Shelf Life

The genesis of popular music in the U.S.

Marketplace Staff Feb 15, 2010
Shelf Life

The genesis of popular music in the U.S.

Marketplace Staff Feb 15, 2010


Bob Moon: We talk a lot about the current state of the music industry, how iTunes is replacing compact discs, and bands are turning to the Internet to market music instead of record companies. Well today we’re going back. I mean way back to the beginnings of popular music in America. In David Suisman’s book “Selling Sounds,” he explains how music makers turned to profit and made songs popular before there even was radio. Like this turn-of-the-century tune… David, welcome to the program.


Moon: Tell me about this song, how did it become a hit in the 1890’s before there was even radio?

SUISMAN: Well, this is one of the songs that really opened for the music business as we know it today. It was made a big hit basically through really heavy promotion. It was written by a man named Charles K. Harris, who devised a new style of song, it was particularly easy to sing, it was very, very catchy, and he promoted it coast to coast, particularly by paying performers to include it in their stage shows.

Moon: What got you interested in this type of music, in this period of music?

SUISMAN: Well, I actually wasn’t really interested in this type of music, I was interested in trying to understand something about the musical world that I live in today, and I was sort of setting out to understand how it is that we have so much music around us and that that music is so intricately connected to the music industry. So I’ll give you one example. The song “Happy Birthday to You,” a song that is very easy to imagine belongs to all of us or maybe to none of us is actually a copyrighted work, and it belongs to the Warner Music Group, which was rather surprising to me.

Moon: When did this idea of a music “industry” even start — the idea that music went beyond just simple creation?

SUISMAN: It’s very much a creation of the 1870’s, ’80s, and ’90s when this new generation of young music publishers starting making music along a model that was not that different from industrial manufacturing. It was based on ideas of division of labor, of economies of scale, and they were very successful at promoting a new kind of popular music, so much so that by 1910 The New York Times was referring to the so-called song factories of Tin Pan Alley.

Moon: Speaking of Tin Pan Alley, you spend a lot of time in the book on some of the publishers of that era who were really colorful it seems.

SUISMAN: Yeah, I mean one of the pleasures of working on this book was I got to deal with some great characters, so one of the stories that I begin the book with is a story of one of the most influential Tin Pan Alley music publishing firms, the firm called M. Witmark & Sons, which was started by three young boys. The eldest of them was 14 years old, and he started this firm in the 1880’s with his younger brothers, aged 13 and 11. And they went on to build one of the most successful and most influential songwriting and music publishing firms in New York, which is to say in the whole country.

Moon: The first teeny-bop music stars, huh?

SUISMAN: Yeah, yeah.

Moon: I’d like to play a piece of music from another early music pioneer. This one is from Irving Berlin, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band…”


Moon: Now, Irving Berlin was really instrumental in creating the modern notion of a popular song. You write that he came up with a sort of tip sheet on what makes a songwriter successful.

SUISMAN: Yeah, by the late teens and ’20s he was very well known, especially for this song, which was a landmark hit for him. And by the late 19-teens and ’20s, he was so well known for this that people turned to him and wanted to know — well, how do you do it? And he came up with a list of nine recommended guidelines to follow for writing an enormously successful song, and it included some really commonsense things like the musical range of the song must be accessible to somebody with an average voice. You can’t write it for virtuoso singer. He said also you should do things like have a title that is repeated over and over in the song, so they can go and then buy it.

Moon: I think today they call that the hook, huh.

SUISMAN: Yeah, well it’s a lyrical hook. The musical hook had to be there, too. And then he also emphasized that this is business. This was another one of his things. If you want to have a hit song, you need to understand this isn’t about passion, or art, or genius, or magic, it’s about figuring out how to succeed in a business way.

Moon: And are our notions of popular music even informed by the Tin Pan Alley era?

SUISMAN: Oh, very much, I think a lot of the assumptions that we have about what a popular song is are still in place from 100 years ago. The genres have changed to be sure, but the idea that a pop song is something that lasts about three-and-a-half, four minutes, it has some verses that are relatively unimportant in a chorus, that is the really important part, and is very catchy, those are assumptions that are very specific to this model of music making that Tin Pan Alley developed and promoted very, very successfully.

Moon: David Suisman’s book is “Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music.” Thanks for being with us.

SUISMAN: Thank you for having me.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.