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360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story

1:32 PM, Dec 15, 2012   |    comments
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360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story is a book by historian Sean Wilentz that provides an in-depth look at all aspects of Columbia Records' history and offers a virtual history of the music industry from its infancy.

Wilentz traces Columbia's pivotal technological as well as business innovations, including its invention of the LP. The book also reflects on the connection between Columbia's artists and music and sweeping cultural and political changes, from the emergence of mass commercial culture to the rise of the civil rights movement and beyond.

Wilentz points out that Columbia's roster over the years has included many if not most of the biggest names in all genres, and "360 Sound" has plenty of rare and archival photographs of Louis Armstrong, Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and many more. It also includes reproductions of covers, labels, advertisements and other memorabilia.

Wilentz shows how Columbia faced extinction time and time again-from competing technologies and other labels, musicians fighting for their jobs, the 1929 market crash and World War II, and repeated failures to recognize newly popular musical forms, such as rock in the '60s.

Somehow, the label dodged and feinted, grew stronger and fought back, surviving to the present. Wilentz notes that Columbia holds the title as America's foremost label in market share, with 9.39 percent of the U.S. album market.

In the book, Wilentz points out that American inventor Thomas Edison first patented a phonograph for recording sound in 1878, but he believed that recording music took priority only "behind dictation, phonographic books for the blind, and the teaching of elocution."

Edison sold the rights to his device (to a cousin of Graham Bell, the man behind the telephone), and Columbia came into being in 1887. The company took its name from its original home base in Washington D.C. Early recordings sold by the label include a "well known yodeler of the Washington police patrol" and William Jennings Bryan's "cross of gold" speech.

Columbia survived a threat from the development of radio in the 1920s, began experimenting with electronic recording techniques, and played an important part in the recording of early jazz and blues music.

Wilentz notes Columbia's strange relationship with black music, producing "race records" that perpetuated racism and segregation but also captured important landmark moments in black music. The label did this "not because they loved music, but because they loved making money," Wilentz writes.

The Columbia Rec­ords story encompasses everything from vaudeville to the blues to the Grand Ole Opry to the New York Philharmonic; from the monster Broadway hit "My Fair Lady," in which Columbia was an investor, to "Sing Along With Mitch," the aggressively middle-of-the-road series of albums that, thanks to the hit television show they spawned, transformed the Columbia executive Mitch Miller from behind-the-scenes star maker to unlikely small-screen star.


Learn more by visiting where there is a interactive timelime about Columbia's history.

(KUSA-TV © 2012 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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