Kyle Barnett Interview

Kyle Barnett is Associate Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Communication at Bellarmine University, and the author of a new book entitled Record Cultures: The Transformation of the U.S. Recording Industry. Record Cultures focuses on the 1920s and '30s, when the media industry in the US began to truly take shape.

How did you get to where you are today, professionally? 

There was a vague plan that got clearer as time went on. I worked a number of different jobs before I decided on graduate school. In my 20s, I’d worked a bit as a music journalist for my college paper and the city weekly in Indianapolis, where I grew up. There was and is a lot of great music there. But I started to think that if I were a college professor, I could pick and choose what I wrote and prioritize what writing really mattered to me. I saw teaching as an extension of my writing, that urge to figure things out and share that with other people. 

When I got to graduate school in media studies and cultural studies, first at Bowling Green in Ohio, and later at the University of Texas in Austin, I found many students that had found their way to study through television and science fiction. What got me to graduate school was cultural studies research and Greil Marcus’ work. He’d mention some cultural theorist or some Dadaist author and I’d have to track it down. 

Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?

Oh, yes. Of course! Too many to describe here. I’ll focus on one. At the University of Texas, I did a Ph.D. in Radio-TV-Film. The department was way broader than that in its focus. I worked with lots of great faculty there, but I worked most closely with Tom Schatz, author of great film studies books, including Genius of the System, that changed how we think about the Hollywood studio system. He taught me how to think about media industries in altogether new ways, which led to my book. An anecdote that I love that Tom shared with me: for years, he played pick-up basketball on the Texas campus. He played with this guy Sterling, who was into medieval literature. It was quite a while before he realized that it was the Velvet Underground’s Sterling Morrison. 

Can you please briefly describe the thesis of the book?

The recording industry is a media industry, one which creates culture and is culture. The era between 1920 and 1935 is perfect to illustrate this. Between the end of the World War I and the coming of the Great Depression, the U.S. recording industry completely transformed—and culture was central to that transformation. Record company employees helped create provisional genres that stuck: 1) jazz, which would become synonymous with pop in that era, 2) blues, then known as “race records,” a phrase with a complicated discourse and history; and 3) country music, first called “old time music,” and then “hillbilly music.” The genres reflected attitudes about the music and the people who made them that are still with us today. 

The latter half of the book makes explicit the argument that lurks throughout the book: the recording industry is a media industry, that creates its own media and supplies raw material to other media as a matter of course. It's the era when radio and film companies start buying up bits of the recording industry (and, more broadly, the music industry). Things were so bad by the early 1930s that Columbia Records was being tossed around to different radio and record companies—and the company actually tried (and apparently failed) selling a home dry cleaning kit with the Columbia name during the worst of the Great Depression. By the end of the era, the recording industry was inextricably linked to other media industries—and has been ever since. 

How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?

The subject found me. I arrived in my Ph.D. program thinking I’d write a film studies book, perhaps about filmic depictions of the rise of urbanism. That didn’t happen. A few things began to bother me. Why did introductory media studies texts always include a sound recording and pop music chapter, but then the subject largely disappeared in courses and texts afterwards? Why did pop music studies’ focus tend to mirror a bias toward the rock era? (Rock criticism itself doesn’t really take off until the late 1960s, a full decade after rock’n’roll’s revolutionary moment.) And why did histories of the recording industry tend to be epics, rather than focusing on key eras in its history? I wanted to address all these issues and a few more. 

As for why it was so interesting to me: The 1920s and 1930s were a foundational era in both music and media, so I was attracted to the chaos and creativity of that. But there might be an autobiographical reason too: my grandfather ran an “electric shop” that sold record players, radios, TVs, and refrigerators. My grandparents’ house had tons of gear and promotional materials from Victor Records. I found it all fascinating. 

Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.

Well, the academic publishing is nothing like mass-market book publishing. It’s all a bit mysterious to start. When you’re a graduate student, you go and present papers at conferences. There would always be this big room where the publishers would have displays and books for sale. Then I started seeing friends of mine meeting with some of the folks at those tables, pitching book ideas to people I later learned were acquisition editors. When I was close to finishing my dissertation, I started pitching my book idea to different presses. I went to those presses that I knew published books on music, media, and culture. I ended up catching the ear of Mary Francis, then an editor at the University of California Press. She started working with me, but we didn’t sign a contract until later. The profit margin is so low with academic publishing, they are careful what they publish and how they publish it. 

Later, Mary let me know she was heading to the University of Michigan Press and she wanted to have dinner while she was in Louisville, where I live. I thought: Was this a break-up dinner? Nah, my friends said. If she didn’t want to take your book with her to Michigan, she would have dumped you by phone. Of course, Mary wouldn’t do that. She took me with her (she’s since moved on again, to University of Pennsylvania Press). 

What did the research process look like?

It was tedious and it was bliss. Detective work. I went to the Library of Congress and to state and county historical societies in Indiana and Wisconsin, where the Gennett and Paramount record labels were based, respectively. I went to the University of Chicago’s jazz archive and I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame. I worked with record collectors, who gave me leads. A record collector told me about an uncatalogued Columbia Records collection at the New York Public Library’s Lincoln Center location. (I owe record collectors, discographers, and amateur researchers a lot.) I showed up, despite no responses to earlier queries from me. The librarians kept saying, “we don’t have that collection,” then an archivist overheard me. He slapped an access sticker on my shirt and took me a few floors below Lincoln Center to these boxes. “You can photocopy anything you want out of these,” he said. “Just write on the outside what you find on the inside.” That’s what I did for the rest of the week. 

While I was in Richmond, a local Gennett expert took me to the site of the old studio. He gave me a brick from the remnants and put it in my hand, as he rattled off the names of all who had recorded there: Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Charley Patton. I thanked him and drove back to the airport in Indianapolis. When I checked my luggage, I was informed that it was overweight. The brick! It was worth it. 

How did you go about writing the actual book? 

So, full-time tenure-track academic life is really privileged, not in terms of pay, but in terms of freedom with time. But finding writing time was really hard for me. I teach at Bellarmine University, a liberal arts school where we teach a lot. Academic labor is largely invisible. I’m meeting with students, writing lectures, creating assignments, or going to administrative meetings, and so on. If I get the work done, then I’m free to steal away to the library or a nearby coffee house to work a bit. If I got three or four hours together to write, then that was great. If I was pulled away from the work for weeks at a time, Then, it would be “Where was I?” when I got back to work. 

Coffee houses were crucial to me. If I wrote at school, I would get distracted. If I wrote at home, I would get a clean house but not much written. Coffee houses are the perfect in-between spaces, enough din to help me focus. If a conversation happened too close to me, then listening to music would help me re-focus. Along with the usual academic acknowledgments, I thanked a few Louisville coffee houses in the book. 

Did you get peer feedback on the book? 

Oh, yes. I did get feedback that was all-important. It’s common practice for an academic book like mine to be sent out to peer reviewers, which improved my book so much. I had two anonymous reviewers, both of which volunteered to share their identities with me later, which they are free to do. One was a popular music historian, while the other was a media historian. I wanted both, because the second half of my book maps radio’s Depression-era takeover of the recording industry—a story that doesn’t get told in radio studies (the assumption is that musicians benefited from radio) and that doesn’t get told in popular music studies either. Victor becomes RCA-Victor, Columbia eventually becomes CBS. Talking about the recording and radio industries together (along with significant cameos from the film industry) was crucial, and both of my peer reviewers were great in thinking across media contexts. 

In fact, a lot of what happened in the 1930s remind me of more recent events. By the early 1930s, a lot of journalists saw the record business as over—or forever changed. Something had ended. Why buy records when you can just buy a radio and have it stream into your home? Does that sound familiar to anybody? 

What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic you're writing about?

Music: There are a few touchstones that I would include here, that would be in most any book on the era. Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” was a sensation when OKeh Records released it in 1920. Supposedly Sophie Tucker was sick and the label took a chance on this African American artist, thanks to songwriter Perry Bradford’s pleading. The song launched “race records” and boosted interest in jazz and blues in general.

In a small, makeshift studio in Richmond, Indiana in 1923, King Oliver recorded “Dippermouth Blues” for Gennett Records. Gennett’s parent company, Starr Piano, had entered the record business in the late 1920s. Gennett recorded a huge swath of music during the 1920s: sound effects records, jazz, country, and blues, indigenous tribes at the Grand Canyon, and the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, they were recording jazz from Jelly Roll Morton (in an early integrated recording session with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings) and Hoagy Carmichael and on and on. King Oliver was no longer at his full strength as a player and Louis Armstrong, was in his ascendancy. There are varying stories about Armstrong had to stand near the back of the acoustic-recording-era studio, behind the band, because his horn was overpowering Oliver. Armstrong loved Oliver, but it marked a huge change.

People forget about spoken-word recordings of this and any area. One of my favorites was recorded in an abandoned storefront on Louisville’s Main Street that I learned about from musician Nathan Salsburg. Ralph Peer was in town for RCA-Victor and he had invited two of the biggest acts in country music to record there. In addition to the music, they also recorded spoken-word records, the conceit of those being that Rodgers and the Carter Family could be heard visiting each other, in Kerrville, Texas, and Maces Spring, Virginia, respectively. Here’s “Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family” from 1931:

Books: There has been great writing on the pre-World War II history of the recording industry in recent years. David Suisman’s book, Selling Sounds gets at foundational aspects of how music became a commercial business. He expertly ties legal battles to cultural dynamics throughout the book. His work on Tin Pan Alley-era legal skirmishes will seem very contemporary to readers and was especially useful to me. Karl Hagstrom Miller’s Segregated Sounds examines the complex interplay of how black and white musicians played music in the American South and how record companies organized that very same music. And while musicians from all walks of life played all kinds of music, the industry’s commercial interests and the folklorists’ implicit biases helped to create a new “color line” still inherent in popular music today.  

Videos: The latter half of my book argues that the recording, radio, and film industries get a lot closer after the switch from acoustic to electric sound and the coming of the Great Depression. Some strong evidence of the connections can be found on film. Louis Armstrong did a number of film shorts, including the one below shot in Copenhagen with his band in 1933. (His passport on the trip listed his occupation as “actor,” as opposed to musician.)

Jimmie Rodgers did a few songs and some acting in his Columbia Pictures short, The Singing Brakeman (1929). Bessie Smith starred in a 1929 short called St. Louis Blues, after her popular song. (The director of the short, Dudley Murphy, had worked on the experimental film Ballet Mécanique with artist Fernand Léger five years before.)

What's one tip that you'd give someone looking to write a music book right now?

There are so many eras that could use more attention. Write toward the gaps, and from points of view that have not been fully represented. There are still plenty of books to be written. I would tell anyone to write toward the gaps in what we know. I love the books that focus tight on a given era, as opposed to those that try to do it all. We’ve come to a point, I think, where we can focus in like film books have, on a particular era, genre, or event. There is way more contemporary work on popular music than writing on popular music’s history, especially if you venture back before rock criticism’s emergence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The trick, though, is not to take the received mythologies of any artist or era as fact. I think Elijah Wald’s work has been so good at this, and we need more work like that. 

Anything you want to plug?

There’s a Record Cultures book excerpt over at Jason Gross’ Perfect Sound Forever that focuses on the complicated relationship between recording and radio companies in the 1920s and 1930s. And, at present, I’m working on a forthcoming interview (also for Perfect Sound Forever) with field recordist, musician, and artist Stuart Hyatt and his Field Works ensemble, in which Hyatt collaborates with a lot of different musicians (Dan Deacon, Juana Molina, Eluvium, The Album Leaf, Matmos, etc.) to create all-new compositions.