The beginning of the broadcast era was an era of technological magic and social upheaval. Men flew, pictures moved, electricity replaced gas, and the meatgrinder of WWI consumed the world in fire and blood.
It was an amazing time to be alive, if you survived. Welcome to the 20th century.
But through the suffering and upheaval came change. After the war, hemlines rose, society relaxed, and music flooded the airwaves. The wireless became a source of news, entertainment, and joie de vivre — and with this, music programming became ubiquitous. Now consumers could listen to music at home.
Of course, broadcast music added another layer to the already complex music licensing landscape. Obviously, broadcasting a song was a performance, but how was it to be compensated? Nobody bought tickets to the radio, after all — but at an admission price of zero, everyone was paying attention.
Taking to the airwaves
In a remarkably short period of time, radio went from a scientific curiosity in the 1880s to the dominant form of home entertainment by the 1920s. Families would gather around the wireless to listen to light entertainment, news, and music. It was a new era of music enjoyment — no longer did families have to play music together, nor go out to see performances. Unlike the gramophone, a radio was a one-time investment and always had the latest tunes. Music had truly reached the masses.
With the beginning of the radio era, a new promotional industry sprang up — impresarios became station owners. Masters of ceremonies became hosts, and eventually DJs. Music promoters found a new avenue for sales, and moved rapidly to exploit it, building a star-machine that continues to this day.
Of course, this bright new era wasn’t without its shadows.
The power of payola
As music mechanized, the era of the music plugger began to fade. However, the music pluggers were an enterprising bunch, and found a more direct way to peddle their wares. Starting at the beginning of the radio era, promoters simply began paying broadcasters to play their songs. It was a bit more sophisticated than trotting a band out to the races, but the effect was the same — what people heard, they were more likely to buy. This practice soon became a given in the music industry, whimsically called payola.
What’s interesting about the payola game is that initially it wasn’t trying to push broadcast revenues, because that model wasn’t fully monetized yet. What promoters wanted to push was album sales, and that meant the jukebox market. In the ’40s and ’50s, jukeboxes made up 75% of the American record market — a staggering number. The jukebox was a focal point, a social tool, and a way for the listeners to hear what they wanted to… so owners needed to keep them updated with the latest hits. Thus, payola to keep the new hits coming, week by week.
And it worked, for years. However, by the ’50s it was under legal assault, culminating with Congressional hearings in 1959. Today, while payola is very much illegal, it still makes an occasional appearance as promoters look for a way to do whatever it takes to make their artist a star.
However, radio and jukeboxes weren’t the only media channels for popularizing music — by the ’20s, talkies were all the rage as sound came to cinema — and with it, music.
The (Hollywood) hills are alive…
From the ’30s to the dawn of the television era in the ’60s, cinema ruled the social scene. In the ’30s, a staggering 65% of the American population went to the cinema weekly, and musicals were popular — in fact, the first full length film with sound was The Jazz Singer, featuring six popular songs performed by variety star Al Jolson. The talking movie era didn’t just open a new avenue to promote music, but a new form of monetization in the form of soundtrack licensing.
Of course, with music in the air and on the screens, working out who was playing what, and if it was paid for became a big question, and as always, the lawyers got to work — because a performance unheard by the rights owner could very well be a performance unpaid.
Bring in the PROs
Into this quagmire of conflicting rights and usages waded a new species of organization — the Performance Rights Organization, or PRO. Organized and managed by publishers and performers, the PROs collect membership fees from rights holders to represent them in collecting usage fees from performance holders. This provides an avenue for accountability and compensation, but creates its own complications — there are many PROs, and they don’t always act together. They also have no real way to truly monitor what music is being performed where and by whom, and thus had to rely on spot checking, self-reporting, and a quasi-alchemical formula to determine who gets paid how much from their funds.
Complications notwithstanding, the PROs offered a solution to an otherwise thorny problem, and they soon settled into their place in the expanding ecosystem of the music industry, as the publishers, recording studios and broadcasters had done before them. However, like these preceding organizations, the PROs had very little time to get comfortable before technology came by and did what it always does — change the tune.
At the turn of the millenium, the rising ubiquity of the internet joined with a new vision of consumer electronics to open the door to MP3s, iPods, and the chaotic potential of the post broadcasting world. Music was coming to the 21st century, and it was making noise.
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