The birth of the popular music industry

In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, a rigid social stratification arose when the ruling classes began to patronize music for their own entertainment that none but their peers ever heard. The nobles usually maintained wind bands for ceremonial purposes and keeping common people entertained. These bands played tunes that everyone knew. I have described this social stratification in some detail in an earlier post.

As I tried to demonstrate there, “classical” music started in the eighteenth century when the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie started liking the same music. By that time, everyone had forgotten most of the music formerly that the aristocracy had formerly patronized. When it was rediscovered, it naturally became attached to “classical” music. Whatever music the aristocracy and commoners shared, such as the pieces played by the old wind bands,  likewise joined the stream of “classical” music. The commoners’ music that did not suit the tastes of the nobility survive, if at all, as folk music.

Where, then, did what we can call popular music come from? That question is too complicated to deal with here, so this article is  mostly about the English roots of American popular music and the industrial mindset that is one of its defining characteristics.

Audiences in England, a country later disparaged as a “nation of shopkeepers” and “the land without music,” lost interest in Italian opera by the 1740s. A distinctive English opera might have developed earlier if Henry Purcell had either not died so young or had had contemporaries or successors capable of building on his foundation. Instead, English opera developed from The Beggar’s Opera (1728), in which the libretto by John Gay was set not to new music in any kind of operatic style, but to familiar, traditional tunes.

Other English authors soon provided a multitude of usually satirical libretti, likewise performed as so-called “ballad operas.” Somewhat later, professional composers, such as Thomas Arne and Joseph  Hook, wrote numerous operas in English.  Unlike Italian opera, which appealed only to the aristocracy, English opera attracted all social classes.

By the late 1790s, however, English  theatrical life had deteriorated to the point where the principal composer at the Drury Lane Theatre, Michael Kelly, could not write musical notation. He simply hummed his tunes to someone else, who wrote them out and fitted them with simple harmonies. They were very nice tunes, though, and audiences continued to go to the theater to hear them.

London’s pleasure gardens (the most important being Vauxhall, Marylebone, and Ranelagh) likewise welcomed audiences of all classes to listen to a wide variety of music. Programs included older music by Arcangelo Corelli and George Frideric Handel, newer orchestral music by Joseph Haydn and Johann Christian Bach, and songs by composers that included Arne and Hook.

What later became known as classical music (Haydn, J.C. Bach, et al.) was certainly loved by a wide spectrum of society all over Europe, but it appealed especially to sophisticated members of the audience who understood the conventions of various set forms, such as sonata form, and found pleasure in hearing what cleverness the most imaginative composers could bring to them. The music required multiple hearings of each piece to reveal all of its secrets.

Arne and Hook took a different approach. They wrote especially for an audience that expected music with immediate appeal, music that could be fully understood at first hearing. Arne published hundreds of songs, and Hook more than 2000.  Later critics have declared that mass production of songs according to a few facile formulas seriously hampered the composers’ artistic development. Their contemporaries, including the often caustic Charles Burney, did not see it that way.

Both of these composers were quite capable of writing more challenging, complicated, and sophisticated music. The fact that the musically illiterate Kelly met success with his songs indicates that as far as a mass audience is concerned, an advanced degree  of musical knowledge is unnecessary as  long as the songs are appealing–a fact that continues to this day. Of course, the songs could not be too much alike. The formula also had to provide novelty, the sense that each season’s songs were something somehow new and different, yet still familiar.

The mass audience likewise did not care if the singers’ voices were among the best or if they possessed good technique. They rewarded the ability to get into a song and deliver it with a strong conception, quick sensibility, and correct taste.

These simple, mass produced songs became the mainstay of the English music publishing business. Publishers found that with this kind of music, they could market their wares to a much broader and larger spectrum of the population than had ever been interested in printed, notated music before.

And it was not only English composers who became prosperous selling popular songs. I am limiting this article to English developments largely for convenience and to keep it a reasonable length. Parisian publisher Ignace Pleyel, who built his early reputation on such projects as the complete string quartets of Haydn in miniature score, eventually abandoned “classical” music entirely in favor of more  lucrative romances by such composers as Pauline Duchambge and Hortense de Beauharnais (to mention another musically illiterate song writer).

The political, economic, and social convulsions caused by the French Revolution and Napoleonic period put an end to formal concert life in the three most important European capitals (London, Paris, and Vienna). Once it started up again, Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were dead. Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert still lived, but had no real followers among either contemporary composers or the immediate younger generation.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the same people could enjoy both the symphonies of Haydn and the songs of Arne, and new examples of both kinds of music appeared regularly. After the end of the Napoleonic era provided the economic and political stability necessary to sustain a high level of cultural life, there was still a steady stream of music with both immediate appeal and novelty, but there was no dependable concert life for performance of new symphonies and chamber music.

To put it another way, people who preferred to regard music as an art could only listen to performances of music by dead composers, at least until the generation of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann became established. The audience that preferred a steady stream of new music that had to be both familiar and novel flocked after performers and publishers who regarded music less as an art than as a business. When music became a commodity, the popular music industry was born.


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