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Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money Paperback – February 1, 2005

2.9 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This short and sweet historical overview of the connection between music, technology (primarily the "playback" function) and the "systematic marketing of recorded music" is the perfect gift for aging boomers who, like Coleman, were caught "completely unawares" by the Internet and related developments such as the MP3 file-sharing format and Napster, which brought MP3 file sharing to the world. Coleman, however, has the advantage of being a rock critic who brings a formidable range of knowledge about his subject. He is as comfortable writing about how pioneers such as Edison and Bell were "blind to the full significance" of their sonic inventions as he is about lesser-known luminaries such as Dr. Paul Goldmark, who invented the "microgroove" LP for CBS. He is also consistently excellent and authoritative on the myriad ways over the decades that the art of making music has shifted away from audio documentation and moved toward "aural creation." While his survey of '60s rock and radio trends will be familiar to any fan of pop music, it provides numerous interesting related observations, such as how the LP "stands as the most enduring cultural legacy bequeathed to baby boomers by their parents." The highlight of the book is its final section, a near-definitive review of recent trends in computer-based listening habits that persuasively argues that "the seductive allure of the MP3 format is all about selection and portability, not thievery and deceit."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"The history of recorded music (all 126 years) is brought together succinctly in Mark Coleman's Playback." -- Goldmine 5/27/05
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (February 2, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306813904
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306813900
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 7.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,247,528 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I picked this up because the subject matter, sound recording, fascinates me. And Coleman's style is wonderfully readable and consistently interesting--believe me, any subject, no matter how interesting one may find it, can be make painfully tedious with bad writing (as I learned trying to read a recent biography of Michael O'Donoghue). However, as entertaining as this book is, I have to question its accuracy, with the howlers that turn up practically on every other page.

Famous DJ Murray "The K" Kaufman's name is misspelled as "Kaufmanns." Four simultaneous Top 10 hits from the "Saturday Night Fever" LP is said to be "equaling the Beatles' British Invasion coup" (in fact, the Beatles held the top five spots on Billboard's Hot 100 on April 4, 1964). And in his discussion of the RCA/CBS "Speed Wars," Coleman seems to have missed, ignored or chose not to explain the entire reason for the "big hole" in the middle of 45 rpm records: it was specifically designed to accommodate RCA's "quick-change" automatic turntable that was supposed, as they were marketed, to make the change from one side to the next virtually seamless and therefore, so they expected the consumer to believe, be a viable alternative to LPs. This seems a strange omission given that his claimed original intention was to detail the history of the turntable. He also manages to mangle the early history of magnetic tape recording in the U.S. (failing to mention John T. Mullen at all!). And these are only the most obvious boners!
Coleman's insights and speculations on the present and future of music transcription and consumption are interesting, to be sure, and, again, his writing is lively and appealing, but, given the questionability surrounding the facts as he presents them, I must therefore question his conclusions as well as the validity of this history as a whole.
But it is a fun read with a good beat and it's good to dance to, so I'll give it a sixty-three, (...)
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Format: Hardcover
I liked this book quite a lot.
It's a small but concise volume, and it offers the reader a good bit of information quite economically. It is also somewhat of a walk down memory lane for technology buffs and people who grew up listening to music in general..in whatever format. It is in some respects a natural history of heard media. Mr. Coleman erects a sturdy platform from which to observe the cluttered landscape of failed and outdated technologies.
His occassionally arch commentary on the actual music that some of these great technological leaps forward produced is amusing and produced more than one audible chuckle. I think that his background as a music reviewer serves him well in this respect. He clearly loves music, and has obviously found himself responding to these new technologies and sounds like all of the rest of us.
In particular, his chapter on the confluence of the Beatles genius and George Martin's technological savvy (Chap. 6- Dreaming in Stereo I think), and the epochal music that emerged from their propitious alliance is brilliant. Absolutely the most clear eyed analysis I've read.
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Format: Paperback
I had to give Playback 2 stars because of what this book purports itself to be and what it actually is. While it does try to stay on task and talk about recorded music technology history, it ends up focusing more on the evolution of popular music itself and it's very light on technology. While the author gives cursory information about how some of the recording media work, it doesn't give any info on how CDs work and that's a huge omission on a book with the mission to be "the first book to place the fascinating history of sound reproduction" within the context of the music it recorded. It spends an inordinate amount of print on hip-hop and rap apparently for the tenuous connection of what format the DJs were scratching with. I also take issue on the editing (or lack thereof). It almost seems like a collection of essays or articles the way it seems to repeat itself and go back and forth in history making the progress of the book constantly backtrack itself and repeat information, sometimes word for word.
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Format: Kindle Edition
There are numerous inaccuracies that undermine the entire book's credibility.

I'll focus on the brief Theramin section just as an example. The author refers to the first Theramin as "portable" -- has he actually seen an original one, or just the 1990s hobbyist versions? Like early household radios, they were designed to be pieces of furniture, not least because a decent sound required a large speaker enclosure. He also describes the instrument as not needing to be played in tune. On the contrary, that is the number one requirement to playing it successfully. Again, I think he is confusing the actual Theramin instrument with the current cheapo devices "played" by hipsters as sound effects. Also, the author repeats the decades-old misstatement that a Theramin is used on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." The recording sessions have been extremely well-researched and documented -- it's easy to fact-check and find out that it was not a Theramin, but a wire-based device invented (and played) by a Dr. Tanner.

The author summarizes the entire 1950s as the era of homogenous Top 40 radio. Actually, Top 40 didn't become ubiquitous till after the Payola scandal of 1959, when the industry needed to take control away from individual DJs. Before then, rock and roll was driven by independent DJs who programmed their own shows and fostered regional hits.

These are just examples. There are enough bad mistakes (regarding who produced the music in Warner Bros. cartoons, when the Moog was first heard on popular records, and more) that the whole book is suspect on a factual basis.

Furthermore, the writing itself is meandering and annoying. He insists on referring to Edison cylinders as "software.
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