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John Philip Sousa Feared ‘The Menace of Mechanical Music’

Wonder what he’d say about Spotify

Sousa around 1915, about a decade after he first decried "mechanical music." (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

John “The March King” Philip Sousa knew a thing or two about popular music. That’s why he foresaw our age of earbuds and the CDs, eight-tracks and records that came before it. And he wasn’t on board for any of it.

In a text titled “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” Sousa, who was born on this day in 1854, let loose on what he saw as the threat. His 1906 essay warns that mechanical music is “sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels” and was becoming a “substitute for human skill, intelligence and soul.” Sousa was referring in this essay to recorded music, but also to mechanical instruments that played themselves–such as the player piano.

Paradoxically, however,a few decades earlier recorded music helped to make Sousa–and the Marine Band he conducted–famous. The Columbia Phonograph Company approached him and his band about making some recordings in the early days of phonographs. “By 1897, more than 400 different titles were available for sale, placing Sousa's marches among the first and most popular pieces ever recorded, and making the Marine Band one of the world's first ‘recording stars,’” writes PBS.

So what was the source of his beef? It was twofold, writes Curtis Roads in the Computer Music Journal. Sousa was concerned that recording would cause “social decline,” he writes, as people stopped making music together. “As a composer of military music, Sousa was concerned that soldiers would be led into battle by machines rather than marching bands,” Roads writes. “He should not have worried.” The military marching band remains an institution.  

In authoring this piece, however, the composer was also looking out for number one. He was concerned about composer’s rights, writes Roads. “In the early 1900s, manufacturers of mechanical instruments paid no royalties for the compositions their machines played, and Sousa’s music was regularly recorded by bands other than his own.”

These concerns helped shape Sousa's polemic. In another passage Sousa lamented the entry of recorded music into places that used to be havens of silence:

There was a time when the pine woods of the north were sacred to summer simplicity, when around the camp fire at night the stories were told and the songs were sung with a charm all their own. But even now the invasion of the north has begun, and the ingenious purveyor of canned music is urging the sportsman, on his way to the silent places with gun and rod, tent and canoe, to take with him some disks, cranks, and cogs to sing to him as he sits by the firelight, a thought as unhappy and incongruous as canned salmon by a trout brook.

While Sousa was probably concerned about the effects of recorded music on the populace at large, it’s also worth considering that the composer and conductor was a businessman. His problem was with the new, relatively uncontrolled world of recorded music, where music-makers and composers were not always fairly compensated for their endlessly replicable work. In 1906, Sousa also testified before Congress on the subject of composers’ rights. That debate in Congress helped shape the Copyright Act of 1909, which helped to protect some rights and shape the modern age of music.

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