Song Treatments: Marketing the Pop Song Product in Two Formats

In the twenty-first century, the availability of the pop song is higher than it has ever been and people have the potential to hear songs, past and present, whether shopping at the grocery store or watching television commercials that advertise everything from paint to cars. Thanks to technology and social media and many upcoming artists get initial mass-exposure with an upload to an online streaming video service. For example, Justin Bieber’s popularity exploded after the song “Baby” had earned great success on YouTube in 2010. Some songs become worldwide cultural memes with this method like “Gagnam Style” from Korean pop star Psy, or “The Fox” from Norwegian comic team Ylvis, both of which have hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. In the 2010s, having online exposure and getting one hundred million views of music videos are not just common, they are expected components of the media campaign of getting pop songs to market, even posted for free on video streaming sites like Vimeo or YouTube. However, during the early twentieth century, getting exposure was hard work which meant dealing with the rigours of Show Biz to get consumers to purchase sheet music and difficult work by harnessing technology in bringing such titles to the home talking machines like the Phonograph and the Victrola.

During the 1900s, popular music underwent a mechanical revolution with the growing popularity of talking machines, yet sheet music still remained a popular format. Consequently, music marketing had split between two distinct business ventures; music publishers looked to sell copies of sheet music, while record companies were interested in selling machines and recorded music to play on them. The physical products show the differences in marketing quite distinctly; sheet music was colourful in artwork and contained plenty of publicity materials, but records were nondescript, featuring the title, the name of recording artist and of course the name of the company. Major music publishing firms like M. Witmark, Whitney Warner Music or Jerome H. Remick marketed music by including songs in popular stage performances of vaudeville and Broadway musicals. Publishers also relentlessly plugged music in public to potentially gain the potential customers’ attention. However record companies like Edison, Columbia and Victor, did not need to market the individual songs of Tin Pan Alley, since, by the time such songs found their way to record, an audience was already likely to have exposure to the titles. Instead, record companies relied on marketing their machines and their format, each company sometimes releasing the same songs. Music publishers created and promoted hit songs, but record companies, who had been allowed to record whatever music they wanted thanks to antiquated copyright laws, capitalized on their popularity by recording and selling already popularized hit songs.

An antecedent to a song’s becoming a hit includes a mass audience’s exposure to it. In the twenty-first century, this is often accomplished by commercial radio or by mobile apps like Pandora or Spotify. Understanding how a published song became a hit in an era when there was no television, radio, internet and limited silent motion pictures requires some investigation of how people were introduced to a new song. During the early twentieth century, introducing a song was accomplished by bringing it to the stage, most notably vaudeville shows, the most popular form of stage entertainment of the era.[1] The vaudeville circuit and national tours of musicals, follies, extravaganzas and burlesques brought uniform stage performances to local theatres across the country, including a plethora of musical material direct from Tin Pan Alley.[2] Some musical composers earned great success with their musical shows. George M. Cohan earned three of the biggest hits of 1905, “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “You’re a Grand Old Rag” after audiences heard them in his blockbuster musical The Yankee Doodle Boy.[3] Bert Williams, one of the leading stars of vaudeville, gained widespread fame after his signature hit song “Nobody” had been included in the musical Bandanna Land in 1905[4] and later gained more exposure with its inclusion in the extravagant Ziegfeld Follies of 1910.[5] Another method of getting a wider audience was to find some way to incorporate the song into a musical already in production. For example, the song “The Glow-Worm” was originally a German operatic tune from 1902, but after its inclusion in the 1907 musical The Girl Behind the Counter, introduced by singer May Naudain, it sold over a million copies of sheet music.[6] Introducing songs on stage allowed people to hear fresh, new musical products for later purchase.

When purchasing the music at the music department of a store, customers were not acquiring a live performance, they were purchasing sheet music and besides the actual song within the pages of vocal solo and piano accompaniment, customers were purchasing a whole package of marketing materials. Oftentimes, a composer’s name on the cover was enough to sell the song’s product, the composer’s name an integral part of the cover designs and illustrations on the package. Elaborate cover art helped illustrate the content of the song to give a portrait of what the consumer was purchasing, along with the genre like “waltz,” “two step,” and, later on, “foxtrot.” A portrait of the performer who initially “introduced” the song usually “with tremendous success”[7] were also prominently featured as part of the product. But songs were released by large publishing houses who were also interested in selling even more music. Back pages of sheet music featured a catalogue of the composer’s other less successful works, many of which were advertised as “hits” when they in fact were not, the term exploited to sell more music to interested customers.[8] Music also including an introductory sample of music so that consumers could “try this on the home piano” and to challenge their skills on forthcoming titles. For music publishers, they were not only selling the music, but also producing promotional packages including advertising for other titles in their catalogues.

Like any other kind of business involved in selling products, music publishers and composers needed to advertise their songs apart from the stage, in sometimes ruthless and unrelenting ways. For example, in 1892, Charles K Harris gained the biggest hit of the nineteenth century, “After the Ball,” after he had bribed a singer and conductor to jostle it into a Milwaukee performance of another composer’s musical.[9] Another method for gaining attention for a song, was the use of a plugger or a “singing stooge.” Music publishers and composers hired singers to publicly sing refrains and verses wherever they could for the chance that the public could remember the tunes later when browsing through music sections in shops. Composer Irving Berlin got his start in the music industry by plugging songs in this manner, hired by composer Harry von Tilzer to plug his songs at Tony Pastor’s, a forerunner in vaudeville theatre.[10] Some even paid “piano girls” to work in piano sections of department stores to play their songs for customers browsing for instruments and sheet music.[11] Stealing others’ music was also common by so-called “cuff boys” attending concerts and taking the ideas from unpublished works, then publishing them for their own gains. The composer Irving Jones who was illiterate in music was victim of such cuff boys countless times, according to Morgan and Barlow.[12] During an era when the goal was to sell the product, there were few marketing tools that music publishers did not exploit to arouse publicity of the latest music and products of their firms.

But also during the mid-1900s, the musical landscape was changing with the growing popularity of talking machines like the Phonograph or the latest technological marvel, the hornless Victrola, introduced in 1906. Although sheet music and home piano sales were still enjoying success, the talking machine was becoming a useful entertainment appliance for the home simultaneously. Machines prices had fallen quickly and machines were available in their own prominently displayed sections in department stores; consumer availability consequently was approaching its zenith. Machines were also becoming more aesthetically pleasing for the home with decorative horns and cases, which enticed consumers to purchase them.[13] But for record companies, marketing music was secondary to marketing machines, after all, if a customer purchased a machine, then they were likely to purchase music to play on it. In advertisements, the novelty of the machine itself was the focus and in record catalogues, there are only brief descriptions of the new titles available for purchase without spectacle.[14] For early record companies, it seems as though they were confident that customers of their machines would buy popular music, and individual titles were not marketed as heavily as music publishing firms.

The nature of the pre-recorded disc or cylinder was fundamentally different from the published sheet music; sheet music required play at home, while the machine simply required a wind of the motor and a drop of the needle despite some playback problems. Creating the consumer product of recordings in this early era was difficult industry itself and selecting singers and musicians was key in making quality music. Recording artists were hired by record studios depending on how well they could record certain types of songs, for example, Arthur Collins and Len Spencer made recording careers by performing coon songs and rags, even though both had been classically trained opera tenors. Singers Billy Murray and Harry Macdonough recorded songs with Irish vocals and dialects, Macdonough himself, an Irish immigrant. Even though the singers were quite talented, their recordings had lower fidelity sound quality compared to live play on the home piano. Oftentimes, even new recordings had problems with basic intelligibility. For example, the narrative recordings of humorist Cal Stewart, whose Uncle Josh records commented on popular culture events of the day, are virtually unintelligible when played on a talking machine.[15] The Victorla, which had become a popular culture phenomenon during the early 1910s, had much worse sound quality than external horn machines, but the hornless marvel still sold well.[16] The records themselves were minimal in packaging and aesthetic appeal compared to the packaging of sheet music. Cylinders were sold in non-descript canisters and packaging for flat records included enveloped which extolled the benefits of the record company rather than the title in its sleeve, and on the records during this period, the recording artist’s name was featured, not the composer or lyricist.[17] Despite the marketing of machines by record companies and the success they were enjoying in sales, their products were somewhat inferior in quality than music played on the home piano.

Beyond the physical product of recorded music, record companies did not promote individual songs as actively as publishers, but they still recorded hits out of commercial necessity. This is where the genius of the talking machine lies, with the opportunity to sell best-selling songs with which the audience was already familiar. While publishers gambled on which songs would sell well, record companies could wait and see what titles consumers were purchasing, and then make recordings of them for sale on their unique machine formats. There is generally a one year lag time between a song’s copyright date in print and the appearance of the same song on early Billboard music charts of the era. But a song’s treatment in sheet form legally was different than the recorded form during this time. The copyright laws of the United States in effect during this time dated from 1790, and did not include coverage of commercial sound recordings of songs.[18] The issue troubled President Theodore Roosevelt so much that the subject appeared in his 1905 Address to Congress, saying that “[copyright laws] omit provision for many articles which, under modern reproductive processes are entitled to protection.”[19] Consequently, companies could record and profit from pop songs without reimbursing the songwriter, the publisher or whoever owns the song’s copyright.[20] Craig Roell points out, however, that publishers encouraged recording their songs to get a broader audience despite the copyright situation.[21] For a few brief years, until 1909 when new copyright laws were enacted to include provisions for publisher royalties, there was little control over the recorded music market and even after the law’s passage, outright copyright infringement of musical publication was a civil offense, not a criminal one.[22] With no copyright in existence for sound recordings, and three big record companies vying for sales of records, sometimes three different versions of the same song appear on early music charts, each on separate labels. Songs like “In the Good Old Summer Time” (1903), “Love Me and the World is Mine,” (1906) and “Bedelia” (1903) each have multiple entries from the big three record companies on early Billboard charts.[23] While music publishers had to take chances on the potential hits of their song writers, record companies had the technological advantage of a consumer waiting for the title to appear on record.

These treatments in the pop song during this era shows that, while the same song appeared in two different formats and enjoyed relative success on both, their marketing for their format was quite different. Music publishers used various kinds of methods in promoting new songs of the day, including turning the consumer product into the promotional material and even taking the chance of hiring singers to plug the music in public and the bold step of interpolating their songs in other composers’ works. Record companies did not use such tactics, instead, they relied on advertising the new technology and assumed that the most popular title would eventually enter the record market and subsequently into the consumers’ homes. The actual products are quite different as well with sheet music illustrated, packed with promotional materials and, of course, the music. But in records, there was no such flashy packaging. This era in pop song history was unique since it was the first in which two formats, print and record, existed simultaneously in pop culture.


Fabrizio, Timothy C. and George F. Paul. The Talking Machines: An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing. 1997.

Forbes, Camille F. Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Corks, Broadway and the Story of America’s First Black Star. New York: BasicBooks. 2008.

Freeland, David. Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure. New York: New York University Press. 2009.

Furia, Philip. Irving Berlin: A Life in Song. New York: Schirmer Books. 1998.

——-. The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. New York: Oxford University Press. 1990.

Hischak, Thomas S. The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopaedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 2002.

Hyland, William G. The Song is Ended: Songwriters and American Music: 1900-1950. New York: Oxford University Press. 1995.

Morgan, Thomas L and William Barlow. From Cakewalks to Concert Hals: An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930. Washington, DC: Elliott & Clark Publishing. 1992.

Roell, Craig H. The Piano in America: 1890-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1989.

Roosevelt, Theodore. Fifth Annual Message to Congress. 5 December 1905. Contained in The State of the Union Message of the Presidents: 1790-1966. Vol 3, 1905-1966. Edited by Fred L Israel. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1966. 2144-2194.

Stein, Charles W. American Vaudeville as Seen by Its Contemporaries. New York: Alfred A Knoff. 1984.

Stempel, Larry. Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theatre. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2010.

Tancs, Linda. Understanding Copyright Law: A Beginner’s Guide. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009.

Whitburn, Joel. Pop Memories 1890-1955: The History of American Popular Music. Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc. 1986.


Cal Stewart (performer). “Uncle Josh Takes the Census.” 1921. Victor Record. Victor-1640. 78rpm disc.


[1] Charles W. Stein, American Vaudeville as Seen By Its Contemporaries, (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 1984), xi.

[2] Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 41.

[3] William G. Hyland, The Song is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 12.

[4] Larry Stempel, Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010), 92.

[5] Camille F. Forbes, Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Corks, Broadway and the Story of America’s First Black Star, (New York: BasicBooks, 2008), 179-180.

[6]Thomas S Hischak, The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopaedia, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 117.

[7] For an example of how all of these characteristics appear on sheet music, see Harry von Tilzer (music) and Andrew Sterling (lyrics), Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, (New York: Harry von Tilzer, 1905).

[8] David Freeland, Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville, (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 89-90.

[9] Stempel, 152.

[10] Philip Furia, Irving Berlin: A Life in Song, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998), 16.

[11]Craig H. Roell, The Piano in America: 1890-1940, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 34.

[12] Thomas L. Morgan and William Barlow, From Cakewalks to Concert Halls: An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930, (Washington, DC: Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1992), 48.

[13] Timothy C. Fabrizio and George F Paul, The Talking Machine, an Illustrated Compendium: 1877-1929, (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1997), 126.

[14] Advertisement for Edison Gold Moulded Record, May 1907, found on, accessed on 10 April 2014,

[15] Cal Stweart (performer), “Uncle Josh Take the Census,” 1921, Victor Record, Victor-1640, 78rpm disc.

[16] Fabrizio and Paul, 156.

[17] Examination of title in the author’s personal record collection contemporaneous with this era.

[18] Copyright Law of 1790, contained in Linda A. Tancs, Understanding Copyright Law: A Beginner’s Guide, (New York: Oxford University Pres, 2009), 63-65.

[19]Theodore Roosevelt, “Fifth Annual Message to Congress,” 5 December 1905, contained in The State of the Union Message of the Presidents: 1790-1966, vol 3, 1905-1966, edited by Fred L Israel, (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1966), 2182.

[20] Roell, 59.

[21] ibid.

[22] Copyright Law of the United States (1909), contained in Linda A. Tancs, Understanding Copyright Law: A Beginner’s Guide, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[23] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1955: The History of American Popular Music, (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc, 1986), 644-645.


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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

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