In the recorded-music business, most of the recent headline numbers haven’t been good. Sales are down, layoffs are up. Don’t even ask how many people downloaded the latest Katy Perry album illegally.
But for a project by Columbia Records in celebration of its own big number – 125 years in business – the label decided to take the high road by focusing on the broad historical influence of the company and its artists, including Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holiday and Al Jolson, to name just a few of its giants.
The centerpiece is “360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story,” a book by the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, to be published this week by Chronicle Books. A related exhibition at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles opens Wednesday.
Wilentz met with Columbia executives two years ago, after first being approached by Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen. They wanted a serious assessment by someone outside the industry, at a relatively modest length of 30,000 words.
“They wanted a historian to tell the story of Columbia in the context of American social and cultural history,” Wilentz said recently.
Rob Stringer, the label’s chairman, said that after meeting with Wilentz, he was not worried what kind of book would result. “He was reverential to the label,” Stringer said.
Published at more than 300 pages, “360 Sound” is just long enough to pass breezily through nearly every important chapter of Columbia’s history, while leaving plenty of room for hundreds of archival photos.
The deluxe version of the book also includes “Legends and Legacy,” a flash drive and accompanying book by the critic Dave Marsh with his selection of 263 tracks from Columbia and its affiliated labels, from John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March” (1895) to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” (2011).
In “360 Sound” – the title was taken from a Columbia slogan in the 1960s – Wilentz relishes telling the stories of some of Columbia’s signature artists and the visionary executives behind them. The best known of these is John Hammond, whose run as a talent scout lasted half a century and helped bring the label Holiday, Bessie Smith, Benny Goodman, Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Springsteen and, in blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Keeping in mind the industry’s history of struggles over technology, Wilentz said he was nevertheless reluctant to write Columbia into the grave.
“The recording industry was supposed to have died any number of times,” he said. “It was supposed to die with radio, it was supposed to die with the jukebox, and it never dies. The reason is that they manage to adapt, in technology and in business.”