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A Brief History of Music Publishing and Recording in America
By Jerry Flattum - 03/15/2006 - 09:12 AM EST

The history of music publishing and recording in America is a history of American music, from religious songs to military marches, from Stephen Foster to Tin Pan Alley, from Broadway to New Age. Success for a publisher and/or record label is primarily based on the number of popular songs and instrumental works contained in its catalog. But it’s really more than quantity. Success is based on the number of “hit” songs in a catalog.

A song is considered a "hit" when it reaches the top of the music charts. Since the 1800s, music trade publications, radio shows and TV shows have tracked the popularity of music by measuring sales of sheet music (single works and collections), recorded music, airplay and live performance.

Historically and today, Billboard Magazine--considered the "bible of the music industry"--is the dominant tracking service for popular music. Published music does not experience the same level of success in the New Millennium as it once did through the turn of the 19th century. Recordings eventually became the dominant form of music distribution.

In 1640, The Whole Book of Psalms was the first book printed in the North American British Colonies and was also responsible for launching the music publishing business. Classical and religious music remained the staple of music publishing up until the 1880s. One of the first "popular" music publishers was T.B. Harms. T.B. Harms started out as a songwriter.

At the time, songwriters were also called "songpluggers," a term that still carries some merit today. Instead of waiting for the market to come to the publisher, the publisher would use songpluggers to take songs to the market. Other publishers started out as performers. For instance, Paul Dresser, at 16, started out as a “blackface” performer, later becoming a dominant songwriter and prominent publisher.

A “blackface” performer was a white performer pretending to be black, largely due to prejudice against Afro-Americans.

M. Witmark and Sons, started out as teenage songwriters and performers, operating a small printing press out of their home. Witmark and his sons were the first to capitalize on a popular current event--President Cleveland’s wedding--as the subject for a song. Witmark was also the first of many publishers to set up operations in New York City's Union Square.

New York was considered the entertainment capital of America, a billing now shared by Los Angeles and Nashville. Las Vegas also lays claim to being an entertainment capital, but it is more known for performance than publishing and recording. Union Square had Tony Pastor’s Music Hall (vaudeville), Dewey Theater (burlesque), Academy of Music (opera), Alhambra Theater (extravaganzas), and many other brothels, music halls, and penny arcades. These venues served as the launching pads for many songs that still remain popular in the 21st century.

Songwriter Charles K. Harris’s first song was published by Witmark. Later Harris opened up his own publishing house in Milwaukee. He earned his living singing and playing the banjo. Harris wrote songs made to order and in 1892, wrote “After the Ball,” the first song to sell several million copies of sheet music. Other publishers making the exodus to Union Square included Jerome H. Remick, Shapiro & Bernstein, Joseph W. Stern, Leo Feist, and Edward B. Marks. All of these publishers started out as songpluggers. They hustled night spots and other venues with the hopes of getting popular singers to sing their songs.

A songplugger's main job was to place songs with performers. Songpluggers were aggressive and influential, singing to passing crowds, going to department stores and sports events, and just about anywhere they could find an audience. Sentimental ballads were the largest sellers, with home, family, mother and virginity as the most popular fodder for lyrics. Prior to recorded music, it was the family that sat around a piano singing songs--the greatest single market for sheet music.

Songs kept pouring in and hits kept pouring out as the song publishing business began to flourish through the 1900s. Publishers discovered formulas for writing songs. Irish songs, comedy tunes, dialect songs, “coon” songs, and “Cakewalk,” all became quite popular in vaudeville. The term “coon” was another derogatory reference to black people and such songs were largely performed by “blackface” performers. At the time, blacks were also called “darkies.” Cakewalk was a style of dance (not unlike Michael Jackson’s famous “moonwalk” dance).

“Happy Birthday to You” made its appearance in the 1890s, but not through sale of sheet music or normal song plugging methods. It was written by Patty and Mildred J. Hill, a couple of Kindergarten teachers. Despite its popularity, the authors earned very little and still remain unknown in the annals of songwriting history.

Royalties were unheard of at the turn of the 19th century, and even Stephen Foster—one of America’s earliest and greatest songwriters--is known to have died penniless. Stephen Foster wrote many “coon” songs and love songs, but it well known for "I Dream of Jeanie," "Swanee River," Oh! Susannah," and “Camptown Races.”

From the late 1800s to the early 1950s, 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway, became known as Tin Pan Alley. Tin Pan Alley was a major publishing hub. Publishing staffs included piano demonstrators, arrangers, staff composers and lyricists. Tin Pan Alley became an assembly line. Current events and developments became the subject of many pop songs. Competition flourished.

Success was measured by the sale of sheet music. Around 1913, Billboard Magazine started the first sheet music sales chart. New markets for sheet music opened up, such as department stores and Five and Ten Cent Stores. At the helm were the songpluggers. Today, songplugging is simply referred to as promotion.

Harry von Tilzer, another prolific songwriter of the early 1900s, wrote rags, ballads, Irish songs, and nostalgic tunes, including “Wait Till the Sunshine’s Nellie” and “I Want a Girl, Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad.” Rising above other rag songs, Scott Joplin's “Maple Leaf Rag” became the first to be a sheet music best seller. Ragtime became big in America. Following on its heels, was Irving Berlin’s “Alexander's Ragtime Band,” which really wasn't a rag. Berlin is one of the most prolific and popular songwriters of all time Among many hits, he also wrote "White Christmas."

Theater eventually replaced vaudeville as a major source of bringing new songs to the public. This included operettas, musical comedy, revues, and extravaganzas. Florence Ziegfeld (Ziegfeld Follies), Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Fred Astaire, Al Jolson, George M. Cohen, Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hammerstein, George and Ira Gershwin, are just some of the names of singers, performers and songwriters during Broadway's heyday (1930s-1950s) contributing to what is now called the pop music industry.

Today, distinctions are made between popular, "pop," and rock and roll music. Popular music generally refers to "standards," meaning songs prior to the birth of rock and roll. Rock and roll started in the early 1950s. Pop music is catch-all term used today referring to a variety of genres (jazz, folk, country, dance, rock). Rock and roll is now simply called rock. Also, both the rock and pop genres have spawned dozens of sub-genres, like electronica, heavy metal, alternative rock, R&B, rap, fusion, new wave, smooth jazz and the many spin-offs of country, like bluegrass, Americana, and country rock.

In the 1900s through the 1920s, Blues became popular. W.C. Handy-- considered the "father of the blues"--was one of the first blues writers and performers to be published. However, the title is suspect, since Blues really has its roots in Africa, with many blues artists and writers representing the genre. Handy eventually formed his own publishing company, located on famous Beale Street, in Memphis. Beale Street remains a popular stomping ground in the 2000s for the Blues and other forms of music.

It was Ragtime that allegedly gave birth to Jazz, parallelling the rise of the Blues in cities like New Orleans, Chicago and New York. Like all the major genres of American music (country, blues, folk, rock) American Jazz has a long history. Early jazz artists and writers included Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and many others.

Movies, especially movie musicals, infused the publishing and recording industry with a whole new spectrum of songs. In 1927, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was one of the first Hollywood movie musicals (preceded by The Black Crook). It was also one of the first movies to include sound.

Going back to the late 1800s, it was Thomas Edison who introduced the world to both recorded sound and movies as the inventor of the first phonograph and the Kinetoscope. It was in 1877 when Edison filed a patent application for the phonograph. Ten years later Emile Berliner was the first to use flat discs revolving on a turntable. Edison went on to start The Columbia Gramophone Company and Berliner started the Victor Talking Machine Company. Edison’s company went on to become Columbia Records and Berliner's company became RCA Records.

Another well-known music publisher, Joseph W. Stern and Company, opened the Universal Phonography Company, recording “coon” songs on cylindrical discs.

Opera singer Enrico Caruso started recording as early as 1903, setting a precedent for other opera and concert stars. Vaudeville stars like Sophie Tucker and George M. Cohan jumped on the recording bandwagon. By the early 1920s, records were selling in the millions. By the 1940s, music recorded by Afro-Americans was changed from the “race records” category to “rhythm and blues,” now simply called R&B.

In 1920, the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company opened KDKA, a radio station in Pittsburgh. By 1921-22 radio stations mushroomed. By 1926 the first radio network was formed called the National Broadcasting Company. Radio brought fame to singers, bands and songs far greater than anything live performance or early recordings had to offer. At first, radio had a severely negative impact on the sale of recordings. Eventually radio became the primary source for introducing new recordings as well as live performances.

Victor, Columbia and Brunswick were the first top record companies, with Decca Records entering the picture in 1934. Many new artists emerged like the Mills Brothers and Bing Crosby, with many older artists gaining a new resurgence in popularity. The migration of Afro-Americans from rural to urban areas combined with radio introduced jazz and blues to white audiences.

Many famous songwriters emerged through the 1920s and 1930s, including Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman, the team of DaSylva, Brown and Henderson, Richard Rogers, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and many more. Radio was at the forefront, helping to popularize 1000s of hits still popular today. As an example, songwriter Sammy Cahn achieved phenomenal success with “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” first recorded by the Andrew Sisters in 1937.

By the mid-20s, jukeboxes became popular in bars, honkytonks, restaurants, and social halls. Jukeboxes offered dancing as well as listening pleasure. Some historians claim the term "Jukebox" might have originated from “juke” houses (also known as brothels). Radio replaced jukeboxes as the dominant source for introducing new music. Jukeboxes are still popular, although now they play digital recordings instead of vinyl records. In fact, digital music players like Microsoft Windows Media Player is a digital form of a jukebox.

By the 1930s vaudeville and burlesque were dying out. The depression seriously hurt Broadway ticket sales. So, audiences turned to the radio. Radio personalities started to become a phenomenon, and the term disc jockey, or, “deejay”, replaced radio jockey. The merger of recording and radio is responsible for the music industry becoming what it is today.

Through the 1930s and 40s, new stars continued to rise, such as Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Eddie Cantor, Maurice Chevalier and Dinah Shore. In country music, it was "singing cowboys" like Gene Autry who became immensely popular. Many of these artists were crossing over from vaudeville and Broadway into film and radio simultaneously.

Broadway recovered from the depression, and through the 1940s gave birth to numerous standards still performed, published and recorded today. In 1943, Rogers and Hammerstein's landmark musical, Oklahoma, made it's debut. Traditional Broadway show songbooks are still a popular form of published music. Shows on Broadway are not produced nearly with the same frequency as they were up until the 50s, but numerous hits continued to appear from the 60s through the 90s, such as Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Chorus Line, Sweet Charity and Chicago. Broadway continues to thrive with many revivals and new shows.

In the 1940s, “Your Hit Parade,” was the first popular radio show to present the top tunes based on sales of sheet music, record sales, the number of radio performances, jukebox performances and dance band performances. It was through dance bands (Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey and many others) where Frank Sinatra emerged along with a host of other well-known singing stars. Popular music begins to spread at an ever increasing rate, especially as radios proliferated beyond the home.

TV became an immense outlet for music starting in the 1950s, especially in 1957, when Dick Clark introduced American Bandstand. In the 1960s, The Ed Sullivan Show introduced the Beatles to America, and to use a cliché, the rest is history. FM radio started to grow in popularity in the 1960s, introducing new types of rock and pop music.

In 1981, MTV revolutionized the industry with a rotating music video format similar to the rotating playlists of radio. Other TV/Cable music channels include VH-1 (adult oriented), Country Music TV and the Nashville Network, and NBC's Friday Night Videos. By the end of the 1980s, vinyl records became collector's items, replaced by the CD.

In the New Millennium, the digital revolution changed everything. Sheet music is still used, but mostly professionally, and can now be purchased and downloaded from the Internet. Most recording happens in the digital domain. Even acoustic instruments, like horns, strings, guitars, pianos, etc., are being replaced with "sampled" sounds--digital representations of analog sounds and signals.

The music publishing and recording industry is dominated by a handful of major conglomerates, but independent publishers and labels continue to compete voraciously.

It was the MP3 revolution that really changed the music industry. CDs remain popular but are fast being replaced with digital audio files (in many formats other than MP3).

TV, radio and film also entered the digital realm. Movies and TV shows can be downloaded from the Internet and viewed on a computer, or transferred to a large TV screen as part of a home entertainment system.

As of 2006, portability is the latest wave, allowing the viewing of feature films, TV shows, and playback of radio stations and digital audio files on a device small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. In the 2000s, many MP3 players (which play a variety of formats other than MP3) entered the market, with Apple Computer’s iPod being one of the most popular digital audio players. Ironically, iPod uses AAC as a proprietary audio file format in addition to MP3. MP3 remains the most popular format.

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