Democracy of Sound by Alex Sayf Cummings

This history of piracy covers everything from copying piano rolls and sheet music in the nineteenth century to pirating mp3s and leaking tracks on YouTube. It includes fascinating facts about the industry, for example: ‘despite numerous attempts, the recording industry did not secure federal copyright protection for its products until 1971. Recordings were technically uncopyrightable for decades, and various pirates seized on the apparent loophole in federal law to copy works without seeking permission.’

Democracy of Sound

I loved reading about the avid, competitive jazz collectors of the 1930s and the expense some outlaid for a home disc engraver to copy rare records. It also, to some extent, provides a history of musical evolution. Apparently, free form boogie-woogie is rather difficult to copyright.

Throughout the book, there is an engaging discussion about who owns the rights to music and its distribution: the composer; the artist; the recorder; the record company? If someone covers a piece of music, to what extent does that belong to them? Ethical questions give the discussion nuance; some pirates justified their actions by saying that they were providing a service to the people as record companies failed to produce or reissue classic, niche records that were culturally important. Of course there were also mobsters and inside-jobbers doing it for the cash! Excellently, one of the pirating outfits of the 1950s ‘bootleg boom’ cheekily named themselves ‘Jolly Roger’. The section about the birth of the mixtape and hip hop is a brilliantly researched account that really captivated me.

The book also catalogues the inception of each changing technology, explaining how it works. This book works because it deftly interweaves legal, economic, ethical, cultural and musical history, alongside a chronology of enthusiasts and music-lovers. Its serious conclusion considers the future of music and the recording industry. The book is political, informative and sharp. Anyone with an interest in music should read it.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with this advance review copy.

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4 Comments

Filed under books, Reviews

4 responses to “Democracy of Sound by Alex Sayf Cummings

  1. This books sounds really interesting and relevant to today’s changing music industry. I had no idea there was no copyright for music until 1971! Nice review!

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  2. As Common As Air by Lewis Hyde is another good examination of this issue, but with a broader scope, looking at everything from music, to literature, film, and early colonial politics. As compelling as his connections are, though, I often wished he’d have delved even deeper into one subject, so maybe this is the book I’ve been looking for. Thanks for the nice review!

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