Shellac as Musical Plastic

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Shellac was essential to the gramophone industry throughout the first half of the twentieth century, yet the material has long kept a low profile. At once inaudible and urgently required, shellac was a plastic and colonial commodity with wide-ranging applications. Building on recent scholarship that explores its ecological imbrication, this article additionally presents a case for understanding it as a musical thing. First, it shows how lac—the resinous encrustation of the lac insect, and a South Asian technique for preserving things over time—became a global commodity, shellac, aiding the development of sound reproduction. Second, it investigates a scientific bureaucracy promoting the study of the lac insect, which emerged in Indian forests during the 1920s. Third, it tracks how musical demand intensified a system of migrant, indentured, and technical labor involved in processing lac into shellac. In reconstructing shellac’s economic and scientific networks, the article argues that the material was a multiplicity, which entailed both the entangled knowledge systems of its production and a decisive switch: from bodily techniques of production into those of mediated musical listening. Through a focus on shellac, it decenters North American narratives about the development of sound reproduction technology, showing how South Asian knowledge, labor, and environments were profoundly involved, even if they were only rarely acknowledged in mediated musical experiences. Indeed, in an age before synthetic hydrocarbon polymers, shellac fulfilled the role of musical plastic through its inconspicuousness: its capacity to hold and harmonize multiple disc ingredients, while disappearing into the background it supplied.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)463–500
Number of pages37
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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