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|Ragtime and the Economy|
|A Condensed and not so Boring Thesis on the Effects of Ragtime Music on the American Economy|
by Bill Edwards:
Contents Copyright ©2001/2004/2007 by William G. Edwards
When I first approached this seemingly unexplored topic in college, there was not quite the abundance of information on this mildly complex subject as there is now some three decades later. While it is not stated in any direct way that Ragtime music and related art forms helped the United States out of a financial and emotional depression, the music business was a major player in many ways that are not overtly obvious. What will be explored here are the phenomenon of trickle down economics and the process of fractal expansion within the music and entertainment industry, which was not always a tacit economic leader as it has been since the 1970s. In fact, there was no music industry per se in 1893, but it was clearly there by the mid-1910s. Some of this may be construed as opinion, which it is, but most of it is fact backed by hard data. I hope that you, as was I, will be mildly amazed and perhaps bemused when you see how Ragtime helped to save the American Economy.
As an addendum, and per the explicit suggestion of my friend, Ragtime performer and historian Max Morath, I would like to note that in the background of this text it would be helpful to note that the music industry grew in part because of new technologies it was able to take advantage of; primarily cylinder and disc phonographs, player pianos, telephone (which was used for concert demonstrations), and electronic sound reproduction and broadcast in the late 1910s. It should also be made clear that the term "Ragtime" (which Max suggests should be capitalized as a named genre) refers to the music of the Ragtime era that was influenced by piano Ragtime; not just piano rags, but all variety of songs, intermezzos, syncopated waltzes and dance tunes. Given this context, and the legacy of thousands of pieces of sheet music and piano rolls that came from it, the role of the growth of music in tandem with technology and the effects on a recovering economy will appear much more viable.
We must first explore to some extent how the United States was placed in a position where the music business could help it, and also a brief history outlining why the industry was poised to do so at what was a fortuitous time for them. It was the convergence of these needs that the makeup of American society changed radically within a mere two decades.
In the last decade of the 19th century, the American economy, and to some extent the world economy, suffered a mildly crippling depression that remains second in scope only to the devastating financial crisis of the early 1930s.
The Bland-Allison Act of 1878 that allowed the purchase at the 16 to 1 gold/silver ratio had been vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes who warned that maintaining such a high ratio of minting would quickly overvalue silver and force gold out of circulation.
Early in 1893, banks were suffering as a result of investments in railroads, iron ores, and other commodities that sharply dropped in value.
|Music Industry Background:|
In reality, calling the music publishing business an industry was laughable at best, even though it had a history traceable as far back as the 1790s in the United States. It took a lot of effort, risk, and true love of the craft of publishing and editing music to maintain a business, along with an acumen that many musicians did not possess. As a result, many partnerships between family members or friends who had different skill sets grew out of the need for sound business ability. Then there were issues with obtaining music to print, much less new compositions, and the process of getting that music circulated to the public. Typesetting was time consuming, as was the process of making woodcuts or lithography plates for the covers. There was also the problem of widespread distribution. Boston firms rarely saw their music distributed outside of New England, while San Francisco publishers sometimes did better business with Japanese or Russian sailors than with New York musicians due to geographical barriers. International trade for the music business in the mid 19th century was miniscule in comparison with that of other tangible goods. Not very many publishing firms founded before 1880 lasted more than a decade or so, and were often consumed by their more prosperous competitors.
One must wonder if a publisher often answered the question, "How can I sell more music?" with, "I need to obtain a hit song!" In reality, there was little in the way of "hit" songs before the 1890s, and some of the popular ones were disseminated to more than one publisher, often to the financial detriment of the composer. Even the great Stephen Foster, who was able to adapt or create American folk songs, saw very little benefit from his widespread popularity. There were a few songs that became well known across broad areas during the American Civil War and the westward expansion that followed it. But even these were circulated largely through performance and not through sheet music sales.
Music performance was also hardly the lucrative field it has now become into the 21st century. Performers often had few other skills, such as farming or an apprenticed trade, so they depended largely on their ability as musicians, actors or promoters to mete out a perilous standard of living at best. Most of the local variety shows in the United States before the 1880s were itinerant in nature, with troupes traveling through regions looking for adequate venues to perform in - even settling for outdoors on many occasions. Admission prices in ratio to incomes of the time were rather insignificant, but the opportunities for attending so-called "professional" entertainment events in much of rural America through the middle of the 19th century were rare, so most everybody in town would take advantage of them. There was rarely any personal money actually budgeted for entertainment except among the middle and upper class population in the larger towns and cities. Also, many entertainers used their own material, and unless they had seen to publishing it for sale at their shows, the tunes would often disappear as soon as the troupe left town.
Advances in metallurgy and technology helped to reduce the cost of publishing in general, and advantageously so in terms of quantity of output. The advent of the transcontinental rail lines along with a better overall transportation network helped some publications see wider circulation. But even in the mid 1880s, the time had not come when entertainment was seen as more than some scurrilous occupation, or for the composers and publishers of music to penetrate rapidly into the American home with tunes that resounded through the heads of their occupants. This was all about to change.
One of the obvious factors that created the financial panic situation in 1893 was overbearing government intervention. Another less evident cause was the nature of businesses that were driving the economy in the late 19th century. It is clear why this time period was labeled The Industrial Age, as most of the major investments were in railroads, ores and coal, steel and other building materials, and lining politician's pockets by the industrial leaders. (as evidenced by the Tammany Hall scandal in New York City). The American worker was valued for his work ethic, but little consideration seemed to be given to leisure time.
The music of the early 1890s seemed to match the mood of the country in general. There were many thoroughly depressing tear-jerker ballads both produced and performed, and what little popular music aside from those that was getting notoriety were what would be soon known as "coon" songs. An example of the most famous of these tearjerkers from 1893 is The Fatal Wedding by Gussie Davis and William Windom. It vividly describes a wedding ceremony at which the groom's former lover shows up with his illegitimate baby in the throes of death. He proceeds to kill himself in front of the guests, whereas the child dies shortly thereafter. The bride takes responsibility for the future of the mother of her now deceased groom's child, and as they plan to live together the whole situation makes Hamlet look rather tame. But this was what was selling at that time. The first piece of what can now be termed as truly "Popular Music" was After the Ball by Charles K. Harris.
It was in 1893 that Ragtime was first reportedly heard, played either at the Chicago Columbian Exhibition or in some of the many venues surrounding the fair. It is also possible that this is where the great Scott Joplin initially encountered the music that would be his calling for the rest of his life. While the Ferris Wheel and belly dancer Little Egypt got the bulk of publicity at the event, visiting musicians were paying attention to this new style of syncopated piano playing. Many of them were the pioneers that took this raw form of the music and helped make it more palatable and easier to publish. By 1897, the term "rag-time", had been coined, and syncopation was starting to appear everywhere. It would soon be concatenated into "ragtime." By the turn of the 20th century in 1901, cakewalks, "coon" songs, marches, piano rags, and other popular song forms were quickly overtaking the maudlin ballads of the prior decade in both sales and performance frequency. While the majority of piano rags would see only regional distribution, Tin Pan Alley in New York city would soon prove to be a major factor in music production, and a much expanded and in many ways new industry was underway.
It is rare that the growth of one industry does not cross over or trickle down into others. The burgeoning world of music publishing and performance in the early 20th century provides a vivid example of this, and suggests a unique business paradigm as well. It was a fortuitous opportunity when initial demand was growing well beyond supply, but the changeover in the American economy was helping create a supply of workers who soon fueled the demand. As they are involved in a diverse number of industries in varying capacities, we will try to break down the distribution of supply in terms of each product, noting crossover where it exists. While not every minute facet of the great network that supported popular music creation and performance can be explored in this space, the general idea of how far reaching it actually was will hopefully be evident.
However, to meet the increasing demand for sheet music, it was the expansion that was a large key to fueling the economy.
SALES AND DISTRIBUTION: Printing the music was one thing. However, getting it into the stores and eventually into the hands of the eager buying public was quite another. One position that had existed in many publishing house and was now gaining prominence was that of the music salesman. But the parameters of that job were changing as well. Whereas in the past it was often a musician that took this position (a necessity to demonstrate songs), the qualifications for such employment were transitioning towards those with a higher balance of business acumen. They also needed to be able to sell the song to popular performers, sometimes backstage between shows. And while music stores were opening at a record rate in the early 1900s, non-music stores, such as Woolworth's or Wanamakers, were now taking on popular sheet music as part of their cornucopia of dry goods. This often meant employment of a pianist to demonstrate songs or rags right in the store. Even though there were a large number of male pianists in the United States, they were often working in other day jobs, or not available or amenable to such a position. As a result, it was the female, who was most often the member of the American family likely to have had some formal piano instruction, who filled these positions. This was a new direction in American culture, as previously most women were either homemakers or worked in sweatshop environments. Now those that were pianists could be independent wage earners (although still extremely disparate from men's pay scales) who could also shine as one person rather than as part of a group of mass laborers.
Another increasingly effective mode of distribution and promotion was that of celebrity endorsement.
Other marketing methods to get music into homes cannot be ignored. The publication of music-oriented magazines, both popular and classical, as well as distribution of select pieces such as Hello Ma Baby as Sunday newspaper supplements went a long way toward putting ragtime in as many homes as possible. Catalogs of music libraries were routinely sent out, some via a parcel post spread, usually for free. General magazines also sometimes had supplements, and most had prominent advertisements for music with some catchy samples, or for piano rolls and hardware to play them, much in the way that televisions would dominate magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. Even basic businesses like Woolworths Five and Dime stores added music departments and demonstrators to staff them, as did most of the fancier department stores around the country. Select pieces would be heavily disounted as loss-leaders in order to gain foot traffic in the retail spaces to encourage the purchase of the more popular hit songs. In these ways popular music helped propogate itself into its own popularity, albeit with a lot more effort than by radio, which would eventually be the most viable and widespread conduit. To some extent, for the first time in American society, the public was ostensibly being told what was popular, although that ploy clearly did not always succeed.
PIANOS: In addition to the burgeoning sheet music industry, other facets of the economy saw clear gains due to renewed consumer confidence by 1898, and the desire to bring broader entertainment and leisure into the American home. Of course to play most music in the home for frequent family gatherings, a required piece of furniture was the piano.
But many American consumers had neither the time nor the inclination
For more detailed information on this topic please view my Player Piano article on this site.
Ragtime and liquor seemed to go together well, and this combination was an experience afforded to the many millions of visitors to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the 1904 World's Fair, with its many venues offering both. The musicians themselves imbibed in more than just alcohol, acquiring dependencies on some of the variety of opiates readily available before the advent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. The musicians often introduced select members of their audiences to a cornucopia of drugs as well. Once these substances were made illegal, a black market was formed where these narcotics were still available, but at inflated prices. Addictions being what they are, business was good and the economy was still driven from within this diabolical cycle. In fact, it was the abuse and addiction of alcohol that contributed to one of the underground's greatest economic boons - the Prohibition of Alcohol in the United States instituted in 1920 in the form of the 18th amendment to the Constitution and the dreaded Volstead Act. Opium dens were still in operation, but now the Speakeasy was added to the mix, and many musicians could command even higher wages working in these venues, given the potential risk of raids by law enforcement, when they cared to do so. In addition, addiction and detox units were proliferating by necessity in American hospitals, creating more trained staff positions as well as state and local government subsidies. No matter what the money went for, it all trickled back into the economy somehow.
Around the same time as the coin operated mechanical music devices were placed in public venues, so were machines that when cranked would spin a series of small photographs around in a specific sequence,
It has been often noted that carnal recreation has never gone out of style. That being said, the "red light" districts (red lights were literally used to highlight the locations)
While it is evident that popular music and entertainment during the Ragtime era were not overtly obvious forces in the American economy, the trickle down effect from the many new forms of fiscal exchange that they created certainly helped drive things forward both in the circulation of dollars and increased employment for non-traditional workers. Similar boons, however temporary, have been experienced since then, as with the new employment opportunities afforded by the Second World War in the 1940s, and the rapid growth of Internet-based companies in the 1990s. Entertainment has since become as much a factor in the global economy as the manufacture of durable goods or providers of business services. This is clearly evidenced by companies such as the television networks, sporting franchises, recording labels and film companies. Satellite and cable outlets now have as many as 100 audio channels alone, in addition to a couple dozen music video channels. Just the Disney Corporation alone helps to drive the economy of the entire state of Florida, and is regularly infusing dollars into circulation in France, Japan, and China. Even the perceptions of the industry have changed, in part because of the revenue it generates, and in part because of the revenue it demands. There was a time as late as the early 20th century when musicians and actors were looked upon with the lowest of regard. Now members of these same professions can command salaries that equal the gross national product of many smaller countries in the world.
So it would be folly to dismiss the notion that something as simple as a revolutionary new music form could have a significant impact on the life of a farmer or a stockbroker. But an analysis of history as explored here suggests otherwise. And as to the lasting effect and continuing presence of Ragtime music? The late Ragtime Bob Darch probably said it best in one of his most famous quotes:
"Ragtime dead? Hell, I didn't even know it was sick!"
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