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AMERICAN POPULAR MUSIC AMERICAN MEDIA SMST215 Roots of Rock’n’Roll American rock music (1950's +) is a hybrid form descended from earlier American musical traditions: BLUES – music from Afro-American communities, usually of rural south.

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Roots of Rock’n’Roll

  • American rock music (1950's +) is a hybrid form descended from earlier American musical traditions:

  • BLUES – music from Afro-American communities, usually of rural south.

  • Music – guitar and vocals, narrative, rhythmic, repetitive structures.

  • Key Sites – Memphis: Chicago

  • JAZZ – fusion of various musical traditions within black urban communities – increasing crossover with white audiences. Popular appeal, but also avant-garde/high culture interest.

  • Music – rhythm, improvisation, virtuosity.

  • Key Sites – New Orleans: New York

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Roots of Rock’n’Roll

  • GOSPEL – black religious music of Southern US.

  • Music – dynamic rhythmic structures, vocal harmonies.

  • COUNTRY/BLUEGRASS – music style of rural white audiences, predominantly south and southwest.

  • Music – guitar and vocals, narrative.

  • Key Site: Nashville

  • POP– popular music in urban centres. Identified with composer rather than performer.

  • Associated with other entertainment forms e.g. Broadway shows, movie soundtracks.

  • Music – melodic, rhythmic, arranged.

  • Key site: Tin Pan Alley, NYC

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History of US Popular Music




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19th century

  • 1877 – Thomas Edison invents phonograph. Fragile wax/foil cylinders.

  • 1882 – Emile Berliner develops gramophone that plays 78 rpm 'discs'.

  • Became home entertainment phenomenon e.g. 'Victrola'.

  • Rise of recording industry. - First labels e.g. RCA.

  • 1894 – Billboard magazine founded.

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Early 20th century

  • Music industry based upon sheet music sales, predominantly of Tin Pan Alley tunes.

  • Leading composers – George Gershwin, Irving Berlin.

  • Other popular genres – Ragtime (Scott Joplin), marches (John Phillip Sousa).

  • Tin Pan Alley companies formed first musical licensing company – ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers). Determined sales of sheet music, recording fees, performance and broadcasting etc.

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  • 1920's – 'the jazz age' – cultural trends defined in terms of 'new music'.

  • Recording industry – records enabled diffusion of different musical genres to diverse audiences across America, inspiring cross-musical styles.

  • Introduction of electric guitar amongst southern blues musicians.

  • Popularity of music/radio during the Great Depression.

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  • Music and radio. National and regional radio stations at peak of popularity (NBC, CBS). Music formed large amount of content – live broadcasts to avoid paying copyrights for record play.

  • Mid 1920's - On air music led to decline in record sales. Record companies began to sell records by emphasising performers rather than composers.

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  • WWII – 'big band sound' – white orchestras popularising jazz-influenced dance music.

  • Rise of singers who pre-empted 'star' status of rock'n'roll stars e.g Frank Sinatra

  • Radio broadcasters formed BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) company to challenge ASCAP autonomy over airwaves. BMI got licensing rights to labels releasing black/hillbilly music as ASCAP not interested.

  • Small independent radio stations catering to regional audiences and more specialized tastes.

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  • 1947 – introduction of magnetic tape for cheaper music recording/reproduction.

  • 1948 – RCA & CBS develop new vinyl formats – 12” 33rpm & 7” 45rpm.

  • 45 singles designed for radio play. 33 albums for classical/show music.

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  • Start of decade – charts segregated along racial/cultural lines.

  • - Pop charts – white, urban audiences

  • - Country & Western – white rural and provincial audiences

  • - Rhythm & Blues – black urban and rural audiences.

  • Early 1950's – electric guitar popularised as staple musical instrument e.g. Les Paul

  • Also: electric amplification, recording studios as instruments, sound effects e.g. reverb

  • 1952 – RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) established

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Major social developments that led to rise of rock’n’roll :

  • post-war consumer society

  • teenagers identified as distinct social group and consumer demographic

  • changing social values – white teenagers reacting against social conservatism attracted to black sounds. Early counterculture movements e.g. The Beats.

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1954 – 1956 Rock’n’roll arrives rock’n’roll :

  • 1954 – R&B charts filled with early rock'n'roll hits – e.g. 'Rock Around the Clock'

  • 1954 – producer Sam Phillips at Sun Studios, Memphis, discovers and markets Elvis Presley as 'white boy with the black sound” - crossover appeal to white audiences.

  • 1956 – R&R crossover onto pop charts

  • Key early 1950's R&R artists – Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley

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1950’s rock’n’roll :

  • Importance of regional independent radio stations in promoting R&R.

  • e.g. DJ Alan Freed in Cleveland.

  • Development of top 40 music radio – high rotation, importance of DJ's and station program managers to create hits, 45 singles over sheet music

  • ASCAP and major labels had rejected R&R as inferior music – indie labels specialising in R&R successful (e.g. Sun)

  • Music establishment reactions to 'threat' of R&R:

  • teen idols – bland white performers doing R&B material

  • e.g. Pat Boone

  • payola scandals in radio industry – money for hits

  • mainstream labels bought into R&R and commodified it for mass audiences e.g Elvis signs with RCA

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1960’s rock’n’roll :

  • Early 1960's – rise of producer as star e.g. Phil Spector, Brian Wilson

  • 1964 – 'British invasion' – English R&R bands revitalised jaded US music scene e.g. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who

  • Introduction of eight-track cartridge player machines – early portable media. Superseded by smaller/more convenient cassette tapes in 1970’s.

  • Late 1960’s – rise of FM or ‘progressive’ radio stations, often all-music stations, specialising in playing whole albums rather than singles.

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1960’s counterculture rock’n’roll :

  • Mid-late 60's – rise of the 'counterculture' – drugs, free love, protest movements.

  • Developments in R&R forms mirrored cultural experimentation

  • e.g. new genres – psychedelia, funk, prog rock

  • R&R as art - emphasis on 33 albums as artistic statements over 'pop' singles.

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1960’s counterculture rock’n’roll :

  • 1967 – Rolling Stone magazine founded.

  • 1968 – Woodstock festival – height of hippy/rock cultures

  • 1969 – murder in crowd during Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California – ‘end of the sixties’

  • Key 1960's US artists – Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground, James Brown

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1970’s rock’n’roll :

  • Breakdown of 60’s counterculture. Beginning of process by which rock began to fragment into different genres appealing to different niche audiences.

  • Corporate takeovers of 60’s indie labels – major labels with smaller labels targeting specific market groups e.g. Warner Bros & Elektra records (folk label).

  • Corporate marketing/promotional techniques became commonplace for record releases e.g. Festivals metamorphose into ‘stadium rock’ events.

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1970’s – ‘rock’ and ‘pop’ rock’n’roll :

  • Legacy of 1960’s – distinction between ‘rock’ and ‘pop’

  • Rock – authentic, original, emphasis on musical prowess and lyrical content, for adult audiences.

  • Pop – manufactured, ephemeral, trend-driven, emphasis on performers not music, for juvenile audiences.


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1970’s rock’n’roll :

  • Digital recording and digital instruments developed.

  • New genres:

    - Disco – urban music, associated with gay/black audiences

    - Punk – reaction against corporate rock and social conservatism – attempt to update traditional R&R spirit to 1970’s. (American or English?)

    - 1979 – first rap records and label (Sugarhill records) released.

  • Major 1970’s US artists include: Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones, Kiss, The Bee Gees

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1980’s rock’n’roll :

  • Early 1980’s – popularity of new listening media e.g. Sony Walkmans, ghetto blasters

  • Synthesis between new digital music technologies and urban subcultures led to establishment of major new genres – e.g.rap & hip-hop, house, electronica.

  • Industry issues raised over sampling/home taping.

  • Early 1980’s – revival of indie labels as a legacy of punk/post-punk ethos. Increasing cross-over between indies and majors.

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1980’s rock’n’roll :

  • 1981 – MTV started – rise of music video as crucial part of modern rock industry

  • 1982 – introduction of CD formats into American market.

  • 1985 – PMRC (Parents Music Resource Centre) formed to regulate music for offensive content – RIAA form industry regulations regarding musical content.

  • 1985 – Live Aid concerts – rock as global entertainment/charity event.

  • Major 80’s US artists include: Michael Jackson, Madonna, REM , Guns’n’Roses, Prince, Public Enemy

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1990’s rock’n’roll :

  • Early1990’s – CDs established as dominant consumer format.

  • New genres – e.g. grunge, riot grrl, nu metal

  • Labels/record companies merged or subsumed into larger media corporations – increasing homogenization of sounds and ‘blockbuster’ mentality applied to record releases

  • Major 90’s US artists include: Nirvana, Alanis Morrisette, Green Day, Tupac Shakur

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2000’s rock’n’roll :

  • 2000 – Napster internet download/file-sharing service launched – threat to existing musical formats and record company profits from internet.

  • Digital listening media becoming more popular e.g. Ipods.

  • 2003 – October – All artists in official American Billboard top 10 are black, performing in contemporary rap/R&B genres.

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American Music Industry 2006 rock’n’roll :

  • The American (and global) music industry in 2006 is characterised by:

  • cross-subsidisation of losses by a few highly popular artists (over-production)

  • marketing as largest slice of production budgets

  • ancillary or secondary markets increasingly important (e.g. movie soundtracks)

  • Oligopoly of four major global companies, owning both ‘major’ and ‘independent’ labels

  • Continuing domination from Anglo-American source (with competition from Asia and Europe)

  • New forms of production and distribution (e.g. downloading, bootlegging)

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Key Elements of US music industry rock’n’roll :

  • Talent

  • Groups and performers. Regional/city based scenes form talent pool for indie/major labels.

  • Recording studios

  • Access to cheap/good quality analogue or digital recording equipment.

  • Record companies & labels

  • Major gatekeepers of popular music – choose who to sign/promote.

  • Different labels often sub-companies of major media conglomerates

  • e.g. Warners, Elektra, Sire, Atlantic – all owned by Time-Warner

  • Promotion via radio & music videos.

  • Indie labels as response to above.

  • Distribution

  • Specialised music stores or 'big box' stores amongst other products.

  • Internet downloading/file-sharing increasingly popular.

  • Promotion/Publicity

  • touring/festivals

  • music videos

  • TV appearances e.g. late-nite talk shows

  • magazines/newspaper articles