Sunday, November 2, 2008

Buying In and the selling of St. James Infirmary

When Irving Mills gained ownership of "St. James Infirmary" he did everything he could to make it a success. Mills did not expect the song to be more than a novelty hit with a short shelf life, so he saturated the airwaves with it - he wanted to make sure it was heard again and again, so that the song became familiar to as many people as possible. Of course, in the days before television and the Internet, media saturation meant something other than it does now. In the late 1920s radio was immensely popular (although it had been introduced to the general public only a few years earlier); live shows were broadcast from dance halls across the nation. Most households owned a wind-up Victrola or similar record player. (In 1929, the year OKeh released Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary" the Victor Company alone sold 35 million records in the U.S., which had a population of 120 million.) Dance was a major pastime, and dance-halls dotted the landscape.

Mills covered as many bases as he could. He gave orchestra scores to dance bands, free records to radio stations, discounted sheet music to newsstands. Bands he managed released versions of "St. James Infirmary" for both the premium record labels and the budget record labels, so whatever their income level there was probably a version of the song in the buyer's price range. And as you can see in an earlier entry on this blog, newspaper advertisements sometimes made no reference at all to the music, but instead hinted that cool dudes owned this record.

I found myself musing again and again about the selling of SJI when I read Rob Walker's recent book "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are." Song publicists in the 1920s were a creative bunch, often devising unusual ways of popularizing a product and could, "by all the arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, mayhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has" see to it that the music was heard. While Mills was well ahead of his time in terms of advertising know-how and moxy, he hardly held a candle to the bright lights of today's advertising business.

Rob Walker is, of course, responsible for the remarkable NOnotes website, the best resource for SJI-related material on the web. He is also an authority on consumerism - by which I mean the means whereby we are convinced of the seeming advantage (or necessity) of owning a particular product, taking a particular point of view - and writes a regular column for the New York Times Magazine. I'm an occasional reader of his Murketing blog, where his musings are sometimes nothing short of brilliant.

We think of ourselves as a pretty sophisticated bunch these days. We're savvy to advertising tricks, immune to their various arts of persuasion. I thought of myself this way. Until, that is, I read Buying In. Cultural artifacts like, well, like "St. James Infirmary" should come to us of their own accord, because something about them resonates with our essential selves or with the spirit of the times. "St. James Infirmary" survived, I think, despite the efforts of Irving Mills. These days, though, one can be excused for wondering how much of what we buy into has any real weight outside that of the pen signing the advertising contract. It's good to be aware. This is a good book to read.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI