Among the oldest and most enduring criticisms of American popular music is the charge that it is nothing more than an industrial product, made for profit and designed for mass production and consumption, rather than a work of personal expression. In other words, pop songs are merely commercial goods, not art—or so the argument goes.
The first American tunes to be million-selling hits—as sheet music, before the invention of radio or records—were marketed in the 1890s, when industrialization was taking hold in this country. A maudlin ballad by one Charles K. Harris titled “After the Ball” sold more than two million song sheets in 1892 and would go on to sell more than five million copies. Mass popularity had become possible through mass production by offset printing, mass distribution over the railroads, and mass marketing through the department stores opening around the country to sell parlor furniture, pianos, and other symbols of prosperity and gentility to the emerging American middle class. It didn’t take long for newspaper commentators to equate the vastly popular and unabashedly populist sheet music with the standardization and regimentation of industrial production.
“Nowadays, the consumption of songs by the masses in America is as constant as their consumption of shoes, and the demand is similarly met by factory output,” asserted an uncredited writer for The New York Times in an article headlined “How Popular Song Factories Manufacture a Hit,” published in 1910. “Songs may be properly classed with the staples, and are manufactured, advertised, and distributed in much the same manner as ordinary commodities. The minstrels and ballad writers of old probably brought more talent to bear upon their work and took greater pains with it than do their latter-day successors.”
The “song factories” to which the article referred were the music-publishing companies of Tin Pan Alley—a phrase originally intended to ridicule the sounds emanating from the open windows of the buildings on West 28th Street in Manhattan, where tunesmiths such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and countless others labored at pianos like musical Dilberts. The songs were constructed and packaged, piece by piece, by a series of specialists: a lyricist, a composer, an arranger, and a publisher. Then the tunes would be performed (or, before long, recorded and broadcast) by additional teams of specialists: a singer, a bandleader, another arranger, a band. Hence the handy analogy with assembly-line production—and the hand-in-hand idealization of methods of the past as purer, uncorrupted by commerce or mechanization.
By the 1920s, as the Jazz Age sound of ragtime began to supplant the parlor sheet music of early Tin Pan Alley in popularity, critics simply transferred their contempt for commercial production methods to the rag craze and updated the objects of their idealization. “American ragtime is now factory-made,” proclaimed a writer for the Los Angeles Times in 1921. “Popular songs are no longer the products of lone, gifted individuals, but the work of organized experts. Their various parts are created and assembled with the same speed and mechanical perfection as motor cars.… Jazz has passed into the hands of American industry, and…the carefree days of Tin Pan Alley are over.”