big characters at the top of the page, putting a big emphasis on the style of the music. The ad then provides, in much smaller print, a list of records, arranged not by recording artists’ names but by catalogue number. The name of the recording artists does appear, but does not seem to be the central focus of the advert. The visual emphasis in these ads is clearly on the record label name and the particular music style of the records.

Interestingly, another Parlophone ad published on the British magazine Rhythm a few years later we can see a shift towards a greater prominence of the recording artists in the promotion strategy employed the record label: while “Rhythm-style records” still dominates the page, the records in the ad are arranged by the recording artists’ names, and a small paragraph reads: “The best examples of hot rhythmic music played in advanced style by America’s most accomplished artistes” (Rhythm, December 1933; my emphasis).

Recording performances
To sum up, in the early stages of development of the record industry – during the first two decades of the 20th century – records of popular music appeared to be still produced, promoted and largely consumed as generic substitutes for performances. Songs dominated the market, but tended not to be associated with specific performers – indeed, the most popular songs were usually recorded by several artists, and record labels competed to be the first to produce recordings of the most popular song of the moment. In this context, the identity of the recording artists was not emphasised in record ads, and did not seem to be the main criteria upon which music lovers chose which records to buy. Recordings of popular songs were consumed more as generic substitutes for performances than based on the reputation of the specific recording artist, while songs seemed to exist and thrive independently from specific recordings of them.

Up until the 1920s, recording technology was still relatively rudimentary and did not easily allow the mass-production and distribution of recordings with a sound quality comparable to that of live performance. Moreover, the record industry was essentially made up of manufacturers of record-playing equipment (Tschmuck 2000). These companies’ economic interests lay primarily in selling record-playing equipment and not on promoting the career of specific artists by putting their image and personality at the centre of attention. Performances of all kinds remained either the primary source, or the ideal experience of popular music for a large public. This situation will begin to change with the advent of electrical recording, and shifts in the socio-economic dynamics of production and consumption of popular music brought about by radio and sound film.

In a gradual process during the 1920s and 1930s, recorded music acquired a primary role in the popular music industry, taking the place of sheet music, musical instruments as well as of live performance as the “object” of music consumption. In this process, it also gradually shifted the emphasis away from “works”, or “songs”, and onto specific recordings – where the identity of the performer, and the unique features of her voice or the way she plays a certain instrument, became crucial. This transition occurred as a result of a series of technological innovations, as well as structural economic changes in the leisure industry.

2. Recorded music and new patterns of music consumption

In his detailed account of the history of the record industry and its institutions, Peter Tschmuck suggests that, after an initial phase during which record companies were mainly concerned with the manufacturing of record-playing equipment, in the first couple of decades of the 20th century the focus of record labels gradually shifted on the production of records (Tschmuck 2000). With this shift, recording artists and their careers became much more important – indeed, essential – to the economic success of record companies, which no longer relied on sales of record-playing equipment for their profits. In the 1930s and 1940s the popular music industry entered a phase of integration with – and subordination to – other media, such as radio and film, which become the main means of dissemination of music.

In fact, the shift from domestic “self-made” live music to public professional performance in the late 1920s and 1930s, which we have discussed above, was also accompanied by another change taking place more or less at the same time: the expansion of the leisure industry to provide a greater range of entertainment options, including those that relied increasingly on recorded music (Nott 2010: 101). In the 1930s and 1940s, the radio and cinema, as the gramophone before, provided an unprecedented supply of music to the public. Radio and cinema were affordable leisure opportunities for most strata of society – with the exclusion only of the poorest – and available to inhabitants of big cities and smaller towns and villages alike. As such, these media contributed to the process of unification and standardisation of popular culture, both from a socio-economic and a geographical point of view.

Musical entertainment represented a large proportion of radio programming, both in state-owned and commercial stations: in the case of the BBC, in 1927 nearly 46 per cent of all broadcasts were based on popular music; across the BBC programme output, “light music” was the single most widely broadcast type of music, followed by “classical music” and “dance music” (Nott 2010: 60). Similarly, the output of commercial radio stations broadcasting to the United Kingdom from continental Europe, such as Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandie and Poste Parisien, was largely based on popular music (Nott 2010: 74). Cinema too was a very powerful and influential source of popular music, offering state-of-the-art audio technology. Indeed, the process of research and development of electrical recording was driven not so much by record companies, but by American electrical and telephone companies such as Western Electric and AT&T for the film industry (Chanan 1995: 72). The popularity of talking pictures led to significant refinements and advances in recording technology, with the development of more and more sophisticated microphones and speakers, as well as techniques of sound editing and mixing. Popular music featured widely in films, and in particular “musical films” were amongst the most popular. Such was the success of the cinema in promoting record sales of popular music, that in the years after 1930 the most popular tunes both in Britain and in the United States were those that had featured in recently released films (Nott 2010: 94).

Radio and cinema became major forces behind popular music sales, as radio shows and musical films acquired a crucial role in the generation and promotion of stars and songs, with a strong effect on determining tastes and trends and driving record sales. To keep up with increasing levels of consumption, both the radio and film industry required new material on a regular basis, thus stimulating a large demand for hit songs and for big stars to attract audiences. These “new” media had the effect of promoting a more global consumption, faster innovation and a shorter shelf life for songs and artists, helping to turn the popular music industry into a hit-driven economy. Moreover, this was the start of a process of convergence that will lead to an increasing interlinking of institutions in the entertainment industry, already significant by the end of the 1930s:

In 1938, a total of six companies controlled the worldwide phonographic market: from the U.S., CBS-Columbia, RCA-Victor, and Decca-U.S., and from Europe, EMI, Decca-UK and the German Telefunken GmbH. Four of them were not exclusively companies of the phonographic industry anymore; CBS and RCA operated both U.S. broadcasting networks, and EMI and Telefunken were electric companies. (Tschmuck 2006: 68)

Through this process, consumption of popular music was becoming a more unified, globalised and technologically mediated experience. Not only recorded music began to displace live performance, but specific recordings started to replace multiple performances of songs by different artists. While on the dance floor popular music had a functional role, with the gramophone and the radio popular music was increasingly being consumed through more attentive forms of listening that led music lovers to appreciate specific artists and bands for their unique style (Wald 2009: 122).

The increasing importance of recorded music is identifiable in the drastic changes in record ads and articles with record-buying tips on Billboard magazine during a period spanning from the 1920s to the early 1940s. At the beginning of this period, anything related to records could be found in the final section of the magazine, dedicated to amusement machines such as arcade games and jukeboxes. There, it was possible to find ads for jukeboxes, radios and gramophones, as well as charts with the most popular records, record reviews and “record buying guides”, clearly addressed more at jukebox operators and venue owners than at individual consumers. However, from the late 1930s onwards, records are advertised, discussed and reviewed in the main “music” section of the paper. Ads for records of popular music on Billboard and Melody Maker begin to emphasise the identity of the recording artists from the 1930s; their names and their faces become the main focus of attention in the 1940s.

Recorded sound: repeatability and manipulability
The new patterns of music consumption discussed above emphasised the effects of the “repeatability” of recorded music. The concept of “repeatability” has been described by Mark Katz as one of the most unbridgeable differences between live and recorded music. Live performances are unique: works can be performed many times over, but each performance is an event existing only once in space and time, which cannot be repeated. Recordings, instead, can be replayed countless times: while the conditions in which the same recording will be heard by the listeners may indeed vary – from careful listening through headphones to background music in a shopping centre, and many more – the actions that created the recording are fixed, and do not change when the recording is replayed (Katz 2004: 24-25).

The repeatability of recorded sound had been there from the beginning of technology, but its consequences were dramatically augmented from the late 1920s and 1930s, when recorded music, with records, the radio and film, started to become the most common form of popular music consumption. As Katz suggests, as more people began to listen to popular music on record, on the radio or in the cinema more often than live, popular music became primarily a “technologically mediated experience” (ibid.: 26).

Once recorded sound came to have a primary role in the popular music industry, its aesthetic relationship with performance also shifted: as audiences got used to hearing their favourite music on the radio, on the jukebox, at home or at the cinema, each time repeated in exactly the same form, they memorized and became accustomed to the recorded versions of songs and instrumental pieces alike. As a result, they came to expect live performance to mirror, or live up to, the record. In this process, the record had become the “original”, against which live performance was judged, in terms of its more or less precise adherence to the recorded version of the piece.

With the advent of microphones and electrical recording in the 1920s, and of magnetic tape and multi-track recording in the 1940s and 1950s, producers, recording engineers and mixing engineers could manipulate sound in the studio in unprecedented ways. The manipulability of recorded sound led to the production of recordings that stood in a completely new relationship with live performance.

First of all, with microphones and amplification, it became possible to produce sounds that could not have been created otherwise. As a result, in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, a new style of singing and vocal technique emerged, which was based on the aid of electrical amplification via a microphone. While pre-microphone singers of popular music were forced to project their singing voice, thus affecting their “pronunciation […], vocal production, pitch range, pitch area, phrasing and volume” (Lockheart 2003: 368), singers who used a microphone – which began to be referred to as “crooners” – were able to sing in a soft, intimate tone of voice. The term “crooner” at first had a negative connotation and implied that the person described as such was “not a singer” or less than a singer, but as it became more common it took on a neutral connotation, and was ultimately made popular by artists such a Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra (ibid.: 383).

With the advent of magnetic tape in the 1940s and multi-track tape recording in the late 1950s, two more ways of manipulating sound became possible. By splicing together sections of tape from separate performances, it was possible to create a piece of music that had never been performed in the exact form that would, at the end of the session, be committed to record. This technique, also known as horizontal editing, allowed mixing engineers and producers to extrapolate the best segments from a number of recorded performances of the same piece, and assemble them to form an improved version – by editing out mistakes and getting rid of imperfections.

Finally, the use of multi-track tape recorders allowed sound-on-sound recording, or vertical editing: by overdubbing different vocals or instrumental tracks, “impossible” performances could be created on record. Sound-on-sound recording, or vertical editing, was already being experimented in the early 30s, in particular by Les Paul. In 1930, the American musician and inventor produced a multi-instrumental track by recording, in several takes, different guitar tracks on the outside and inside bands of an acetate disc (Cunningham 1996: 21). His early experimentations were considerably influential on recording techniques of the time, and led to several recordings being made with the same technique in the following years. In 1947, Patti Page duplicated her own voice on the record “Confess”, and subsequently used the same overdub technique to create a four-part harmony in “With My Eyes Open, I’m Dreaming” (ibid.: 22). Interestingly, at the time these recording techniques were seen more as one-off novelties than methods to be applied on a regular basis – Mercury Records marketed the records as performed by “Patti Page and Patti Page” (ibid). Interestingly, this suggests that the notion of live performance was still somehow an important reference in record production and consumption.

The combined use of sound amplification and vertical and horizontal editing gave producers and sound engineers an even greater responsibility on the process of “construction” of a record. Eventually, some felt compelled to take recorded sound the furthest away from performance as they possibly could. In the studio, music could be created from scratch – the process of composition itself could virtually coincide with that of recording, experimenting with equipment, timbres and textures, and mixing.

Albums such as The Beatles’ Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, recorded at Abbey Road Studios on four-track recorders in 1966, were among the first to be composed for the recording medium, rather than for performance. Sgt. Pepper was recorded over a 129-day period, and features elaborate arrangements and an extensive use of studio effects. Its tracks incorporate elements of genres as diverse as traditional Indian, classical, jazz and rock and roll music (Lewisohn 1988). The band’s decision not to tour at this point of their career allowed them to experiment in the studio with sounds that would have been difficult to reproduce onstage, especially at the time – equipment for live performance still hadn’t caught up with the innovations that had taken place in the studio. Faced with the impossibility to make their live performances mirror their records, the Beatles decided to stop performing live altogether. While live performance was still important for emerging artists in order to get their work known, for established musicians with a successful recording career such as the Beatles it had become a secondary effort – something that came after the recording process and that, in their case, could be abandoned altogether.

Recorded in roughly the same period, Miles Davis’s 1970 album Bitches Brew features extensive post-production editing with a significant creative impact on the production of the album. Most of its tracks, especially “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Bitches Brew”, are as much the result of Davis’s compositions and conduction of the musicians involved, as of Teo Macero’s post-production editing. According to the analysis of the album by musicologist Enrico Merlin, "Pharaoh's Dance" contains 19 edits – its famous stop-start opening is entirely constructed in the studio, using repeat loops of certain sections. Later on in the track there are several micro-edits: for example, a one-second-long fragment that first appears at 8:39 is repeated five times between 8:54 and 8:59. The title track contains 15 edits, again with several short tape loops of, in this case, five seconds (at 3:01, 3:07 and 3:12). (Merlin 1999)

Davis himself describes the production of the album as a process where his own compositions, live improvisation and recording techniques all come together to achieve the final result that can be heard on record:

I would direct, like a conductor, once we started to play, and I would either write down some music for somebody or would tell him to play different things I was hearing, as the music was growing, coming together. While the music was developing I would hear something that I thought could be extended or cut back. So that recording was a development of the creative process, a living composition. (Tingen 2001: 64-65)

The producer Teo Macero describes his own work as a sort of bricolage, emphasising the significance of his own in the construction of the album and the collaborative – as well as independent from Davis – nature of his own contribution to it:

I had carte blanche to work with the material […] I could move anything around and what I would do is record everything, right from beginning to end, mix it all down and then take all those tapes back to the editing room and listen to them and say: “This is a good little piece here, this matches with that, put this here,” etc., and then add in all the effects – the electronics, the delays and overlays […] Right after I’d put it together I’d send it to Miles and ask, “How do you like it?” And he used to say, “That’s fine,” or “That’s OK,” of “I thought you’d do that.”…He never saw the work that had to be done on those tapes. I’d have to work on these tapes for four of five weeks to make them sound right”. (Tingen 2001: 67)

Both Sgt. Pepper and Bitches Brew make extensive use of recording techniques such as tape loops, tape delays, automatic double tracking, varispeed and so on. The tracks on them were not studio performances to be reproduced by the recording medium more or less transparently (Chanan 1995: 142), but rather, they were made up of performances – small or larger fragments, “unfinished” elements to be edited, mixed and reassembled with the help of studio equipment, in order to obtain a finished product. The final output was something that was created primarily in the studio, was composed for recording and not performance, and existed primarily on the record.

Performing recordings
Through the process I have described above, in fifty years or so from its advent recording technology assumed a primary role in practices of production and consumption of popular music, leading to a dramatic shift in the relationship between live performance and the record. If acoustic horns first, followed by electrical recording equipment and microphones, were used to record performances, the recording process gradually came to drive what happened in live performance. Onstage, musicians began increasingly to “perform recordings”, or in other words to perform by mirroring the material committed to record in the studio earlier on [1]. What is developed in the studio drives what happens onstage: new effects and sounds are experimented during recording sessions, then they move onstage, in a constant circle of change driven by technological innovation and experimentation.

Recording and romantic authorship
The pervasiveness of forms of consumption based on recorded music and its repeatability led to the record becoming “the original”, the central product of the popular music industry, the way most people came into contact with songs and artists – and also what shaped their expectations on live performance. Created primarily in the studio, and consumed first and foremost via the gramophone, radio, sound film and later television, popular music became part of an industry that was increasingly based on the cult of the star: from film stars whose career was closely associated with popular music, such as George Formby and Gracie Fields in the United Kingdom, and Hollywood stars such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers and Judy Garland, to popular music personalities who ended up on the silver screen, from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Elvis and the Beatles. The centrality of the recording artist as star for the popular music business became linked with a “romantic” notion of authorship and the emergence of “fandom” (Lewis 1992).

Recorded sound’s manipulability further distanced recordings from the traditional concept of live performance, turning the studio into the quintessential creative tool, and promoting the association of the recording artist or the producer with a Romantic notion of authorship. This notion of authorship is supported by – and provides support to – the apparent conflict between the artistic nature of popular music and the centrality of the author, which is also enshrined in copyright provisions [2], and its commercial nature in the context of an industry increasingly based on record sales and royalty income.

3. Technology and authorship: recording out of recordings

The manipulability of recorded sound has however facilitated the emergence of new practices of production and consumption of popular music, which undermine the economic and aesthetic principles on which the Romantic authorship is founded. With the commercialization of consumer-level tape recorder in the 1960s – followed in the following decades by a gradual wide commercialization of more sophisticated music production tools – from synthesizers to music-editing software – experimentation with sound has become available to an ever-increasing number of individuals, and some of these experiments have led to music production that dispenses with instruments and with performance altogether.

Starting his experiments with tape in the late 60s – again, roughly at the same time as Davis, Wilson and the Beatles were exploring uses of recording technology in their studios – the Canadian composer John Oswald developed Plunderphonics as an experiment in composition which used only recorded (and copyrighted) music as raw material [3].

In his works, Oswald uses “found recordings” to play with notions of authenticity, authorship (or starship), and live performance. In “Mirror”, Oswald produced what he himself defined a “superficial illusion of audio reality”, or the construction of an apparent performance gesture (Oswald 1996). At a first listening, this track gives the impression to be a live recording of a free jazz ensemble. However, it has been composed by putting together four (three in the first version of the song) different recordings of separate performances by four different musicians (Cecil Taylor, Larry Dubin, Barre Philips and Steve Lacy), which have actually taken place in different places, across a ten-year span. The combination of these four tracks aims at creating the illusion of listening to a “real” event. Oswald’s intent is that of challenging the common assumptions about performances of this kind of music:

The usual assumption, in listening to jazz and other subsets of improvised music, is that the players are having a musical conversation, in which they listen and respond to each other. I wanted to make a fake jazz recording in which the musicians couldn’t hear each other. For the first version of mirror I selected three solo improvised performance recordings. Two were from the same concert hall, but different dates, and the third was a piece entitled ‘Mirror and water gazing’, by Cecil Taylor. When played together in almost any degree of alignment the result generated a half hour containing all sorts of apparently felicitous interplay. (Oswald 1996)

Other works by Oswald are more obvious manipulations. In “Pretender”, which uses varispeed to modify the “original” song, the deceleration opens up the song for the listener to hear hidden timbres and sounds. The song begins with Dolly Parton’s voice sped up, and then it gradually slows down, going from a “chipmunks” timbre, through a female one, to a more masculine one, finishing with a duet between the two Dollys – the “original” and the masculinized one, harmonizing with each other. The transition from Dolly’s more feminine version towards that of her male alter-ego is so gradual that, even if we know the “original” song very well, it is hard to pin down the exact moment when we are actually hearing Dolly’s “real” voice in Oswald’s version. What is significant here is the very fact that we try to identify this moment: whenever we listen to a record, we are ready to accept that the sounds of the instruments have been somehow manipulated, but we are not so indulgent towards the voice. Rather, we tend to expect it to sound on the record as it does in real life.

Finally, in “O’hell”, Oswald uses very recognizable electroquotes from songs by The Doors. Not much varispeed is used here, as the little snippets of songs re-create the rhythms and timbres so typical of the American band. However, he cuts and splices pieces of tape together and manipulates the original lyrics of several songs to make new ones. The result sounds a bit like a parody of the original performers’ repertoire (if anything, also because the anagrammed artist to which the song is attributed is “Sir Jim Moron”), a sarcastic representation of the myth of the musician and the narcissism of stardom, so well represented by Jim Morrison (“Hello, I love you” becomes “Hello, you love me”) (Oswald 1996).

These works dispense with performance as well as with all pre-production phases of recording. While the Beatles and Davis were composing for the medium of recording, Oswald composes out of the same medium. While flaunting their own inauthenticity, his works bring to a dis-authentication (rather than an authentication) of the “original” as well, and to a de-construction of authorship that takes place both on the material and on the ideological level. Oswald’s work can be seen as a precursor of what has been called remix culture (Lessig 2008), configurable culture (Sinnreich 2007), collaborative authorship or end-user production (Reuveni 2008).

Contemporary forms of production and consumption of music, such as mashup culture, rely heavily on the use of the Internet, peer-to-peer file sharing and digital music-editing technologies, and seem to challenge Romantic notions of authorship, as well as the existing economic structure of the record industry. In fact, while on the one hand the Internet – with file sharing but also with online communities such as GYBO – allows for the distribution and circulation of works in digital format, displacing the economic role of the record as the “original” object of consumption of music, performance is recovered and has a crucial economic role: since mashup artists cannot make any money by releasing records, all they can rely on is “live” performances as DJs in clubs. As recorded music gets used as raw material for composition, the “live” dimension of these new musics – the moment when the recordings are performed – seems to assume a renewed aesthetic and economic importance.

Recording and the economic, aesthetic and ideological innovations it brought in practices of production and consumption of music have had many long lasting consequences on different music styles. On the one hand, they have helped create and reinforce certain economic and ideological structures of the music industry, which especially thanks to copyright law, persist still today: a music industry more and more reliant on record sales; a central role of the record, constructed as the “original” experience of music; a regime of copyright more and more strict and promoting the economic interests of the labels more than those of the single artists; a “romanticization” of the figure of the author that supports this economic structure while justifying it, “authenticating“ it.

On the other hand, however, recording technology is at the roots of a process of emergence of new practices of production and consumption, which undermine the very economic, aesthetic and ideological principles on which the recording industry has been thriving. While on an aesthetic level this process had already started in the late 60s, from the point of view of the economic structure of the popular music industry this situation is beginning to change only in the last couple of decades, with Internet, digital music and peer-to-peer file sharing. An analysis of mashup and other contemporary forms of production and consumption of music facilitated by the Internet and digital technologies may offer some interesting insights into issues of authorship. Further research should concentrate on the new economics and ideology of performance promoted by these new forms of production of music: are we witnessing a divergence between the economic and legal structure of the music industry? What consequences will this shift have on an aesthetic level on the music that gets made? If recording has been a catalyst in the transition away from the centrality of performance towards new forms of authorship, how are we to understand new practices of performance today such as mashup parties? Do they recover previous aesthetic and ideological models of the relationship between the record and the performance, or do they introduce of new ones?



  • [1] Studio equipment, as soon as its use was introduced during recording sessions, was also adapted for onstage use. Since the early 1950s musicians such as Chet Atkins, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison began to use innovative custom-built amplifiers with built-in tape echo devices, inspired by the desire to achieve onstage the same sound-on-sound effect made popular by Les Paul (Kyle 1994). A few years later, in the late-60s and early-70s, guitar pedals began to be commonly used in live performances.

    [2] Copyright provisions began to be adapted to recognize the growing economic importance of the record business across Europe and the United States in the 1930s. While performing rights for sheet music were in place in different countries of Europe by the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th, with collection agencies such as SIAE in Italy – founded 1882; GEMA in Germany, founded 1903; Performing Rights Society in Britain (PRS), founded 1914, record labels took longer to obtain the establishment of rights on the duplication and sale of recordings, and on their public performance. In the UK the duplication and sale of a recording became protected by copyright in 1924, with the foundation of the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS), and the public performance of recordings was eventually regulated with the foundation of Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) in 1934.

    [3] Amongst the principles on which Plunderphonics is based, are: the quoted sources must be easily recognizable; the material (records, tapes) used to produce each plunderphone must be easily available in record shops; the sound sources employed are quoted on the album sleeve (constructing Oswald’s work not as plagiarism, but as a sort of academic research); the album is distributed for free; finally, a note on the album sleeve encourages the listeners to use the record in many different ways which are usually forbidden by intellectual property law: “All copying, lending, public performance and broadcast of this disc permitted. Any resemblance to existing records is unlikely to be coincidental. This disc is absolutely not for sale”.


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