Sunday, March 31, 2013

Alex Sayf Cummings's "Democracy of Sound"

Alex Sayf Cummings is an assistant professor of History at Georgia State University, and co-editor of the blog Tropics of Meta.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century, and reported the following:
Democracy of Sound is the story of all the jazzbos, Deadheads, DJs, pirates, politicians, and radicals who helped shape copyright law into what it is today.  I first became intrigued by the subject when Napster began to transform the ways people listened to music. I soon discovered that Congress did not provide copyright protection for sound recordings until 1971; it seemed bizarre to me that copyright law could have been so limited just a few decades ago, especially given how expansive and restrictive it is today.  To figure out why, I embarked on a project that uncovered a much longer history of piracy and bootlegging than I expected to find—reaching all the way to the wax cylinder era of the 1890s.

Page 99 [inset left, click to enlarge] is a really representative sample of the book.  It features an image of a bootleg recording of the San Francisco band It’s a Beautiful Day, and it points out the similarity between the pirate LPs of the late 1960s and the burnt CDs of the last decade or so.  The passage also discusses Great White Wonder, a Dylan bootleg that sparked an explosion of piracy in 1969:
These earliest rock bootlegs were minimalist by default, with plain white covers that gave little or no indication of what was contained inside…The blank design of the early Wonders recalled what became known as the Beatles’ White Album, released the year before. Designed by pop artist Richard Hamilton, the 1968 record originally featured a plain white cover, the lack of adornment mirroring its simple title: The Beatles.
Democracy of Sound is not just about law and technology, but very much about pop culture and the creativity of people who copy music outside the bounds of the law.  It’s also about the idea that bootleg culture has its own aesthetic—the fuzziness of a lo-fi copy, the simplicity of a Xeroxed cover, and the creative stamp that pirates put on music as they remix, reproduce, and recirculate it. (This is an idea I borrowed from one of my mentors, the anthropologist Brian Larkin.)  In this sense, piracy creates its own sort of folk or vernacular culture, whether it’s a Jelly Roll Morton LP in the 1940s, a Grateful Dead bootleg in the 1970s, or a DJ Clue mixtape in the 1990s.
Learn more about Democracy of Sound at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue