Napster, Dave Marsh, and 125 Years of Columbia Records

By Richard Menta 1/13/13

The new Dave Marsh book 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story - Legends and Legacy is not available as a stand alone hardcover. It is a companion to another book; part of a deluxe package version of Sean Wilentz history of Columbia Records to celebrate its 125 years in business. For those interested in the history of recorded music, as I am, The Wilentz book is a wonderful tour of an industry through the lens of the oldest record label still in business and stocked with big beautiful pictures of the great artists who recorded for it. For those also interested in re-discovering the actual music these artists created for that label then the book serving as the addendum is the real gem.

The good news is if you eschew paper and go digital, the eBook version of Legends and Legacy is available separately on the Apple iBook store for free. Before you go any further open up iTunes now, search for it under Books and download it.

Let me explain why this free book is important and worthy of your attention with some background and then an anecdote.

The Early Days of Napster


Richard Menta

Back in late 1999 I was in the heart of the NY Dotcom scene and marveling over the original Napster. MP3 Newswire was not quite a year old and I was one of the few to chronicle the early file sharing activities of consumers.

Prior to the appearance of Napster file sharers posted music on their personal web pages for click and download ease. They also made them available through FTP directories, a less-than-ideal method that required ever-changing logins and passwords for access. The end result was a large, but limited, selection of music online.

Finding a specific track could be vexing. The Pre-Google search engines like Alta Vista and InfoSeek did a very poor job locating specific MP3 tracks. Furthermore, while it was relatively easy to stumble across music from Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys, it was difficult to locate even the biggest hits from the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. This suggested something about the average age of those who posted music online back then.

Napster changed all that. By allowing users to access music located on other people's hard drives, as opposed to just what someone took the effort to post on the Internet, finding a specific track became amazingly easy. This was because the variety of music you could draw upon became dramatically broader. It also strongly suggested that from the outset the true age range of users who dabbled in digitizing content was far more diverse than the stereotype teen stoner too often portrayed as the typical file trader. For example, long out-of-print jazz albums from the likes of Dizzy Gillespie could be found complete along with radio sitcom transcription discs of the 30's and 40's.

The Heart of Rock and Soul (1989)

In the fall of 1989 Penguin books published the first edition of Dave Marsh's The Heart of Rock and Soul, which was subtitled the 1001 greatest singles ever made. The layout of the book is not by chapter, but as one big list from greatest to great (though as Marsh informs the reader in the author's note the cumulative result is a book, not a list). These songs, in Marsh's opinion, represent the most important music in rock and soul history from the early 50's to the book's publication.

His arguments for each recording's inclusion, which he might eloquently make in a couple of sentences or a couple of pages, served as a primer as to how to enjoy and measure the influence of music in our lives. It also argued for a new standard to measure what is important from a critical standpoint. This argument was not just limited to rock and soul, which served as the dominant popular form for what, roughly, amounted to the second half of the history of recorded music.

After finishing the book in 1990 one side effect was that it made me wonder about the first half of the history of recorded music.

Marsh's biggest complaint over the reaction of the book came from the complaints by readers dissatisfied over how high their favorite tracks placed, if they placed at all. I had no problem with how he ranked the songs. Frankly, I really didn't care. When I read Heart of Rock and Soul what drew my focus were the tracks and artists I had never heard of before. Yes, Like a Rolling Stone made number seven, fine, but who the hell were Nolan Strong and the Diablos and why did their 1954 single The Wind place so highly (number 67) out of 1001 tracks in the mind of this critic?

I only had to look at the music immediately surrounding The Wind, songs that were very familiar to me, to accurately gauge how good it had to be; The Drifter's On Broadway, Them's Gloria, In Dreams by Roy Orbison, The Beatles, Sam and Dave. These choices fit beautifully with my own personal tastes. What I pulled from this book - and as I will show later I was not the only one - was the opportunity to seek and hear music I would love, but was otherwise unknown to me.

The end result is that I not only began to seek out the artists and songs ranked in that book, I also started to search for the music of their influences, artists Marsh only briefly mentioned in the book. Artists like Wynonie Harris, Robert Johnson and Louis Jordan to name just a few.

Well, sort of. I had the song titles and Marsh's compelling musings. Unfortunately, in the pre-Internet 90's tracking down all the songs affordably, if you could find them at all, proved to be another issue.

Then along came Napster.

Napster and the Rebuilding of the American Recording Catalog

Recorded music, like any other commercial commodity, has an economic lifespan. Meet the Beatles may still sell relatively well in the record aisles, but the recordings of most of their contemporaries have long fallen out of print. Also dead by the middle of the 90's was the 45 rpm record and the concept of selling singles.

It was all albums from there on in so if you wanted to experience Joyce Harris singing No Way Out (Number 1001 in the Marsh book) then you had to wait until 1998, as I did, and spring for the entire Dominos Records Story to get it…that is if you knew the song was included in that package, because Harris' recordings were sold under the Infinity label. Prior to the release of that album your only hope was to find the 45 in a used record shop.

When I first took in the original Napster's clever simplicity the service probably had around 20,000 users and already it sported a pretty decent cross section of music. Over the next several months, as the application's popularity exploded into tens-of-millions of users, Napster grew to possess, by far, the single greatest back catalog ever constructed. All of it assembled by a massive grass roots effort of consumers who digitized to the MP3 format everything in their personal record cabinet from old vinyl and shellac to deleted CDs.

I once made a case that the original Napster and the file sharing ilk that followed it grew on the same spirit as the free public library found in any town (see File Sharing and the Free Public Library). This is what made Napster important and what compelled me to analyze the content traded on it. It is also what made Napster anathema to those who felt they should be compensated for its activity.

The record industry hated Napster with a passion. First, because it cut them out past the first sale doctrine and second, because the huge back catalog gave Napster a competitive advantage over the labels own active catalogs, digital and physical. There was also no cost associated with Napster, though its leaders fully intended to monetize it once/if they figured out a workable business model.

Worse, the reactionary response of the labels regarding the delivery of music over the Internet handcuffed their own attempts at a productive digital vision. For example, Sony's first attempt to sell digital files over the Net in the summer of 2000 was marred by high prices, a skimpy catalog, and overly restrictive digital rights management. This only increased Napster's competitive advantage. Regardless of cost, Napster was simply better. Mostly it was simple and consumers flocked to it.

So, if by the beginning of a new millennium, consumers, on their own, achieved through Napster, the closest anyone had ever come, to date, to building a library of the entire history of recorded music then the next question is this: With all this content to explore where does one start?

From what I observed quite a lot of people started with The Heart of Rock and Soul.

How do I know this? From a feature the original Napster had. If you came across someone on Napster who had a particular track you wanted Napster allowed you to click on their ID to peruse the entire personal collection of tracks they offered up to the service. I did just that on a continual basis to get an idea of the various tastes out there. That's when it became apparent to me that the average Napster user of the year 2000 had a considerably broader palette than what the tightly targeted radio playlists then and now would have you believe.

I remember searching for Joyce Harris' No Way Out as a quick little test to find how well Napster handled the obscure. The Marsh book was the only place I knew of that gave it anything more than a mention and so I reasonably expected that those aware of the song came by that awareness through Marsh. This also made it a reasonably good test to measure Heart of Rock and Soul as a resource for those seeking music. At first, I could not find the song.

When the track did appear downloading it proved to be a slow laborious process. The reason for this was because the number of users attempting to retrieve the song overwhelmed the very few users who initially seeded the track. There was clearly demand out there for Harris. Over time, enough users had the track and served them right back as additional download sources. Eventually, No Way Out could be easily acquired.

When I searched the collections of users who downloaded No Way Out I found them filled with tracks ranked in Heart of Rock and Soul. The book's DNA was all over their digital collections. This didn't surprise me, but I did notice something I did not expect. I noticed many of these people were also collecting the music of the pre-1950's influences Marsh praised in the same book, but who fell beyond its scope. When I searched Napster for some of the other lesser-known songs from the Marsh book and looked at the collections of those users I found the same thing.

That put a thought in my head. I decided to poll some of these users.

1001 Greatest Hits of the Pre-Rock and Soul Era

Another feature Napster had then was a built-in online message system that allowed a user to send a text to any other user. When I saw what these people were doing I decided to pose a query to them. After finishing Heart of Rock and Soul I wanted to next read something that did not exist and to the best of my knowledge was not in the works; a prequel. I was curious if anyone else out there had the same notion. Napster made visible to me a group of consumers who might just feel the same way.

So, over the weeks I messaged dozens of people. Music fans like me who were revisiting the creations of the past to both enjoy them for what they are and as a way to better understand and appreciate today's music.

In my note to these other users I proposed a new book premise for Mr. Marsh. It was an excercise, really, but one that rested on the idea that music critics can have their fans too. Think of it as the 1001 greatest singles from the first half of recorded history that directly influenced the second half Marsh mostly covered in Heart of Rock and Soul. The reason I said direct influence is because while Marsh's writing suggested he was reasonably well versed in Tin Pan Alley and some other pre-war music forms I did not know how deeply that extended to all the song forms that at various times throughout the 20th century served at the core of popular music.

Even in this narrowed context there was plenty of material for a follow-up book. In my note to those users I ran through a list of artists. The early country of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers, the gospel recordings of the Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams and the male gospel groups, the urban blues of Bessie Smith, the Mississippi delta blues of Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, the crooning of Bing Crosby, the bel canto of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, the bebop of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, the blues shouters like Wynonie Harris and the R&B combos that rose up in the years following WWII.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Pretty much all of them said they would buy such a book on the spot, which validated my assumption that Marsh's book was at minimum an active tool of discovery for them.

Of course, there was no such book in the works. Nor did I ever communicate the opportunity for such a book, beyond the users I polled. Unfortunately, I never got around to closing what was an ongoing analysis and therefore never published my insights on what I found. There were other stories I was writing and I left the damn thing dangling too long. Eventually, Napster was shuttered and such an article became moot.

360 Sound: Legends and Legacy (2012)

I came across Dave Marsh's latest endeavor 360 Sound: Legends and Legacy quite by accident. A few years back he said he was working on a book that explained why American Idol was evil. I was checking Amazon to see if the book was ever released when I came across 360 Sound: Legends and Legacy. After reading the synopsis it became apparent that, with the exception of the book being limited to just the music of Columbia records, it's very close the book I proposed to those old Napster users back in 2000. In many ways it is better.

Legends and Legacy begins at the dawn of the recording age with the 1890 performance of John Philip Sousa's Washington Post March. The first 27 recordings listed predate 1930 and serves as a small, but fascinating cross-section of music for that period. The list then work's its way chronologically up to Adele's 2011 recording of Rolling in the Deep, so it also partly updates Heart of Rock and Soul by 22 years.

Both 360 Sound books show that Marsh is not only well-versed in all forms of American recording, but eager to share this knowledge. His pantheon includes recordings from classical music, opera, marches, spoken word, jazz, show tunes, latin, hillbilly, even the music of blackface entertainers (acknowledging that greatness can be found in a popular entertainment that was once revered as a classic American art form and is now reviled for its racist abstractions shows Marsh's determination to unearth the beauties of the past when obfuscated not just be time, but by 21st Century disdain and dismissal).

The selections are wonderful. I was unaware of Washington Phillips 1928 recording of Denomination Blues, Part 1 and Part 2 before the eBook. For the past few weeks I have played it regularly in my car. If you want beauties of the past it includes that unknown instrument Phillips plays that is as absolutely as lovely and unforgettable as Marsh claims. I can't tell you for sure if Phillips dramatic increase of the tempo in both parts is by design or by his getting lost in the music. I can say it makes the performance even more thrilling as he makes his case against the sectarian nature of Christian religion.

Another big plus offered by the eBook is that every selection includes a 90 second clip so you can actually hear snippets of each song before having to chase them down one-by-one. I wish this was available to me in the 1990's. Presumably, the reason eBook is free because Columbia hopes the clips will entice readers to purchase the full versions of the songs.

In contrast, the hard cover version is quite expensive. To get Legends and Legacy in book form you have to spring for the entire deluxe version of 360 Sound. This gives the reader both the Wilentz and Marsh books plus a USB drive containing not clips, but the full versions of all 264 tracks Marsh selected as the cream of the Columbia catalog. That's a great convenience, but a lot of money as the deluxe version presently sells on Amazon for $263. If you want you can look at it as getting the two books for free if you buy the music for $0.99 per track.

I have no problem with Columbia monetizing the book and eBook this way. I am just sorry that the record labels do not have a more flexible tiered pricing structure like the film industry does. Regardless of age or even popular awareness, Legends and Legacy tracks on iTunes cost either $0.99 or $1.29 (I have concluded that the $0.69 tracks on iTunes are an urban myth). Even the public domain material like the 123 year-old recording of John Philip Sousa's band performing The Washington Post March will cost you $0.99 on iTunes.

iTunes does offer a cross-section of 35 tracks from 360 Sound for $29.99 (I found nothing similar on Amazon). I could search and cherry pick my own list of 35 tracks for $35.00, though there is value to the package in that it saves you the time spent searching and purchasing individual tracks. To be honest, I would be much more motivated to buy if I could download all 264 tracks for under $50.00. The music is not downloadable as a complete package, but if it were the label would probably demand $200+ for it. Premium pricing only leaves the door open for a single BitTorrent file containing all the tracks to appear for free. I never understood this pricing logic.

A dime-a-track makes more sense to me for material greater than a half-century old and is a price point I once proposed for all paid downloads, even contemporary music. Such a price point allows consumers to explore large swaths of vintage music or collect complete career retrospectives without breaking the bank. Call me silly, but I think this is something that should be encouraged.

No doubt there will be people who will grab the music of 360 Sound through file sharing as they did with Heart of Rock and Soul, though in 2013 there are a few options for the consumer that will give them free access to the full tracks without firing up a file share application. YouTube seems to have all of these tracks, which are monetized through deals the labels cut with Google. I have yet to find any 360 Sound channels on Pandora, whose service pays a princely sum to SoundExchange for each track played, but one could easily appear at some point.

Most of the public domain material is available for free download in your choice of digital codec on Archive.org's 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings section. The link takes you to a single page that lists all of the artists represented alphabetically in a way that makes it easy to pick out specific artists. It is highly recommended for anyone curious about pre-swing era music.

One final thought. Will Mr. Marsh ever extend Legends and Legacy to cover recordings beyond those of Columbia records? He should.

Of course, writers usually have a say in the selection of their own book projects and Marsh may have a few more pressing ideas to get out. It is the opinion of only one person after all. It is also an opinion of proven merit. If we think of the next 50 years, beginning in the year 2000, as part III of the history of recorded music then I would really like to read Marsh's complete vision of parts I and II as we music fans contend with the upcoming half century of recording artists and their output.

Several years back, in his column in the New York Observer, the recently departed film critic Andrew Sarris stated that he had finally begun the process of updating his landmark1969 cinema tome American Cinema, Directors and Directions 1929-1968. This is another book I truly want to read, but does not exist. I don't know if Sarris completed it before his death last June. Maybe he wrote enough that his widow and fellow film critic Molly Haskell can complete and publish it someday. Maybe. I hope it appears.

I also hope Marsh builds upon Legends and Legacy. I am genuinely interested in reading a book that reflects the full scope of his professional passion; one that encompases the period just before to just after the 20th century.

 

 


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