The birth of the popular music industry


18th century sheet music.. popular music industry

18th century sheet music. “Rule Britannia” by Thomas Arne

What’s the popular music industry? For that matter, what’s popular music?

Most people today seem to equate “music industry” with “recording industry,” but it’s older than that.

There’s no point in talking about a “classical music industry.”I looked that term up and only found articles about how badly classical music leaders conduct business.

Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of “industry.” Only three seem applicable:

  • systematic labor especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value
  • a department or branch of a craft, art, business, or manufacture; especially:  one that employs a large personnel and capital especially in manufacturing
  • a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises <the banking industry>

An industry, in other words, seeks to create something of value, is capital and labor intensive, and intends to make a profit. Popular music is inherently commercial and industrial. The popular music industry began in the late 18th century.

A whirlwind history of music

Concert in London. popular music industry

A concert in the Hannover Square Rooms, London / Engraving, Illustrated London News, 1792

Throughout most of European history, society made two important distinctions.

It valued sacred music over secular music and music created for the nobility over music enjoyed by the masses.

These distinctions mattered less beginning in the 18th century. The middle class began to create its own music, and the nobility accepted and embraced it. Everyone listened to the same music.

Joseph Haydn, for example, labored as a servant to a prince. He led an orchestra of other servants.

Orchestras of middle class concert societies sought and played his music because their audiences loved it. And the servant-musicians earned extra money playing dance music at the local taverns. Haydn composed some of that, too.

Audiences at all levels of society had a wide range of musical education and taste. Most people simply wanted music to enjoy. They didn’t like music they couldn’t grasp at first hearing. Having heard a piece a few times, they were ready for something new.

Connoisseurs delighted in hearing something new every time they listened to a piece. So some music was too complicated for the majority of listeners. Some music was too simple to interest the connoisseurs.

Concert organizers and operatic impresarios sought music that appealed to the broadest possible audience. Many composers knew how to write music in that “sweet spot.” They included nearly every composer known today as a great master. The only exceptions were unknown in any of the three major cultural capitals: London, Paris, and Vienna.

The disruption of the French Revolution

The French Revolution of 1789 disrupted everything. Concert life ceased in Paris for about 20 years, although opera continued to flourish. It ceased a few years later in London, too. Vienna didn’t lose its concert life entirely. Its orchestras played badly, however.

Composers of sophisticated instrumental music no longer had an outlet in any of the major capitals. Audiences who wanted to hear it could no longer listen to anything new. To hear any at all, they had to organize their own orchestra for private performance. Or more likely, rehearsal.

When public concerts resumed in the 1810s, orchestras had no repertoire but the music of great masters. Especially Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Only Beethoven was still living.

No later generation of composers had the training to write that kind of music. Mass audiences had enjoyed music of the classical masters when it was new and familiar in style. Their children no longer remembered how to listen to it. Most of them had little interest in learning.

The word “classical” began to serve as a code word for this now-esoteric high art.

The popular music industry: music as a commodity


Vauxhall orchestra stand. popular music industry

The orchestra at Vauxhall / Canaletto, 18th century

Vauxhall Gardens opened, or rather reopened just outside London in 1732. Its new owner, Jonathan Tyers, sought to provide respectable entertainment for families.

He didn’t care about their social class. He admitted anyone who could afford the one-shilling admission. Vauxhall offered music among other entertainments.

By the end of the 18th century, Vauxhall had inspired similar pleasure gardens all over Europe, at least 60 around London itself.

The concert halls and theaters in town presented mostly European music, especially from Italy. Tyers wanted to offer English music.

By that time, Handel had become accepted as an English composer. His music soon found warm welcome at Vauxhall.

In 1845 Tyers hired Thomas Arne as resident composer. Arne introduced a new kind of song for its audiences and wrote hundreds of them. Both harmonically and melodically it was much simpler than the Italian style that had dominated English music for most of the century.

Arne and others produced pastoral ballads, patriotic music, and songs of love by the hundreds. He, like Haydn, had found the “sweet spot.” Connoisseurs like Charles Burney admired his music greatly, but Arne aimed to please an audience with a short attention span. He mass produced songs based on a few simple formulas.

The importance of sheet music

Tyers and Arne made common cause with London’s music publishers. They knew the public would tire of the songs after a while. They also knew the public would eagerly buy the sheet music of new songs.

London became the primary center for mass-produced songs sold as sheet music. England became known as a nation of shopkeepers and the land without music. It had lots of music. The popular music industry started in London. But the English had no composers who aspired to write music that required much knowledge to appreciate.

Mass audiences, by the way, didn’t care if singers had well-trained voices. They didn’t even care if the composers really knew anything about music. They haven’t cared since then, either. Elvis Presley once said, “I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.”

In the 1790s, the opera theaters fell on hard times. The Drury Lane Theatre hired the musically illiterate Michael Kelly as its resident composer. He was a renowned singer and had a fine sense of melody.

He hummed his tunes to someone who understood musical notation and harmony. This person devised the accompaniments and instrumentation.


Sigismond Thalberg. popular music industry

Sigismond Thalberg. No information available

Aristocrats in Paris had long hired musicians and presented musical performances for their peers. At the height of the Revolution the government executed many and the rest fled.

Private patronage of music reemerged around 1810. By that time, Paris was becoming an international center for virtuoso pianists.

Sigismond Thalberg, Henri Herz, Frédéric Kalkbrenner, Johann Peter Pixis, and others performed in the salons and gave lessons.

William  Weber has called this kind of music “high-status popular music.”

As much businessmen as musicians, they composed music easy to listen to, but dazzlingly difficult to play. Then they issued simplified versions of their pieces in sheet music. Performers and publishers alike made good money in the popular music industry.

Instead of classical forms like sonatas and rondos, these composers churned out medleys, paraphrases, or variations based on operatic tunes. They also wrote lots of dances and short, sentimental character pieces.

Some, like John Field, Frédéric Chopin, and Franz Liszt wrote fine music any connoisseur could appreciate. Most of the rest of them just churned out vast quantities of music based on slick formulas. They wrote music so well suited to the times that no later generation cared much for it.

Publisher Ignaz Pleyel is best known today for issuing miniature study scores and the complete string quartets of Haydn. The firm eventually ceased to publish classical music. It turned to popular romances by Pauline  Duchambge and others. That music made it much more money.

Pleyel therefore shows the popular music industry spreading from England.

Promenade concerts

Beginning in the 1830s, conductor Philippe Musard ruled the dance halls. In the summer, when it was too hot to attend them, he instituted a new kind of concert, the promenade concert.

Like Vauxhall a century earlier, anyone who could afford a ticket could come to the garden. The promenades were by no means formal concerts. As the name suggests, the audience was free to move around. Food and drink were also available.

Musard, his rivals, and successors played quadrilles and other dances, excerpts from popular audiences, and novelties. These included solos by trombone and other instruments that would never have been welcome on a classical music concert.

They also performed classical music and played it well. The kind of concert that offered such a wide range of music was dead among the aristocracy. Promenade concerts came close to duplicating the experience for the lower classes.


Waltz. popular music industry

La Walse / James Gillray, 1810

Vienna didn’t completely lose its concert life, as did London and Paris. But signs of the division between popular and classical music were visible there as early as 1800.

Dance music was Vienna’s main contribution to the popular music industry. Johann Strauss, Sr. and Joseph Lanner learned how to make a business of conducting orchestras.

Strauss became the first conductor to take his orchestra on an international tour.

Strauss noticed Musard’s promenade concerts in Paris. In imitation, he developed two distinct seasons. His orchestra played for balls in the winter and gave promenade concerts in the summer.

Patrons of the ballrooms demanded a steady stream of new dances. Both Strauss and Lanner composed hundreds of dances, marches, and other light music over their short lifetimes.

They maintained such huge production by adopting sort of an assembly line. After composing the bare bones of a new piece, they turned it over to associates to finish the details. They started a division of labor often seen in larger productions like Broadway musicals to this day. It’s another aspect of the popular music industry.

What is popular music?

Charles Hamm defines a popular song as a piece of music

  • written for, and most often performed by a single voice or a small group of singers, accompanied by either a single chord-playing instrument or some sort of band, ensemble or small orchestra;
  • usually first performed and popularized in some form of secular stage entertainment, and afterward consumed (performed or listened to) in the home;
  • composed and marketed with the goal of financial gain;
  • designed to be performed by and listened to by persons of limited musical training and ability; and
  • produced and disseminated in physical form—as sheet music in its early history, and in various forms of mechanical reproduction in the twentieth century.

Many of Hamm’s same points apply equally to piano solo music and popular orchestral music. There was no mass market for orchestral scores of dance music, but piano arrangements flew off the shelves. The fourth point is the key to understanding the popular music industry from its beginning.

William Weber wrote,

Popular culture is always assumed to be contemporaneous and non-esoteric; people take for granted that they do not have to know anything special to appreciate it. High culture is the opposite: focused upon classical forms, it is assumed to require some kind of knowledge for its comprehension, and thereby receives an elevated cultural standing.

Rossini. popular music industry

Rossini / Le Hanneton, July 4, 1867

If popular culture is contemporaneous, what happens to it when it goes out of style?

  • Some of it becomes accepted as classical music. Music of Rossini, Chopin, and Lizst have made that transition. More recently, so has George Gershwin’s opera and orchestral music.
  • Some of it becomes recognized as “light classical music.” Strauss waltzes and Sousa marches, for example, have never been welcome on symphonic programs. Orchestras play them in lighter contexts.
  • Some of it remains well known as the popular music of another era. Many Americans, at least, would instantly recognize some of Stephen Foster’s music, Civil War music, and music from Tin Pan Alley.
  • Most of it is soon forgotten. Little survives in cultural memory after the passing of the generation that first loved it.

Irving Berlin dominated Tin Pan Alley for almost 50 years. Jerome Kern, another dominant popular composer, wrote, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”

His last musical (Mr. President, 1962) marks the end of the Tin Pan Alley style. Baby boomers represent the last generation who ever heard any of Berlin’s music when it was new. And by the time they formed their musical tastes, it was already old fashioned.

So I wondered, how is the music of his generation received today?

A compilation of talent show song suggestions gives a clue. It is arranged by category, with each song identified by the recording artist who made it well known. One category, “Old-fashioned classics and Broadway showtunes,” lists mostly shows that appeared since Mr. President.

Specifically, it suggests 70 songs and duets. Most come from 35 Broadway shows and movies. There are a few standalone songs as well. Beginning with Show Boat (1927), 13 of the musicals appeared before 1962. It suggests five songs from Paint Your Wagon (1951), the largest number of songs suggested from any one show.

I didn’t recognize any of the songs not associated with a show. But nowadays anything more than about 20 years old could qualify as an “old-fashioned classic.”

Looking through other categories, I noticed “What a Wonderful World.” I thought it might qualify, but Louis Armstrong introduced it in 1967.

As long as high schools, colleges, and repertory companies continue to stage the great musicals written between Show Boat and, say The Sound of Music (1960), music of Berlin’s generation will remain well-known. But does anyone still consider it “popular music”? The industry has long left it behind.

Music and the middle class: the social structure of concert life in London, Paris, and Vienna / by William Weber (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1975)
Vauxhall gardens 1661-1859: Brief history, based on Vauxhall Gardens: A history / by David Coke and Alan Borg (London: Yale University Press, 2011)
List of Awesome Talent Show Songs: What Should I Sing in the Talent Show? / HobbyLark. Updated June 3, 2016
Yesterdays: Popular Song in America / Charles Hamm (New York: Norton, 1979)

All images are public domain.

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