Most of the peaks and valleys in the history of sound-reproducing machines turn up in Playback: Cylinders beget discs, 78s beget LPs, musicians’ panic about the “canned music” of recordings begets labels’ panic about Napster. Journalist Mark Coleman’s semi-chronological narrative is mostly anecdote-driven, and he’s dug up neat factoids about now dead or dying media, like Peter Goldmark’s invention of the microgroove LP in response to his annoyance at hearing a Brahms piano concerto interrupted by side changes. (The parts on contemporary sound technology are much spottier: The creation of the MP3 format gets half a paragraph, and DVD is wrongly described as “playback-only.”)
As a book, though, it’s not quite coherent, and held together by soddenly peppy prose (“Now weird scenes occur inside the record company diamond mine, and the light at the tunnel’s end is distant and getting dimmer by the minute”). Coleman barely addresses the way changes in playback (as opposed to recording) technology have altered the way music is made or heard, and he tends to get sidetracked into stories about the music business that don’t have much to do with his topic, like a passage on Alan Freed, Dick Clark, and the payola scandal of the ’50s. His analysis is questionable, too: According to Playback, the recording format used for early phonographs is “the software, in modern parlance” (no, not exactly), and the iPod is “the ultimate app” (it’s not an application—and that same paragraph claims that it has a “5-gigbyte [sic] hard drive.” Well, it did two years ago). Coleman often seems to be working up to an argument about the relationship between the format and content of recorded sound, but he keeps conflating them; he concludes only that the high-tech revolution has somehow made canned music less canned.