Gauging the Popularity of 1890s Recordings

We’ve gotten a lot of questions lately about the “big hits” of the ’90s. The questions seemed to be mostly of the nature, “Why haven’t they been found?” rather than “Which ones are they?” The assumption seems to be that we all know what these hits were and that—besides locating good copies, transferring and restoring them—it’s a settled matter. This is problematic for several reasons.

It’s a conceptual problem, first and foremost. Popularity charts, which didn’t really get started until 1940 with Billboard, try to gauge the success of a given record by comparison with other records over a short sample period—usually a week. Key elements have to be in place for this to work. A chart compiler sorts through reasonably reliable sales data from trusted sources in 1) an established industry with 2) standardized business practices and 3) predictable patterns of consumer behavior. So, for instance, in 1983 the recording industry was a multi-billion-dollar industry that knew how to record effectively, distribute media efficiently, and market product meaningfully to potential customers. So when a big star like Michael Jackson put out “Billie Jean,” consumers could hear it all over the radio, they lined up to buy it when it first went on sale, and there’s no doubt it was a runaway #1 hit.

None of these things was true about the phonograph business of the 1890s. The industry was not “established”—at first being limited to the East Coast. Practices were not standardized: when territory companies began springing up, they had to get supplies of records from the East, which could take weeks or months. And consumers had very limited choices in interacting with the product: the only way to “buy” a recording for several years (unless you were a well-to-do individual who had invested in one of the very pricey and complicated phonographs for sale) was to patronize exhibitors or parlors and make a selection to hear. Lastly, sales of records were not as personality driven at the beginning, as they would be later on. If a consumer wanted to hear “Sweet Marie,” he or she did not ask for a specific version—other than possibly to indicate preference for a vocal or an instrumental version.

A phonograph exhibitor in the early 1890s. Does this man have a #1 record in his collection? (Library of Congress)

A phonograph exhibitor in the early 1890s. Does this man have a #1 record in his collection? (Library of Congress)

One other key difference between the nascent industry and now is the feature of timeliness. A new song comes out now, hits the radio (or we hear it in a commercial, more likely), everybody wants it, and they all buy it on iTunes or stream it on Spotify or YouTube. These things can be quantified. Not so back in the day. If a song was a hit, it usually came from a hit show, and consumers might purchase the sheet music in order to sing and play along at home. They didn’t immediately set to find a record of the song like nowadays—which is not to say that one wouldn’t be delighted to find a new hit on offer for listening at a phonograph arcade. Somebody got the idea that recorded “phonograms” would help sell the sheet music. Gradually, the companies made sure to have out records of new hits because consumers seemed to demand them, but this took time.

So, relying on sheet music sales to help us assess record popularity—that’s going to be difficult. And what about all the records made that weren’t “hits”? The “old chestnuts” that the few “stars” of the early industry had to keep making over and over again for years? We’ll take this a little further next week.

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