There are moments that define history, and the development of Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press was one that changed the world and ushered in the modern age. Before Gutenberg’s press, literacy was rare and books were for the elite. Afterwards, books became cheaper and more common, literacy spread, and the market for printed works grew enormously. This included music as well as literature, so the stage was set for the birth of the music publishing industry and the rise of a new type of artist — the composer.
The transition took centuries to complete, but the spread of music as a printed commodity made the music industry possible. Being able to communicate music without hearing it shifted focus from the performer (who was by necessity limited to a local market) to the composer of the music itself.
For the first time, music internationalized. After all, sheet music could be performed by anyone with a copy (and the required skill), making performance innately local but composition international. This meant that while good performers could be locally famous, only composers could strive for international fame and fortune. It also set the stage for the professionalization of the music industry and the fragmentation of the roles within it. The career of the professional composer (who lived through composition) moved ever farther away from that of the professional musician (who lived through performance), and previously non-existent support roles evolved to serve them. In a few (relatively) short decades, music publishers, promoters, dealers and agents all found a place. Music had moved from the realm of art and beauty into the mass market.
Music as writing — the beginning of an industry
Once music had established itself as an independent commodity, new challenges (or opportunities, depending on how one looks at these things) arose. One came from the logistical and political landscape of the time. Because music was transmitted as a valuable physical product (sheet music), it was subject to the usual taxes, tariffs and import restrictions that other luxury items faced.
Added to this, Europe’s main pastime at the time was warfare, meaning that at any given time countries could be blockaded or under embargo. As the market for new music from the most popular composers didn’t follow politics, an underground economy smuggling and illegally reprinting foreign music inevitably arose — meaning that the first music pirates (or smugglers, at least) did sail the seven seas.
Counterfeiting also became common. Trademarks had been used by various craft guilds and manufacturing centers for a long time, as had the counterfeiting of those marks. However, the printing press allowed for the industrial-scale copying of the content of a work, a very different idea from just making a product with a fake stamp.
This led to a couple of fundamental notions that are still relevant and debated to this day: copyright and authorship rights. Since their creation, these two ideas have set off debate and legislation which continue to keep lawyers in business to this day.
In general terms, copyright refers to who owns the rights to publish a given work. In the early days of the music publishing era, the publishers would buy a manuscript from the composer for a lump sum, and then have free rein over how they handled it. In modern terms, they would then own the rights to the composition.
The problem they faced was that there was little stopping unscrupulous competitors from buying a single copy of their edition of the music, copying it, and selling their own version. This caused much aggravation, occasional violent confrontations and destruction of property, and the inevitable rise of a new and specialized type of lawyer. After all, the concept of having rights to such things was alien. After all, it wasn’t a thing to be stolen, it was just as words or music.
If copyright is a function of publishing, the notion of authorship rights is one of fame and egos. Before capturing ideas in a way that could easily be copied, it was easy enough for a creator to clearly claim “I made this”. After all, they performed the piece, signed the painting, or chiselled their name on the capstone. With printing, however, claiming authorship acquired much more weight. After all, communications were slow and the potential for profit high — all it took was passing someone else’s work off as your own, and selling the rights to an ignorant local publisher.
To be fair, people didn’t have as developed a view on these ideas then as we do now, but we must assume that when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart copied an entire symphony by Michael Haydn in the 18th century he at least knew that he was being a little naughty. After all, there are limits to legitimate inspiration.
Both of these concepts are very much alive and well today as a cornerstone of the modern music industry. They’re still not fully understood or respected yet though. From the day-to-day wrangle about how much sampling falls under fair use to the legal kerfuffles around Blurred Lines and Uptown Funk, the lawyers are still earning their pay.
Music hall and the rise of popular music
By the early 19th century, a new, popular form of musical entertainment had evolved. Blending music and theatre, the music hall brought professional music to the masses. For the first time, common people could afford regular professional musical entertainment. More importantly for the industry, music halls bought their music from the publishers. Leading venues would commission successful songwriters to write new pieces, which would be sold on to the publishers and through them, the world at large.
From Boston to Shanghai, people wanted to hear new music, popular music, and they could only get it in the music halls. Once again, the industry evolved to meet the demand.
Playing the Tin Pan Alley Rag
With a popularized, mass market available, publishing became increasingly competitive. In New York, the American music publishing industry coalesced in a Manhattan Flower District neighborhood later named Tin Pan Alley in their honor. Why it was called Tin Pan Alley is a matter of some debate, with one account claims it came from the sound of all the pianos sounding like the banging of tin pans, while others say it referred to songwriters modifying their pianos to produce a sharper, more fashionable ragtime sound. Regardless of the origin, the term later came to refer to the U.S. music industry in general.
Geography aside, Tin Pan Alley marked another sea change in the music industry. To feed the music hall’s bottomless appetite for new songs, the publishers started to recruit composers. With their own writing staff on hand, the publishers were able to truly take the lead in the music industry — no longer just competing to publish what the composers’ offered for sale, but to actively produce and market new music themselves. Many of the era’s greatest legends worked for Tin Pan Alley, including Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Cole Porter.
Making a hit
One of the more interesting jobs to have evolved in this era was song plugging. In a world without audio recordings, spreading a new song could be challenging. Song pluggers were half salesmen, half performers, who would try to get their songs on stage at the most popular music halls. If this didn’t work, there were more aggressive methods. Called “booming”, pluggers would set up shop at large public events and play their song — over, and over, and over.
In the words of Tin Pan Alley veteran Louis Bernstein, “They had 20,000 people there, we had a pianist and a singer with a large horn. We’d sing a song to them thirty times a night. They’d cheer and yell, and we kept pounding away at them. When people walked out, they’d be singing the song. They couldn’t help it.”
From the contracted artists to the means of making a hit, the echoes of Tin Pan Alley still resonate today. They created a successful industry with an ever-growing marketbase, pioneered genres and redefined careers. By 1900 the music industry was a diverse, thriving global market sector, driven by global sales of sheet music… but those days were coming to an end, courtesy of Edison, Marconi, and Bell.
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