Brian Dolan's social and cultural history of the music business in relation to the history of the player piano is a critical chapter in the story of contemporary life. The player piano made the American music industry-and American music itself-modern. For years, Tin Pan Alley composers and performers labored over scores for quick ditties destined for the vaudeville circuit or librettos destined for the Broadway stage. But, the introduction of the player piano in the early 1900s, transformed Tin Pan Alley's guild of composers, performers, and theater owners into a music industry. The player piano, with its perforated music rolls that told the pianos what key to strike, changed musical performance because it made a musical piece standard, repeatable, and easy rather than something laboriously learned. It also created a national audience because the music that was played in New Orleans or Kansas City could also be played in New York or Missoula, as new music (ragtime) and dance (fox-trot) styles crisscrossed the continent along with the player piano's music rolls. By the 1920s, only automobile sales exceeded the amount generated by player pianos and their music rolls. Consigned today to the realm of collectors and technological arcane, the player piano was a moving force in American music and American life.
With remarkable economy, Brian Dolan takes us on a journey into a neglected but important corner of American cultural history, the player piano. Far more than a novelty, this instrument remade the entire piano industry in its image, forming a fascinating link between the Victorian piano-in-the-parlor and the modern era of mechanical reproduction. Dolan analyzes the player piano from a variety of angles, bringing to life the rich, human dimensions of the culture in which it developed and thrived. -- David Suisman, University of Delaware A fun read with some interesting stories. The author writes in an easygoing style and the book can be a quick read. Anyone who owns a player piano will surely want this in his or her collection. -- Steve Ramm Amazon.Com Review, July 1, 2009 The book is an absolutely delightful read that chronicles the author's travels in the West-coast world of player piano connoisseurs, collectors, aficionados, fans, museums of mechanical instruments, and sepia-toned memories as much as it illuminates the history of the invention. Dolan writes with all the fascination of a man in a museum filled with previously unseen masterpieces by his favorite artist. Much of the book gracefully oscillates between an ethnography of modern player piano culture, which roves through the houses of collectors, museums, and the National Association of Music Merchants convention, and a history of the growth, development, and demise of the industry. The descriptions and narratives are spotted with colorful figures, visionaries, and the myriad musicians who were part of player piano culture. While this book may seem from the outset to be a niche book, it is much more than just a quirky book about a side-slice of Americana. It artfully jumps genres, is a consistently smooth read, and presents thoughtful theoretical queries about the history of technology and socio-auditory culture. Southwest Journal Of Cultures Online, Summer Post 2, July 2009 In this fascinating book Brian Dolan shows that the player piano was the iPod of the early twentieth century. The piano rolls-an early form of digital storage-sold in the millions and transformed popular music and Tin Pan Alley paving the way for the arrival of radio, the phonograph, and the juke box. Based on original research and interviews with collectors, Dolan traces the practices of the hidden musicians who made this first form of recordable music and shows how artists likes Fats Waller first learnt their trade listening to the player piano before themselves adopting a unique style suitable to the new medium. This is a book for music lovers and scholars alike. -- Trevor Pinch, Cornell University, co-author of Analog Days: the Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer