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Empires of Sound, Swing Music, and the Studio

In chapter 5, “Empires of Sound,” Millard talks about the beginning of conglomeration. Companies like Warner Bros. not only had their hand in film, but also started buying up music producers and record labels. Others followed suit and soon only four big companies ruled the film industry Warner Bros, RKO, Fox, Paramount, and Loews/MGM. This left little room for independent film producers who could not match the resources and power these giants had.

Media conglomeration has continued since then and we’ve gotten to the point where just a few (I believe it’s six) corporations own most of the media industry. Today’s media giants (like News Corp and Disney) not only own film companies and radio stations, but also books, newspapers, magazines, television channels, and any other type of media out there. This issue is especially important to me because I have worked with a non-profit independent media organization for several years now and our goal is to get the voices from overlooked communities out in the media. There are too many issues and viewpoints that don’t get heard because the media giants that run the industry can’t or won’t show them.

Anyways, back to music! The next chapter discusses the swing era.  I find it amazing that one type of music could appeal to such a wide audience from young to old, black to white, high culture to low culture, America to abroad. It’s difficult for me to think of a genre today that has the same kind of appeal. Unfortunately, as we saw in the Jazz Age, African Americans musicians were not credited with their creations and swing music was watered-down to appeal to white tastes. Radio networks needed swing to appeal to a mass audience, so it became a “highly commercial, formulaic sound.” This sounds an awful lot like what most radio networks play today, Top 40 hits by cookie-cutter artists that all sound the same. Related to what I said about media conglomerates before, the empires of sound were all playing this highly popular music, which meant the exclusion of diverse, ethnic music.

The studio, the microphone, electric recording; it was all great for synchronizing sound and film, but not for the artist. With the increasing responsibilities and skills required of the technician to strike the best balance of sounds, artists were treated like puppets; expected to “follow orders and get the job done as quickly as possible.” The recording manager made all major decisions and eventually the artists had no say. The studio system didn’t care about music, their main concern was corporate strategy- commercial factors, technical factors, and of course, mass production. We see here the beginnings of what the music industry has come to today, record labels incessantly intrude in artists’ creative processes to ensure that their work will sell. Artists can’t try new things or take risks because profit is the first priority, not authentic music. In these three chapters, we see how the changes in the industry affect the artist. Before, artists had to master three different types of media to be successful, and the companies were dependent on their talent to make money. But with advancing technology, it was less about talent and more about the technical aspects, and the artists lost control of their work.

The last point I want to make is about sound on film. I feel like a lot of the time sound is undervalued; we are quick to commend the visual aspects of film and how camera movements, continuity editing, and special effects make movies so realistic. But we see at the end of this chapter the importance sound has in evoking emotions and producing the illusion of reality.

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September 24th, 2010 at 11:52 am

14 Responses to “Empires of Sound, Swing Music, and the Studio”

  1.   jstrick Says:

    Good point about artists losing creative control over their recordings. As time has passed, artists have been forced into signing over artistic control to companies who control not only how they sound, but also their complete image. Major labels these days try to “create” someone who doesn’t even exist. This is exactly why I prefer indie music – I believe that the artists have the right to be themselves instead of commercialized, overproduced products of a boardroom. On the other hand, if an artist actually wishes to be produced by a company for the purpose of ensuring record sales, be my guest. Let the listening public decide which is preferable.

  2.   Amy Herzog Says:

    You touch on two topics very dear to my own heart– film music and independent media! Hope that you’ll continue to reflect on the tension between independents and the major media players; as you suggest here, the absence of voices from the margins should be cause for concern on a number of fronts (social, political, and artistic).

  3.   brian morrissey Says:

    I agree with you that aspects of sound often take a backseat to visual ones in motion picture. I feel this has a lot to do with the passivity of the viewer being that’s it’s far easier to see something than it is to anylize it a little further and realize what they’re really hearing in order to fully grasp what is being captured/shown. I unfortunately feel that being an industy of the moving image itself kind of cements this narrowcasting of the viewers attention and the responsibility falls to the individual viwer to acknowledge audiable elements to take in the bigger picture and appreciate the overall production further.

  4.   robert shemanski Says:

    I love film music and independent media. I just do not like artists not having control over their recordings. This happened to Guns And Roses and he is suing the record company claiming his record chinese democracy has failed due to the fact he had no creative control on what music should be played on his cd. Unfortunately an artists will never have control over there music. They want all artista to sound like the artists of today because they are putting a lot of money into there investment and want to ensure success anyway possible not matter what. As for film music I love a good ery voice in a horror movie before something happens because it gives a movie a suspense. You do not need voices to figure out what is going on in the picture. The only movie I did not understand without human voices and just music playing in the background was Metroplis.

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