Record Cultures tells the story of how early U.S. commercial recording companies captured American musical culture in a key period in both music and media history. Amid dramatic technological and cultural changes of the 1920s and 1930s, small recording companies in the United States began to explore the genres that would later be known as jazz, blues, and country. Smaller record labels, many based in rural or out of the way Midwestern and Southern towns, were willing to take risks on the country’s regional vernacular music as a way to compete with more established recording labels. Recording companies’ relationship with radio grew closer as both industries were on the rise, propelled by new technologies. Radio, which had become immensely popular, began broadcasting more recorded music in place of live performances, and this created profitable symbiosis. With the advent of the talkies, the film industry completed the media trifecta. The novelty of recorded sound was replacing film accompanists, and the popularity of movie musicals solidified film’s connections with the radio and recording industries. By the early 1930s, the recording industry had gone from being part of the largely autonomous phonograph industry to being major media industry of its own, albeit deeply tied to—and, in some cases, owned by—the radio and film industries. The triangular relationships between these media industries marked the first major entertainment and media conglomerates in U.S. history.
Through an interdisciplinary and intermedial approach to recording industry history, Record Cultures creates new connections between different strands of media research. It will be of interest to scholars of popular music, media studies, sound studies, American culture, and the history of film, television, and radio.
“At last, a scholarly study that integrates the history of phonography with radio and film, to show how the interlocking operations of these key media sectors worked to produce twentieth-century media culture. Solidly researched and full of colorful details.”
—Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Kyle Barnett is Associate Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Communication at Bellarmine University.
Praise / Awards
"Barnett explores hybridity via Paul Whiteman’s symphonic jazz bands, the intersection of Black music labels and the Harlem Renaissance, and the discovery of 'hillbilly music' via WLS's radio program Barn Dance. The narrative is peppered with interesting facts."
—S. Lenig, CHOICE Connect
"Record Cultures: The Transformation of the U.S. Recording Industry fills an important gap in scholarship that has been vacant for far too long, and it is an excellent offering that hopefully will spur more conversation about the role of recorded sound in media history."
-Journal of Radio & Audio Media
"Barnett provides an excellent account of a fascinating story. ...Record Cultures should find a home on the shelf of any scholar interested in intermedia studies or the early decades of recorded music."
—Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television
"Kyle Barnett’s Record Cultures is an insightful investigation of prewar major and independent record companies as they circumnavigated competitive forces and financial challenges by identifying and exploiting new markets and, eventually, combining with radio and talking pictures for mutual benefit."
"...[Record Cultures] pays close attention to regional specificities, cultural tensions and differentiated industrial practices, while remaining keenly aware of wider moments and movements of convergence. This makes for a diverse, valuable and original companion to existing histories of the phonograph in the US, opening promising avenues for the study of recorded sound in an intermedial and intertemporal context..."
"Barnett has given us the rock and pop pre-history that led as much to Pat Boone and Harry Belafonte as Elvis Presley, demonstrating how long before David Geffen and his crowd appeared the intermediaries were already stoking the talking machinery behind the popular song."
—Journal of the Society of American Music
Winner: Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) 2021 Award for Excellence in Best Historical Research on Record Labels and General Recording Topics: Best History