Reviews and honors



A Choice‘s “Outstanding Academic Titles of 2009”

Winner of the Hagley Prize in Business History – The prize committee said, “Selling Sounds is an important book that intertwines the history of business and culture in remarkable way.”

Winner of the DeSantis Prize of the Society of Historians of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era

Honorable mention, 2010 Woody Guthrie Prize, International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM), U.S. branch. – The chair of the prize committe described the book as  “an original rethinking of the advent of recording and the establishment of the industry that argues convincingly that the recording industry is historically at the heart of the cultural industry and which establishes the beginnings of the permeation of everyday life with music,”

Awarded a Certificate of Merit for the Best Historical Research in General Sound Recording by the Association of Recorded Sound Collections



“Virgin’s music emporium will soon become a thing of the past: Like so many other retail music stores of late, it has announced that it is going out of business. The story of Selling Sounds, then, is especially timely.” — Ken Emerson, Wall Street Journal

“The music industry was a dirty business long ago, as David Suisman explains in ‘Selling Sounds,’ his meticulously researched history of its early days.” — Mark Athitakis, Washington Post (and Athitakis ranked Selling Sounds third in his Top 10 books of 2009)

“With Selling Sounds, David Suisman kicks the legs out from the romantic account of the music industry’s innocent start and slow move to commercial heartlessness…. Past as prologue is nothing new, but… Suisman…contextualize[s] developments in music production, sales and consumption in ways that can teach us about the seismic shifts defining the current world of pop and how it’s being bought and sold (or ripped, as the case may be).” — J. Gabriel Boylan, The Nation

[A] marvelous [reappraisal] of early 20th century American musical culture.” – Hua Hsu,

“[It’s a] fascinating narrative that David Suisman unfurls…Here you learn everything from how the work of creating the songs is distributed to the various sales techniques employed by song pluggers (basically, the salesmen of music publishing), including the use of slides to add a visual component to the song. While there are numerous accounts of the position of so-called song pluggers in the development of popular music in the first decades of the 20th century, one rarely encounters a description that so accurately and compellingly details the quotidian life of these remarkable salesmen and the ways in which they learned to compete while peacefully coexisting…This [is a] really wonderful book. It warrants repeated readings and deep consideration. It is full of surprising revelations and some truly hilarious anecdotes. Well-researched and beautifully documented, replete with beautiful illustrations and photographs, this book belongs on the shelf of any reader serious about popular music and the music industry and given the impact of that industry on our daily lives, that really ought to be all of us.” — Chadwick Jenkins,

“The music industry was a dirty business long ago, as David Suisman explains in ‘Selling Sounds,’ his meticulously researched history of its early days.” — Mark Athitakis, Washington Post (and ranked 3rd in Athitakis’s Top 10 books of 2009, published in the Washington City Paper)”A fascinating, well-written, richly detailed story of how music became a commodity in America…[Suisman’s] scholarship is amazingly wide-ranging.” — William F. Gavin, Washington Times

“Inventors ran wild during the years bracketing the turn of the 20th century, creating technology that repeatedly transformed the ways people heard and consumed music. It happened again a hundred years later, which makes David Suisman’s lucid account of the emergence and consolidation of the music industry particularly welcome.” — Grant Alden, Wilson Quarterly

“Though the story Suisman tells is a broadly familiar one, he has assembled valuable reminders of something many would rather ignore; namely, the extent to which the music we hear, and how we hear it, has less to do with our personal preferences than with what a large, well-organized sector of business makes available to us. Most listeners–and, I’d wager, artists–would surely prefer to see their musical experiences as a respite from capitalism, not a function of it. Still, it would be hard to deny that phenomena from the selling of youth culture back to itself in the form of rock and roll to the rise of ringtones as a tiny, publicly audible lifestyle indicator (and a fresh income stream) are rooted in structures and processes whose origins Suisman describes. — Franklin Bruno, Los Angeles Times blog

“Essential reading for anyone interested in music history.” — musician-producer-musicologist-historian Ned Sublette

“Suisman . . . tell[s] an alluring story.” — George Anders,

“Detailed and entertaining. . . Every page held a new discovery for me. . . Selling Sounds is a profound and fascinating book, not just for academics but for anyone with ears.” – Ed Park, The Millions

“A fascinating new book about the formative history of the American music business.” — Matt Miller, The Deal Magazine

“David Suisman’s Selling Sounds (Harvard University Press) accurately and with remarkable insight traces the rise of the modern music industry at a time when it is at its downfall in ways unexpected. The book is ever so relevant, as we discover not only how and why the industry took shape, but also comprehend the misshapen condition it is now experiencing. With a scholar’s eye, Selling Sounds moves with the grace of a good storyteller’s ear for aural culture in America. Replete with solid research on everything from Tin Pan Alley song pushers to Supreme Court rulings that defined music in ways that both preserved the artist’s rights as well as dismantled the oral process of folk music, this text provides us with all of the paradoxes that come with popularity or, rather, commercialization.” — Martin Jack Rosenblum, Milwaukee Express

“Elegantly composed, deftly researched….While most histories of sound recording have centered on technological ‘evolution,’ David Suisman’s Selling Sounds shows how the music industry taught Americans to understand recorded music as a commodity. Concerned largely with the first three decades of the 20th century, he traces the emergence of standardized marketing and distribution strategies — from the star system to the décor of record stores — that lasted long into the century, as well as the struggle of copyright law to keep up with new versions of the commodity form. Indeed, despite its focus on the early 20th century, the story Suisman is telling is that of the formation of the musical landscape in which most of today’s adults grew up, a realm which has only recently been upended by the digitalization of music’s consumption. His writing is theoretically astute, but it’s the deep texture with which he presents formative chapters in this story that makes this book so enjoyable to read.” — Gustavus Stadler, Social Text

“In his marvelous book Selling Sounds[,] Suisman examines a series of shifts in the production and consumption of music around the turn of the century . . . . Each of Suisman’s chapters is meticulous, self-contained, and gracefully composed. His work on Black Swan Records, the first major black-owned record company, is particularly absorbing as a sort of shadow narrative running parallel to Victor, Caruso, and Tin Pan Alley, and the rival endeavors that would forge an easier path toward mass acceptance. Taken together, a narrative emerges, not just about these momentous changes in industry and technology, but about the very nature of how we define culture.” — Hua Hsu, American Quarterly

“This is easily the most thorough, systematic, and well-researched book available on the initial industrialization of the music business…. The importance of Tin Pan Alley song plugging, the innovative marketing campaigns behind the Victor Talking Machine Company’s domination of the phonograph industry, the glorious rise and tragic fall of the Black Swan label—these basic stories are familiar. Yet rarely have they been more than brief anecdotes endlessly repeated to the point where it is impossible to separate myth from fact. Suisman dedicates long chapters to each, resulting in both confirmation and revelation…. [He] has done unprecedented archival and analytical work here… [and] helps lift the study of the early American music industry beyond a recitation of uncontestable anecdotes into the realm of historical and historiographical debate. I suspect this text will inspire exciting studies questioning or extending its analysis.” — Karl Hagstrom Miller, American Historical Review

“This is highly recommended reading.” — Maria Hanáček, Popular Music

“This fascinating and important new book traces the origins of the modern ‘music industry,’ from the first glimmerings of organized song selling in New York in the 1880s through the technological revolution of the 1920s, which saw radio, talking pictures, and recordings combine to create one of the most formidable marketing machines of modern times. It is not the usual narrative history (or ‘parade of facts’) with which we have become familiar, but rather an analysis of the business side of the industry and the sociological impact it had. . . . The book looks at the emerging recording industry, and the larger music industry, in a fresh, insightful and interconnected way. . . . Selling Sounds is an important addition to our understanding of the emergence of this most American of industries, and it is well worth reading, studying, and talking about.” — Tim Brooks, ARSC Journal

“I am greatly relieved that Dr. Suisman . . . resists a purely chronological, fact-based approach to this fascinating, complicated, important topic. Instead Suisman . . . embraces a wide range and variety of topics, ranging from player-pianos to Tin Pan Alley to the ever-changing nature of the music industry. Selling Sounds also takes a refreshingly inter-disciplinary approach as the author draws upon the writings and documents produced by attorneys (copyright laws), music historians (Enrico Caruso), and contemporary cultural critics (the internet). . . . The virtues of Selling Sounds are numerous: clarity of writing, a multi-faceted approach to the subject, smart arguments, and depth of research. . . . Selling Sounds remains an important, multi-layered book that holds great appeal to American music scholars with lowbrow to highbrow interests that extend from Reconstruction to the present day.” — Kip Lornell, Bulletin of the Society for American Music

Selling Sounds is a substantial contribution to the study of American popular music, and the commercial production of culture in general, that urges scholars to consider more fully the means of production as a diverse and contentious social and political process. Suisman’s text not only provides a more thorough understanding of commercial music’s formative years; his analysis also provides an understanding of how these early business practices continue to affect our listening experiences…. Suisman’s study is a major achievement for the study of American popular music.” — Scott A. Carter, Notes

“Ambitious and successful… It is fascinating material. [Selling Sounds is] as entertaining as [it is] educational.” — Frank H. Wu, Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors

“We are so surrounded by music as product that we take for granted the notion that music is commodified, and forget that the thing we buy and sell as ‘popular music’ hasn’t always existed.  But the rise of music as a business in the early twentieth century, when it became a mass phenomenon, was paradoxically accompanied by a centralization of the music industry.  Suisman deftly unpacks the paradox.  He’s a passionate music lover with a sure command of 20th century musical culture, and the illustrations are whimsical and surprising.  It’s the best sort of cultural history, where we fish are shown the water we swim in.” — John Eklund, The Front Table: The Web Magazine of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores

“This book is music to my ears—a much needed history of the rise of the commercial music industry in the first decades of the twentieth century. Deeply researched, smartly argued, and engagingly written, Selling Sounds will sweep you off your feet.” — Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University, author of A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America

Selling Sounds masterfully charts the rise of the modern music industry in all its commercial complexity. As engaging as the new popular music Suisman describes, his account deserves an audience as wide as that music enjoyed.” — Emily Thompson, Princeton University, author of The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933

“Ranging from Tin Pan Alley song pluggers to Supreme Court decisions on copyright, from Caruso’s Victor Red Seal records to Black Swan, the first major black-owned record company, David Suisman’s Selling Sounds is a marvelous cultural history of the ways the music industry retuned the soundscape of modern times in the United States.” — Michael Denning, Yale University, author of The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century

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