Rock Formation: Music, Technology, and Mass Communication

Steve Jones

With its new Foundations of Popular Culture series, Sage is shaking off its long-standing, virtually exclusive association with behavioural communications research and lifelessly designed books. Rock Formation, the third entry in the series, even has a photograph on its cover, and has already turned up in more non-specialist bookstores than is typical for Sage titles. Similar to the volumes which precede it in the series, it is written with sufficient clarity to serve nicely as an upper-level undergraduate textbook. At the same time, as a book that consolidates a good deal of historical research and offers some fresh arguments, it adds to the growing body of literature on popular music written from a communications perspective.

Within popular music studies, there are endless exhortations to get back to the "music itself," to ground any analysis of musical production or reception within an examination of the formal features of the musical text. It is refreshing, in my view, that Jones does no such thing. If musical texts bear the traces of their social circumstances, his book suggests, they do so by registering the forms of creation, collaboration, and technological reproduction on which they depend. Like Jacques Attali, Murray Schafer, and others before him, Jones wishes to reinstate popular music studies within a broader social history of sounds and the technological forms in which they are embedded.

This shift of emphasis is grounded in more than disciplinary prejudice. As the numerous quotations from record producers and musicians reproduced here suggest, the professional language of popular music producers has had less and less to do with notational procedures and increasingly embraced a terminology of attitude and comparison. Studios are constructed to render sounds "raw" or "muddy"; digital samples turn the "Phil Collins snare sound" into a compositional resource. At the same time, the line between the musically authentic and the mechanically reproduced has not been fixed in stone. It has shifted with each successive reordering of the conditions under which musical recording and composition take place.

The lengthiest chapter in Rock Formation recounts the history of sound recording, from Leon Scott's phonautograph (which could record but not playback) through the various digital formats of the last twenty years. This history is pulled from a number of standard sources, but usefully reminds us of the errors of historical fact which have been handed down over several decades. (The long-standing myth that magnetic recording and recording on tape were invented by the Nazis to record Hitler's speeches--or only introduced to North America after World War II--is dismantled through a careful recounting of earlier experiments with tape and wire.)

From here, Jones turns to the significant changes of the last 30 years--changes which took the recording process into the elaborate, multi-track studies of the 1960s and 1970s and then contributed to their obsolescence with the introduction of home-based computer recording technologies over the last decade. Each of these shifts has reshaped drastically the role, prestige, and economic status of the professional musician, studio engineer, and artist /composer. As a musician who has worked on both sides of the control room window, Jones is attentive to minor shifts in the importance and creative input of various occupational or creative roles. The emphasis here is less on changes of musical style and form than on the interaction between new technologies of performance (in particular, the synthesizer) and the sorts of recording arrangements they encourage or require.

Arguments over the relationship between technology and musical value provide the substance of dozens of magazines and thousands of conversations each month, and it is inevitable that a book of 222 pages will leave innumerable questions dangling unexamined. Nevertheless, at a point in the development of popular music studies where the pendulum has swung towards studies of consumption and reception, a book that skilfully maps out long-term changes in the material circumstances of musical production is a welcome and useful resource.



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