Gauging the Popularity of 1890s Recordings, Part 2

Businesses are always in a hurry: they need to know this week, this month, this quarter, this fiscal year—is my product a success? With the mystifying exception of the latest iPhone, this is not a concern for consumers. You’ve been meaning to read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair for 30 years but only got around to downloading it on your Kindle last week. You hope to start reading it by Christmas. Or this one:

“What happened to that new fusion restaurant we were going to try out?”
“They closed six months ago.”

Sometimes businesses bend us to their will, sometimes they go bankrupt. In the case of the recording industry, for decades they’ve managed to get us to check out what’s new on a weekly basis, and trade magazines have devised popularity charts to quantify what we like—on a weekly basis. That’s not how it worked in the 1890s.

For most of the first decade of the commercial industry, the record companies had to figure out in a trial-and-error manner what kinds of records the public wanted to hear. After all, there was no roadmap, and music consumption in those days was more active than it is now: a typical household owned a piano or other instrument, and family members learned and played music. Did consumers want to hear the standards they’d played on the piano? Or the latest hits coming off Broadway? Or some kind of music with which they would ordinarily have no contact? The companies tried a smorgasbord to see what would stick.

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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)

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