Karl Hagstrom Miller (University of Texas at Austin) delivered the 2013 Chandler Lecture in Southern Business History on Saturday, February 9, at the FedEx Global Center, on the UNC campus. The lecture, “A Talking Machine World: Dreaming about the Future of Music at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century,” was the keynote address of the Global American South conference, "Southern Sounds/Out of Bounds: Music in the Global American South."
In the early twentieth century, a novel, disruptive technology revolutionized the business and culture of music. Controlled by a handful of transnational corporations, phonograph records collapsed space and time. One could fill a parlor with sounds from around the globe. One could hear the voices of the dead. At the time, of course, nobody knew how fundamentally recording technology would alter the ways music would be conceived, sold, and used in people’s everyday lives. Ignorance did not stop speculation.
This presentation explores the visions of a musical future that emerged out of the fledgling phonograph industry in the first decades of the twentieth century. It focuses on the writings of a particularly prescient, though largely forgotten, prognosticator named Howard Taylor Middleton. For over a decade, the musician and business journalist wrote a regular column for the chief trade publication of the phonograph industry. Middleton, each month, would imagine new markets for the talking machine. He would dream up new places ripe for expansion, untapped groups of consumers, or new ways of marketing well-known genres. Some of his ideas were pure fantasy. Others were trapped within contemporary racial and gender stereotypes. Many of his predictions, however, were right on target. He urged dealers to court African American consumers almost a decade before the race record craze. He touted the popularity of old-time tunes among rural consumers even earlier. And he understood the implications of musical globalization before almost anyone else. Examining Middleton’s ideas about the future within his own time we can develop a richer understanding of the role of business in musical history, of the ways in which music across the globe and the US South influenced American music making, and of promise and perils of looking to the past to think about the future.
Karl Hagstrom Miller is an associate professor of history and American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of the award-winning Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow. He is currently writing a book on the history of amateur pop musicians in the United States.