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A Brief History of Publishing and Recording In America
by Jerry Flattum

The history of music publishing is really the history of the songs that made publishing possible.  Every publisher’s success and reputation was based on it’s catalog, and mostly, how many hit songs were in that catalog.

NOTE:  The following brief history is largely compiled, condensed and edited from Tom Ewen’s, All The Years of American Popular Music.

In 1640, The Whole Book of Psalmes was the first book printed in the North American British Colonies.  Classical and religious music remained the staple of music publishing up until the 1880s.  T.B. Harms, songwriter turned major publisher, was one of the first “songpluggers,” where instead of waiting for the market to come to the publisher, the publisher took the song to market.  Most other major publishers started out as songwriters also.  Paul Dresser, at 16, started out as a “blackface” performer, later becoming a dominant songwriter and prominent publisher. 

M.Witmark and Sons, started out as teenagers operating a small printing press out of their home.  One of them wrote songs, and another sang, and together they were the first to capitalize on a popular current event off the front page news (President Cleveland’s wedding) as the subject for a song, as well as writing songs for specific events.  Witmark was also the first of many publishers to set up operations in Union Square in New York--the entertainment capital of America.  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. 

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 whom in the beginning were songpluggers themselves.  They hustled the night spots getting singers to sing their songs. 

A songplugger’s main job was to place songs with performers.  They were aggressive and influential, singing to passing crowds, going to department stores and sports events, etc.  Sentimental ballads were the largest sellers, expressing sentiment of the times--home, family, mother and virginity.  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.  Publishers discovered formulas for writing songs, and the categories of Irish songs, comedy tunes, dialect songs, “coon” songs, and “Cakewalk,” all became quite popular in vaudeville.  “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 remain unknown in the annals of songwriting history. 

In New York theaters and amusement halls begin moving uptown with publishers following behind.  Around 1903, 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway, became what is known as Tin Pan Alley.  Publishing staffs expanded with piano demonstrators, arrangers and orchestrators, staff composers and lyricists.  Tin Pan Alley became an assembly line.  Again, current developments--the car, telephone, etc.--became the subject of many pop songs.  Competition flourished. 

Success was measured by the sale of sheet music.  In 1913, Billboard Magazine started the first sheet music sales chart.  New markets opened up, such as department stores and Five and Ten Cent Stores.  At the helm were the songpluggers--the roots of what is now called promotion.  Pluggers placed songs with the house pianists. 

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. 

Theater eventually replaced vaudeville as a major source of bringing new songs to the public.  This included operettas, musical comedy, revues, and extravaganzas.  Zeigfeld 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 popular at the time. 

In the 1900s, Blues was also popular, with W.C. Handy as one of the first writers to be published, later forming his own publishing company.  Jazz was also coming of age in New Orleans, Chicago and New York, with names like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald rising to the top.  Tin Pan Alley ceased to exist after World War I, as publishers began to decentralize with many moving closer to the Broadway District.  Movies gradually became more popular.  Edison’s Kinetoscope made its first appearance in 1894.  Tin Pan Alley and motion pictures began to feed off each other with the advent of scoring for film, and in the 1920s, movie theme songs started gaining in popularity. 

In 1877, 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.

Enrico Caruso started recording in 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.”

Also 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.  At first, radio had a severely negative impact on the sale of recordings.  But radio was dependent on live broadcasting of music.  Record companies began to expand their markets by selling the idea of having a favorite artist or band sing and play a favorite song--over and over. 

Victor, Columbia and Brunswick were the 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 (Ella Fitzgerald).  The migration of Afro-Americans from rural to urban areas combined with radio introduced jazz and blues to white audiences.

Many famous songwriters also emerged.  Through radio, Sammy Cahn achieved phenomenal success with “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.”  By the mid-20s, jukeboxes took recordings into bars, honkey tonks, restaurants, and social halls of varying kinds.  Jukeboxes offered dancing as well as listening pleasure.  Jukebox might have gotten its name from “juke” houses, or brothels, where they were first used extensively.  Eventually, the radio broadcasts begin to replace jukeboxes. 

By the 1930s vaudeville and burlesque were dying out.  The depression hit Broadway, but audiences were turning to the radio.  Radio personalities started to become a phenomenon, and the term disc jockey, or, “deejay”, replaced  radio jockey.  New stars continued to rise, such as, Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Bob, Hope, Amos and Andy, Kate Smith, Eddie Cantor, Maurice Chavalier, Dinah Shore, and in country, Gene Autry.  Many of these artists were crossing over from vaudeville and Broadway into film and radio simultaneously. 

In the 1940s, “Your Hit Parade,” was the first popular radio show to present the top tunes based on sales of sheet music and record sales, number of performances over radio and in jukeboxes, and dance band performances, where Frank Sinatra emerged along with a host of other well-known singing stars.  Popular music begin 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 almost completely died out, replaced by the CD.

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