Continuing with our summary of the contents of Ben Yagoda’s book “The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song” we encounter, if not the death, at least the final illness of Tin Pan Alley. As noted in the first chapter, the success of Tin Pan Alley was predicated upon sheet music sales. Tin Pan Alley, of course, harkened back to the days when people made music at home, around the family piano. With the emergence of radio and the ‘Victrola,’ the decline of the sheet music model of distribution had actually begun around 1920, however it was the Depression that considerably accelerated this decline. In 1929, sheet music sales in the United States totaled about $16 million. Just four years later (1933), sales had dropped to $2 million.
There were other cultural (and financial) forces at work which greatly effected the dissemination of popular music. However these forces (or trends if you will) involve considerable overlap, so one has to follow them carefully.
The first cultural force has to do with Hollywood emerging as a counterpoise to Broadway. There are several differences between the two, but an important one is that Hollywood tended to be more “populist,” that is, aimed at the common man. Broadway tended, at least arguably, to appeal more to Manhattan sophisticates. The first ‘talking picture,’ “The Jazz Singer,” makes its debut in 1927 and from then on many movies feature music. In fact a new generation of popular composers and lyricists emerges – Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, etc. – who write for the movies. The earlier generation, men such as Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter, were Broadway composers who continued writing as the new generation emerged.
The second change has to do with a new cultural/fiscal arrangement, the basic elements of which began to be put in place in the early twentieth century. It is not until almost mid-century, 1940 to be specific, that all of these elements coalesce and there is a major change.
In 1909 the United States Congress passes the “Copyright Act of 1909,” which includes under copyrighted material “public performance [of music] for profit.” In other words, according to Yagoda, “anyone playing or singing a copyrighted song [in a for-profit situation] has to pay for the right to do so.” Now the enforcement of this is a pretty tall order and, aside from the most intrusive [and well-staffed] authoritarian police state, it seems that it could only depend on an ‘honor system.’
However, in 1913, a group of songwriters and publishers meet in New York City and the next year establish the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Thus, there emerges a private ‘enforcement agency’ which, backed up by a 1917 Supreme Court decision, brokers deals with radio stations, dance halls, and restaurants and, according to various calculations and tables, determines a general yearly fee that each institution has to pay. ASCAP then pays its members (composers, authors, publishers) what it determines they are owed – all of this being estimated according to their calculations and tables.
Throughout the 1930’s the rate which ASCAP charges radio stations (radio becoming a another dominant way in which popular music is disseminated) gradually rises to 2.75% of their net income. In 1940, negotiations between ASCAP and broadcasters breakdown when ASCAP demands 7.5% of their gross income. Thus, beginning on January 1, 1941, radio broadcasters refuse to broadcast any of the approximately 1.25 million songs in ASCAP’s catalogue AND establish their own organization, BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated).
Now this radio “strike” doesn’t last for even two full years, but it does (arguably) have a lasting impact, among which is the continuing break up of the “New York sophisticate” influence on popular music; first via Broadway’s decreasing dominance, then via ASCAP’s monopoly – but more on this to come . . .