One of the important jobs of a publisher or his editors was to select what would be put into print and what would not. The parameters used both predicated and depended on the success of some publishing houses, but also suggested a matter of taste, continuity in inventory, and a number of aesthetic reasons as well. They also depended largely on the source of the music, since many publishers often depended on in-house or contracted composers for material, while others were willing to take chances on stray submissions. Some of the more successful publishers were also willing to buy entire catalogs of another firm simply to obtain one or two fine pieces to be repackaged and distributed to a new audience.
Irving Berlin in 1913Irving Berlin
was known to have written around 2,500 songs in his extended lifetime, but perhaps less than 1,000 of them were of acceptable quality to the point where he felt comfortable issuing them. He started out working for publisher Ted Snyder
as a lyricist, rarely contributing music, but his case is worthy for an example here. Before the runaway success of Alexander's Ragtime Band
, Berlin had as many pieces or lyric contributions rejected as he did published. As he was a Russian immigrant who was still gaining command of the language of his adoptive country made his early success even more extraordinary. Even once he had been well-established with some hit songs under his belt, not everything made it through the process to publication. For a firm as large as Snyder's, or similar firms like Shapiro and Bernstein
, Leo Feist
or Jerome H. Remick
, the filtering process was often by committee - albeit not through formal meetings or hearings but passing from person to person - and not just a unilateral decision by the boss. However, in the case of a tiebreaker the boss's decision ultimately ruled, and if he smelled a hit or a flop where others might miss the mark, his was the final word. So even Berlin was overruled at times, and later when he owned his own firm he even overruled himself from now and then.
Staff composers were men and women who actually came to work explicitly to write or edit songs. Some could turn out a tune every day or two, with perhaps one or two a month making it into print. Songs weren't so hard to do, and one could be knocked out pretty quickly. Piano rags, marches, waltzes, intermezzos and the like took longer to craft due to the format which suggested three or four different melodies in multiple keys. Most rag writers were either free-lance or staff songwriters who crafted a syncopated instrumental now and then. In any case, these office workers were constantly banging out this or that melody trying to get at that next hit, or at least their next paycheck. Since a number of these publisher's offices were in the same two-block area of 28th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, and the windows were often open when the composers and pluggers were banging away, newspaper writer Monroe Rosenfeld allegedly coined the turn "Tin Pan Alley" to describe the musical cacophony he experienced as he walked between the two rows of buildings. The name quickly caught on around 1904, and a new American label was born.
It is important to note that while not all popular composers worked in Tin Pan Alley, the term became associated with most popular rags and music that were quickly embraced by the public. It was as much a label as Xerox became for copier or Coke for cola drinks. Indeed, in markets like Boston, Chicago and Kansas City there were also composers turning out tunes in a similar vein to those of lower Manhattan. But the real pressure cooker for staff composers was located in the buildings in that two-block stretch, including the firms of Jerome H. Remick, M. Witmark & Sons, Ted Shapiro, Harry Von Tilzer, and other names that are now well-known.
Yet there were many who were just as happy with their day jobs as accountants, clerks, roustabouts, song demonstrators, homemakers or itinerant musicians who wrote at their leisure and submitted pieces for publication. They did not realize the same pressures of the on-demand composers and pluggers, but they also did not always enjoy the same financial rewards either.
There were also some benefits to having your name displayed on 30 bad songs and one good one as opposed to just
that one good one, since your name was displayed more often nonetheless. It was difficult for all composers to compete in what was essentially a subjective field. In a way, it was the subjective decision makers - the publishers - who were in direct competition, not their composers.
Some of the publishers or their trusted staff could "smell" a hit instantly, while others depended on reputation or filling a need with a song on a certain topic or style to make their choices. In any case, by 1900 the motivation of publishers was much clearer than it had been 20 years before. They were in the business for profit, not just to make the world a more tuneful place. The savvy publisher knew that even a flop could cover printing costs and make a little money, while also getting their logo in front of the public. So their tune selections were often based on the topic of the piece (and sometimes publishers would actually name instrumentals to fit a certain topic), the catchiness of the tune, or the recommendation of a performer who was willing to promote the song. For example, in one instance, L. Wolfe Gilbert
and Lewis F. Muir
sat down one evening on a sort of dare to write their first pieces together. The next day they brought the results, a ballad and a Dixie tune, in to Muir's publisher, Fred Mills
. Mills was very unkind concerning the ballad, and made it clear that Dixie tunes were passé. Yet after Gilbert stormed out with Muir close behind, Mills realized he couldn't get the Dixie tune out of his head. He called them back in, they played it again, and in spite of his reservations, Mills realized he had a potential hit. That is how Waiting for the Robert E. Lee
got published, and soon was introduced on stage by Al Jolson
. Remember that tune?
Once a tune was picked for publication, there were more decision points to be made. These were usually the duties of department heads under the publisher, who was rarely directly involved in most of the decision points discussed here. They include arranging, pagination, fonts, copyright, back/inside cover advertising and cover art.
Euday Bowman Song Manuscript.
(Library of Congress Collection)
Not all composers were also arrangers, and many could not even notate. In the case of somebody who had a good tune but no skills to put it on paper, the arranger (often a staff composer as well) would sit in one of the sweatbox piano rooms with the composer and notate the piece, often in shorthand, measure by measure. Then they would isolate themselves for a few hours and produce a full arrangement of the piece, which in the case of songs included lyric alignments, and often such details as pedaling, dynamics and mapping in the way of segnos
, etc. The arranger was also responsible for the playability and/or singability of a piece, and would sometimes alter melodic lines (with or without composer input) and select a proper key signature; multiple key signatures in some instances when multiple editions were to be printed. When dealing with a submitted manuscript, the arranger often did little more than edit the piece for errors and mapping. The last thing they had to do was to establish pagination, something that was a variable that could change during the typesetting process, but was important to establish proper spacing of the music and, at least in theory, a good page turning point.
Some arrangers infused a great deal of themselves into songs, rags or waltzes, the end result often sounding highly similar to their own compositions. Most composers were not concerned with this as they had been paid for the piece whether it would be used or not. Some did have some form of final say or input, particularly those with names like Scott Joplin
or Irving Berlin
. In one instance, Joe Lamb
had submitted his Excelsior Rag
to John Stark with the trio and D sections in Gb, a key which is not so hard to play in but difficult to read. Stark insisted that they be transposed up a full step, but Lamb was able to convince Stark to keep the sections in the initial key after demonstrating how much the change would alter the beautiful sonorities of the piece. This was an exception to the general rule where the arranger or publisher had final say over the product.
The next step was to send the piece to the typesetter/engraver who would make up the negative plates for printing. Two different processes were available. Before the 20th century music was engraved on metal using sharp-pointed styli and stamps.
Advertisement from the back cover of Frog Legs Rag published by John Stark.
There would be a five-pronged tool for drawing staff lines and several different shaped tools for punching in notes. Other items had to be drawn in. The 20th century brought in a system closer to typesetting in a sense. This was similar to how newspapers were laid out with movable type, albeit the elements used for typesetting music were a little more complex since notes overlapped staff lines. The typesetter would set up the staff lines from a template, noting from the submitted score how many staffs per page, then would work with note placement and other symbols. They would also then add lyrics, titles and other text. Each master plate was somewhat complex in construction, but when done they could produce several negative plates from it, if required, for multiple printings of a piece. Once offset printing became standard this was an easier process. The typesetters either were or worked with lithograph engravers as well if special symbols were needed, and to create the monochrome art for the inside covers and back of the sheet.
Advertising other pieces by a publisher within sheet music had become a standard practice by 1900, much as previews on DVDs and Blu-Rays are in the 21st century. Each new edition of a piece may use the same plates for the music, but the advertising pages were often stock plates set up every few months with the latest selections, or best sellers from previous years. Some publishers would actually put the first page or chorus of another piece on one of the extra pages, enticing the consumer to "Try this out on your piano" so they would buy more. Others would list titles, or show monochrome facsimiles of covers, or in the case of some rags or songs, show the first line of each in an array on the back page. John Stark and selected others went the route of hyperbole on one or another piece or composer, but this was a limited practice. The point was to show who was composing for them, and perhaps get lucky if one of the songs went platinum, so the consumer would recognize it the next time they opened the sheet. It obviously worked, since it was used throughout most of the 20th century. The selections were usually made by the professional manager, if not the publisher, and were often fairly fluid, changing every two to six months.
The cover was usually an important choice, and the publisher (or partners if any) was very often directly involved with selection of the cover (and sometimes the title), including who would be commissioned to produce it.
Chevalier De Takacs
Most cover artists were free-lance contractors, particularly those with the established names like the Starmer Brothers
or Andre De Takacs
. But many publishing houses had in-house cover artists as well, some who would create simple borders and elegant lettering, and some who would create generic unsigned pictures or designs. Edward Taylor Paull
had set the standard for this in 1894 when he threw the gauntlet down and started publishing the beautiful four-color works commissioned from the August Hoen
company. These eye-catching covers were, in essence, brilliant advertising for what was often a mundane piece, but the practice worked. Multi-color lithographed covers had been used as far back as the 1850s, but rarely, and now that the process was less expensive, it quickly spread by 1900 to most major and some minor publishers.
The title, concept, and sometimes manuscript of a piece would be presented to the artist. Some would come up with THE cover quickly, but often submitted a draft for approval. Others would submit several ideas until one was selected. They had to work in color separation for a time, so many chose to use black and one or two other colors for speed and simplicity. Often times the cover had little to do with the title, but if it was attractive it was used.
A Starmer blank cover originally
used by Shattinger Music, and reappropriated by John Stark for
three other pieces.
Some cover images were used as templates, and several pieces could be printed using the same overall image. One particular Starmer cover saw service with three different publishers, rendered in various colors, as Nubia
, Egyptian Maid
, Cleopatra Rag
, Sunburst Rag
and Reflection Rag
. Cover art was usually purchased outright, and therefore owned by the publisher, meaning the artist gave up rights to the image as soon as the sale was completed. Unlike some of the more fortunate composers, cover artists typically did not receive royalties for their often beautiful pieces of singular advertising. The irony is that many people bought the music for the artwork. The publishers knew who was getting the best end of that deal, but it was just good business.
Copyright was usually a straightforward process. When the publisher bought a tune they would send a copy, often just gallies without a cover, but sometimes the finished product, to the Library of Congress with the normal fee to register copyright. Those with world-wide connections would also send a copy to their foreign affiliates, or to special offices that did nothing more than store a copy of the song that was registered to prove copyright in that country. One of the best of these archives was in Australia, and many of these incredibly pristine pieces which sat in a drawer or cabinet for some 100 years have recently made the rounds on eBay, being that they are now well out of copyright. The transfer of copyright could get tricky, however, particularly on the footer of a piece. Sometimes the composer could retain a copyright and the publisher had distribution copyrights. Other times the publisher would buy an already copyrighted piece from a composer, or another music catalog, and have to put the transfer information in the footer on the first printed edition at the very least. Until the formation of ASCAP, and later BMI, copyright afforded little protection for composers and only limited protection for publishers, as the structure to enforce copyright laws was skeletal at best in the courts.
Rare Original of the
12th Street Rag
It was more the marking of a territory or domain than a protection, but some lawsuits were successfully defended through the process. The American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) was formed to broaden and lobby for better protections, and provide defense for members.
While the publisher could just as easily sell off a copyright as they could keep it, the savvy ones knew when to avoid this. One sad case involved Euday Bowman
, composer of the 12th Street Rag
. After printing perhaps a thousand copies for what turned out to be slow sales in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, he sold his copyright and the plates to the firm of J.W. Jenkins' Sons in Kansas City. Through proper promotion and distribution, they turned it into one of the biggest hits of the century. Efforts by Bowman to get back some rights were futile, as Jenkins knew what they had. When the initial copyright period expired in 1942, he managed to buy back the rights to his most precious property, at least the rag version, as the song was considered separate. It was another 6 years before it became a hit once again in 1948, but for a few brief moments before he died, Bowman was able to experience the proper financial acknowledgement of his labors. This was a rare case, as most publishers who were in the business were there because they treated it as business.
The last step in this process was the actual printing. The publisher or assistant needed to make a decision on the size of the run. Some pieces seemed to be obvious hits, so they might see a printing of 10,000 or in rare cases up to 20,000 at a time. More often, quantities were between 2,000 and 5,000 copies, with occasional short runs for special purposes at perhaps 1,000, the usual minimum break-even investment. Some publishers had their own printing plants or leased one exclusively. Others sent the plates and specifications to print jobbers, plants that would print pretty much anything. There were still decisions to be made here. The cover art color separations were each monochromatic, so for a two or three color cover, a variety of different colors could be used for each plate, and were. Some printings might show an orange background and others red or brown. Often the decision was based on ink stock at hand, demonstrated clearly in the Starmer covers illustration above.
Another decision which has become a legacy issue a century and more later is the choice of paper. Some publishers were adamant about using the best possible stock, something equivalent to 45 to 65 pound stock of today, with fine granularity and cohesiveness.
The header on a typical Leo Feist World War One edition.
These papers tend to do better with the inks applied, and many are nearly as vivid today as when they were printed, with very little yellowing, although coated papers tend to have accumulated a measure of dirt and finger oils over time. Some publishers and printers, however, were looking for instant profit and not durability. As a result, their sheets are now brittle and dry, usually yellowed or even dark tan, and often simply no longer usable as sheet music. Size was also variable. Most publishers up through 1917 issued pieces using the 9.75" by 13.5" (24.8 cm x 34.3 cm) sheets that we now call large format, but some varied a bit. Foreign imports were also done using a similar but separate standard, often taller and narrower than U.S. counterparts. World War I forced the rationing of ink and paper, so everything shrank, especially the size of the printed music inside the covers. That is when the now standard 9" x 12" (22.8 cm x 30.5 cm) format came about. Between 1917 and 1919 virtually all publishers had complied with this United States Government request. Leo Feist
, in an obvious ploy to appear more patriotic than his peers, published Liberty or Wartime editions of the most popular tunes using a miniscule 6.5" x 9" size. Limited titles from Feist are now collectors' items in all three sizes.
Marketing of a piece was usually an area where the lead publisher and designated staff members were more involved, but at different levels of contact. The publisher was the point man who would often meet with the owners of certain establishments in his town, and sometimes on travel, including music stores, department stores, theaters and theatrical agencies.
A Ziegfeld Follies edition of Row, Row, Row.
To the former he was usually trying to sell the catalog or a portion of it, and even establish a sub-store within the main store, something many publishers did. This would be similar to a kiosk in today's mall, but was more often than not a room or small set-aside with music racks, a piano, and a pianist who was often also the salesperson for the sub-store. In other cases, the publisher would glad-hand just to retain good relations with the owners or department heads of these establishments.
On the theatrical end, the publisher or a publicity person, who was also sometimes a pianist, would try to place songs in a show either through one of the prominent entertainers in the show (such as Sophie Tucker or Al Jolson) or the producers. Musicals were a different entity before 1940, as songs usually did not forward the story, and were often placed just to get two-way publicity for the show and the song. The publisher would also talk to vaudeville and variety show chain owners or managers for similar placement in single acts, or even with entrepreneurs such as Florenz Ziegfeld himself. The arrangement was more than just placing a song in a show, since most publishers also arranged to have it placed in the lobby of the theater as well. Most theater owners and chain managers were amenable to this since they knew that the public would also come to their theaters to hear the songs performed in the first place.
One of the best stories of an early publicity ploy, as found in the book Tin Pan Alley
by Jasen and Jones from an article by the publisher, Harry Von Tilzer
, is that of Please Go 'Way and Let Me Sleep
. In full cooperation of the management, who likely got a cut of lobby sales, Von Tilzer himself posed as an audience member at a rooftop garden theater. He kept "falling asleep" and snoring loudly, creating disruption. His wife, who was not in on the gag, was quite embarrassed, and kept kicking him "awake" under the table. After a little time passed and many complaints were forwarded to the management, a waiter came to the table to remove the disruptive faker. As he was literally dragged to the elevator Von Tilzer, who had started his career as a singer, lit into the chorus: "Please go 'way and let me sleep, don't disturb my slumber deep."
A big hit for Sophie Tucker
and Shelton Brooks.
On cue, the female singer on the stage continued the song with the orchestra, and the audience erupted into favorable laughter having been punked by the best. But more importantly, that evening and the next day, copies of the piece all but disappeared in exchange for thousands of quarters. Most publishers did not go to these extremes on their own, but they often hired people who would.
Sometimes getting a song placed was a matter of proper networking. Pianists were often retained by publisher to shill for them at parties. Many songs actually became famous because one or another performer or musician heard them subliminally placed in the repertoire of a pianist or band. But in many cases, the composer themselves would try to promote the piece heavily, particularly if they had a rare stake in the profits, or were also the publisher. Shelton Brooks exploited this type of networking by legitimately using his relationship with Sophie Tucker's maid, Mollie Elkins, to get an audience with the singer and convince her to use Some of These Days in her latest revue. Even though he ended up selling the rights of the song to Will Rossiter, who had previously passed on the piece, Brooks received substantially more than he otherwise would have due to Tucker's turning it into an instant hit. Just the same, the publisher was the one who profited most in the end.
In addition to marketing within the sheet music covers and externally in the stores and theaters, newspapers had copious ads for the latest this or that, available at dealers everywhere (or specified locations).
The sheet music department of a
Kresge five and dime store in
the late 1910s.
Still, not everybody read papers or went to shows. There was a way to grab them, however, whether they were shopping at the fanciest department store in Manhattan or in Woolworths in Omaha, Nebraska. The song plugger or demonstrator was that person. Usually a local pianist who could sight read quickly, and hopefully sing (although singers were sometimes engaged for heavy traffic days), the song plugger just played all day from the specified list of latest hits. There was often a booth or two available with an upright piano for the customer to give it a try. If you were in the store, the music was usually inescapable, but if it was good material, it was favorable for business overall. This career not only made the pluggers better pianists and entertainers in the long run (which also meant fairly good turnover as many were grabbed by local clubs or agents), but also employed people who might not otherwise have a job. A large number of them, notably, were women who in larger markets were usually unmarried, but in some smaller markets were the early progenitors of the second income for the family, something now commonplace in the United States and much of the world. It gave women more of a voice overall as they showed themselves to be competent salespeople, previously untapped consumers with their own income, and more able to charm most customers than many of their male peers. It also gave some hope of liberation from sweatshops or other mundane jobs, or from the copious daily duties of the home in some cases.
Herbert Marple and Harvey Orr on the
road in 1920 schilling sheet music
for Sherman, Clay & Co.
So the publishers, through the program of song pluggers, were also advancing the cause of suffragettes and women's equal rights, something that would be obtained in the near future.
Distribution was handled in various ways from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Often times there would be a cooperative of publishers in various cities - such as Witmark in New York and Ditson in Boston - that would each publish from the same plates under their own moniker for regional distribution. They would then cover their part of the country in their own stores and with private retailers. While this practice was less common in the US in 1900, it was still used for foreign distribution as a foreign publisher was also able to obtain copyright in that country, further assurance that the publication would be, at least in theory, protected from poachers. The rest was up to either traveling music salesmen or independent music stores themselves, often a combination. Many music stores depended on catalogs, and sometimes actually the ads inside sheet music end covers, to find out what the latest fare was, and would order a prescribed minimum quantity from the publisher to be sent by mail. The traveling music salesmen, usually an independent contractor, would bring music that they thought would sell (or that their employer said they should sell) directly to the music stores. They often had to serve as demonstrators as well. In most cases, once they paid for the stock they owned it, which provided more motivation for good salesmanship. Many had other lines that they sold on their journeys, including such items as greeting cards and instruments, even pianos. The distribution of a piece published in New York across the rest of the country was a process that often took half a year or more, which meant to a degree a trickling but steady income derived from those pieces during that period.
There were some cases where a composer may have had their composition(s) rejected by a larger publisher, did not have access to a larger publisher, or simply wanted to have full control over the publication of their own work. These individuals could take their manuscript to a print shop or print jobber and pay for a run of anywhere from 200 to 5,000 pieces with their own logo, known as a vanity publication. Covers for these were often a simple text layout or a basic graphic design and a photograph. Then the composer or pseudo-publisher was responsible for the distribution of his own piece.
Three progressive editions of Car-Barlick Acid
This is much the manner in which many small music businesses work today, selling their self-made CDs and downloads or printed music via the internet, or through local distribution. Many of these early vanity pieces never went beyond their initial printing, as they either were not very good, or local consumers simply did not show interest. There were exceptions, however.
One of the great composer vanity publication stories of all time concerns pharmacist assistant Clarence Wiley
in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Not having ready access to a music publisher that might take a chance on his rousing folk rag, Car-Barlick Acid
, composed around 1901, Wiley had a small initial run (numbers vary, but 500 is approximate) in 1903 in Iowa that featured some simple creative artwork and his picture. How it was distributed was not readily detailed, but he likely did most of it on his own. The piece spread well enough that it caught the attention of a small firm run by the brothers of composer Imogene Giles
of Quincy, Illinois, so the Giles Brothers
bought and published another edition of the rag a year later in larger numbers, perhaps 2,000 to 5,000 or thereabouts.
A best-seller self-published
by Carrie Jacobs-Bond in 1909.
Within three years their catalog was acquired by content-hungry publisher Jerome H. Remick, and the Remick firm put out a third edition of Car-Barlick Acid
with national distribution, and it became a reasonable hit for the company. Sadly, Wiley had died shortly after Remick gave him national exposure, but he did so a success in spite of an output of only one known piece, something that may not have happened had he not commissioned a vanity press of it in the first place.
More often, small and mid-sized publishing firms were started by composers or relatives of composers to publish and distribute their own works. Most did not own printing facilities, using jobbers instead. Some of them eventually grew into larger firms that took on other composers. Among these entrepreneurs were John H. Aufderheide in Indianapolis, Charles L. Johnson and Charles N. Daniels in Kansas City, Will Von Tilzer and Harry Von Tilzer in New York City, and the singularly-motivated Carrie Jacobs-Bond of Chicago. Through her determination and the ability to effectively market her own music that was frankly not all that much above average, Jacobs-Bond became one of the first female millionaires of the twentieth century. There were many other music entrepreneurs who enjoyed or endured varying levels of success, but some of the most memorable piano ragtime came from these firms governed by a combination of good business practices and personal passion. Many of these firms' catalogs were later bought up by larger publishers, sometimes just to acquire a handful of popular pieces, which further underscores the musical sensibilities of the founders and composers.
One other form of vanity press that existed was known as the song-poem publisher. Many of these businessmen were later found to be preying on hapless fledgling composers around the country through targeted advertisements in magazines. While similar to a local print jobber in some respects, these firms promised that for a certain fee they would take a poem and set it to music,
A typical magazine advertisement seeking out contributors for H. Kirkus Dugdale in 1913.
or arrange and print your composition, returning a specified number of copies back to you for a price that was sometimes equal to the retail level of similar works. The musical content of the poems set to songs was often mediocre at best, and the cover art sometimes less than desirable. Even the most well-intentioned of these firms, such as H. Kirkus Dugdale
of Washington, DC, were found in violation of mail fraud based on an appreciable volume of customer complaints. In most cases it is because vague promises of distribution were never realized. There was a fine line in many cases between those who were providing a valuable service to musicians and those who were simply reinforcing the desperation of composers who in many cases were rightfully rejected by other publishers due to poor content. Publishers like A.W. Perry
in Sedalia, Missouri, who took on similar works, usually did so on a consignment or royalty basis, providing less risk all around, and therefore were more of a credit to the industry. Still, there were a few rare gems to be found with a Dugdale copyright on them, so this suspect practice occasionally did contribute toward a positive legacy.