Audible Struggle: Phonographs, Records, and Musical Manufactures in the United States, 1899-1939

Using a field-theoretic approach to economic sociology, this article provides a revised account of the US record and phonograph industries’ rise and consolidation—and their changing place amidst the manufacturing industries of the broader music business—from 1899 to 1939. Drawing primarily on Census Bureau data, I argue that the development of the industry, including the emergence of a semiautonomous recording industry, is largely explicable via contingent field dynamics (i.e., the struggle among actors within the field), first among the other musical manufactures, and then among phonograph makers themselves. While the industry was dominated by an oligarchy exerting patent control through the First World War, the collapse of this control in the early interwar period (coupled with economic recession) forced a reorganization around product differentiation, especially in disc recordings. Consequently, I also argue that the radio industry, commonly cited as the leading threat to the phonograph and record business’ health in the 1920s, has been overestimated as a threat and, furthermore, that demonstrably suspect data has lent credence to this flawed thesis.