2015 in Music Bestsellers: Representation at a Cost?

Or: ‘What is punk about hardcover nonfiction?’

As the last few weeks have, perhaps upsettingly, suggested, the most-read form of music writing is probably the obituary.

Close on the list, though, comes the (auto)biography, a form that shares with its short-form, post-mortem cousin a sense of narrative inevitability, a hero’s journey where the ending is known in advance, with the real object the detail logged along the way.

What I’ll call the ‘dad-rock’ biography was a cliché of mid-aughts publishing, with new insider treatments of the Rolling Stones or Metallica appearing around Fathers’ Day and Christmas with the inevitability of James Bond reruns or ‘Carols from King’s’. But 2015 was supposed to be different.

Most roundups of the ‘best music books of the year’ hint at a shift away from the ‘baby-boomer middle class male’ model, with critics identifying new trends taking the lead: autobiography rather than biography; women rather than men; the music industry as a subject rather than individual musicians.

Inspired by Slate’s damning analysis of mass-market history writing, and motivated by the fact that my career very much depends on the way people read about music, I decided to test these ‘best ofs’ against the New York Times Best Seller List (the end-game of commodity literature), to see which critical hypotheses stuck, and whether the Invisible Hand Of The Market’s appetite for white men with guitars has been in any way sated over the last twelve months.

The first hurdle: unlike History, there is no separate best seller list for Music. The data, then, comes from two sources: the ‘Culture’ listings, published monthly, and the general Hardcover Nonfiction, released weekly. The full lists of music books are included at the bottom of this post.

The lack of a music-specific list does allow for a preliminary conclusion, though—people don’t actually read about music that much. On average the Hardcover Nonfiction list is 50% contemporary-political (with right-wing talk-radio diatribes having the most sticking power), and another 25% biographies of Founding Fathers, so anything cultural is competing for a small share of a crowded market. Even on the ‘Culture’ list, music’s representation lags behind literature, theatre, and film, with music books (loosely defined) occupying on average two slots on a table fifteen-long, and peaking in November with four. Attaining any rank as an NYT Best Seller is, of course, a significant achievement, particularly when much political Hardcover Nonfiction is implicated in less-than-savoury bulk-buying practices, skewing the data further away from equivalence with readership. But it is worth noting that music’s ubiquity in everyday life fails to translate into reading habits.

Cover.How Music Got FreeMusical entries in the ‘Culture’ listing maintain a balance of biography, autobiography, and criticism, and with the exception of Philip Glass’s autobiography Words Without Music (Liveright), are devoted exclusively to popular forms. One ‘industry’-themed work breaks through, Stephen Witt’s personal history of CD piracy How Music Got Free (Viking), with Peter Guralnick’s biography of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Little, Brown) approaching industry non-performers through the more traditional biography form.

Male authors are overwhelmingly represented, with thirteen books as opposed to the five by women. Women’s writing is, with the exception of the co-authored Wayfaring Strangers by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr (UNC Press), entirely autobiographical, affirming a point in Slate’s analysis: consumers are more inclined to trust/permit women to write their own stories, rather than to take on the mantle of neutral ‘historian’. Whiteness, too, remains the paradigm, with ballerina Misty Copeland’s autobiography Life in Motion (Touchstone) the only single-author book on the list by a Black author (and only tangentially a ‘music’ book), and Duke (Gotham/Penguin) and The Rap Yearbook (Abrams) offering the only writing on Black music to feature.

There are, however, discrepancies between the monthly Culture and weekly Nonfiction lists, in part owing to data collection: some books may sell well for a week, but be overtaken by slower and steadier sellers and so not make the monthly roundup. The biggest discrepancy, though, cannot be accounted for by a failure of methodology: nearly 85% of the entries are books by women.

Kim_Gordon_-_Girl_in_a_Band

Specifically, 2015 was a bizarrely good year for the female (post)punk autobiography. Perhaps heralded by the success of Viv Albertine’s 2014 Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys (Faber & Faber: 2014), 2015 saw two outstanding publishing hits: Girl in a Band, by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth (Dey Street/Morrow) and M Train by Patti Smith (Knopf), which occupied five and ten weeks respectively on the main Hardcover list. Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Riverhead) rounds off the post-punk edge of the trend for a week, and Sara Barielles, Carly Simon, and Grace Jones all feature for one to three weeks each. Only Elvis Costello stands to wave the dad-rock flag, alone.

Six women to one man is not the ratio we are used to seeing on best seller lists—not in nonfiction, and especially not in music. But while increased representation must be applauded, it is hard to be entirely optimistic. The bizarrely specific success of the post-punk women’s autobiography points to a trend in publishing as much as it does in readership: more of these books are being sold because more are being commissioned. A victory for a certain kind of feminism: women’s stories are now seen as being worth exploiting. (This trend might also reflect a common idea in publisher-logic, that women authors equate to women readers.) As in History, women are still only trusted to tell their own stories, compelled by the limits of the autobiography form to keep their observations specific, and geared toward the past.

That the highest sellers had their musical peak in the late twentieth century begs another question: why is there an insistance on reading and writing about music only after it’s been thoroughly denatured? 2015’s wave of punk books makes little sense as a continuation of the punk project. (What says ‘anti-establishment’ like hardcover nonfiction?) Uncharitably: are these books merely the dregs of an already commodified art form, repackaged and sold for nostalgia like-new? Is it only the assumption of an ageing demographic that keeps music criticism so far away from engaging with the musical vitality of the present, with all its political demands?

The move away from the gendered dad-rock paradigm, begun in 2015, is a promising start for a new wave of music writing. But until the problems posed by the hegemony of the (auto)biography and the conservative demands of commercial publishing are confronted, the obituary might be all we have.


New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction, Jan-Dec 2015

March 15
2. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

March 22
2. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

March 29
8. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

April 5
9. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

April 12
18. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

April 26
15. WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC, by Philip Glass. (Liveright.)

October 18
9. I’LL NEVER WRITE MY MEMOIRS,by Grace Jones as told to Paul Morley. (Gallery Books.)

October 25
3. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.
13. SOUNDS LIKE ME, by Sara Bareilles.
14. FORTUNATE SON, by John Fogerty with Jimmy McDonough. (Little, Brown.)

November 1
4. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)
9. UNFAITHFUL MUSIC AND DISAPPEARING INK, by Elvis Costello. (Blue Rider.)
15. FORTUNATE SON, by John Fogerty with Jimmy McDonough. (Little, Brown.)
17.SOUNDS LIKE ME, by Sara Bareilles (Simon & Schuster)

November 8
5. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)
7. UNFAITHFUL MUSIC AND DISAPPEARING INK, by Elvis Costello. (Blue Rider.)

November 15
11. HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL, by Carrie Brownstein. (Riverhead.)
14. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

November 22
20. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

November 29
15. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

December 06
7. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

December 13
9. BOYS IN THE TREES, by Carly Simon. (Flatiron.)
18. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

December 20
7. BOYS IN THE TREES, by Carly Simon. (Flatiron.)
20. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

December 27
11. BOYS IN THE TREES, by Carly Simon. (Flatiron.)
20. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

New York Times ‘Culture’, Jan-Dec 2015

January
2. THE BEATLES LYRICS, by Hunter Davies. (Little, Brown.)
15. Wayfaring Strangers (Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr (University of North Carolina Press.)

February
14. PUNK ROCK BLITZKRIEG, by Marky Ramone with Rich Herschlag (Touchstone.)

March
2. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

April

May
5. WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC, by Philip Glass. (Liveright.)
6. JOHN LENNON, by Philip Norman. (HarperCollins.) (FIRST PUB. 2008)

June
8. DUKE, by Terry Teachout. (Gotham/Penguin.)
13. WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC, by Philip Glass. (Liveright.)

July

August
7. LIFE IN MOTION, by Misty Copeland. (Touchstone.)
15. HOW MUSIC GOT FREE, by Stephen Witt (Viking.)

September
7. DYLAN GOES ELECTRIC!, by Elijah Wald. (HarperCollins.)

October

November
1. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)
4.THE RAP YEAR BOOK, by Shea Serrano and Arturo Torres. (Abrams.)
7. RAZZLE DAZZLE, by Michael Riedel. (Simon & Schuster.)
8. THE SONG MACHINE, by John Seabrook. (Norton.)

December
7. THE RAP YEAR BOOK, by Shea Serrano and Arturo Torres. (Abrams.)
8. BOB DYLAN: ALL THE SONGS, by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon. (Hachette Books.)
9. SAM PHILLIPS, by Peter Guralnick. (Little, Brown.)

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