So it has been written, so it will be performed

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

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.


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.

Authorship rights

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

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

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

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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