Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Race and Technology: Okeh Records

Mamie Smith
I've just been poking through William Kenney's Recorded Music in American Life, and came upon a really amazing little tidbit.  Apparently Okeh records, which would go on to be early and vital popularizers of African-American music, were initially successful not because of their content - which at least in the early days Kenney characterizes as "uninspired" - but because of their technology.  The founder of the company pioneered a pressing process that allowed Okeh's records to be played on any turntable, whereas most companies at the time pressed in proprietary formats linked to phonographs that they also produced.  This was particularly important to the story of black music, because the Victor and Columbia companies, which held controlling intellectual property in the dominant lateral-cut pressing system, did not record black musicians due to supposed risks to the companies' respectability.

Okeh would go on, after the initial success bolstered by their technological leapfrogging of these barriers, to aggressively open markets in first Northern, then Southern black communities.  This began with Mamie Smith, but would culminate artistically with the recording of Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens, which remain to this day one of the definitive statements of American musical culture.  This art might not exist today if not for the technological and structural paths of recorded sound development.

McLuhan would be delighted.

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