Cultural production and genre formation in the U.S. recording industry, 1920-1935
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On the eve of 1920, the U.S. recording industry had been through a number of near-fatal economic downturns since its precarious emergence in the 1890s, and yet stood on the verge of its most influential decade to date. Already in its short history, the recording industry had nearly ceased to exist in the 1890s, saved itself by transforming the phonograph from office machine to nickel-in-the-slot novelty, survived the first of many format wars to come, and reinvented itself by introducing the phonograph into American homes. During the 1920s and 1930s, the recording industry participated in creating genre categories and identifying audiences for music that had previously gone unrecorded. By concentrating on both industry giants (Victor, Columbia) and smaller labels that were key to industry trends (Gennett, Paramount, Okeh), this dissertation's working hypothesis is that a new mode of production in the recording industry between the world wars -- based both on previous business strategies and new market conditions -- allowed a few large corporations to develop into a highly organized industry. This relationship between genre (understood as a configuration of social, cultural, ideological, and aesthetic beliefs) and mode of production (in its most concrete sense, how a given company operates) has continued to be an important one to the record industry, because with each new genre and sub-genre the industry has the potential to connect with underserved or unrecognized audiences. By combining industrial history with cultural analysis, this dissertation analyzes institutional cultures at various record companies and the contributions of musicians and various cultural intermediaries who helped shape U. S. popular music beginning in the early twentieth century. The central questions to which I continually return are: How did the consolidation of the recording industry into distinct company cultures shape the records that were made? What role did these cultures play in the shaping of genres, in terms of both creative control and technological formats? And finally, how do these various aspects interrelate in the context of the recording industry -- both as an industry involved in manufacturing culture and reflecting its own participation as a cultural institution?