Academic journal article Notes

Sheet Music Special Issues: Formats and Functions

Academic journal article Notes

Sheet Music Special Issues: Formats and Functions

Article excerpt

The appearance of the standard sheet music issue from the first half of this century, especially that of a popular song, is familiar to both musicians and the general public. Typically, the item is either a single sheet folded into a folio to yield four pages, or a folio with a half-sheet inserted to yield six pages.(1) In either case, the item generally begins with an illustrated title page often printed in more than one color.(2) The inner pages present the score, consisting of a separate staff for the melody with lyrics printed below it, a piano accompaniment, and chord diagrams or symbols usually intended for the ukulele, but sometimes for tenor banjo or guitar. A copyright infringement warning is often printed in the fold, and advertisements for other items offered by the publisher frequently occupy the last page.

This format is so familiar that description may, at first, seem unnecessary. Sheet music enjoyed wide distribution during the first half of this century, and this fact has given it an enduring presence in homes, as well as in libraries and archives. As is frequently the case, however, such seeming simplicity is deceptive, for in addition to printing popular songs in this customary format, sheet music publishers also produced a variety of special issues for specific purposes, the most frequently encountered of these being the "professional copy." This essay describes the formats and functions of some of these special issues, drawing its documentation in part from an archive of business papers of the Jerome H. Remick Company, "one of the largest and most powerful firms of Tin Pan Alley," and once the employer of a fifteen-year-old song plugger named George Gershwin.(3)

From the letters Remick's sales representatives in Chicago and Detroit sent to New York, and from those home-office responses they occasionally retained, it is clear that the standard sheet music issue was called either an "original copy," or simply--and more frequently--an "original." The term "professional copy" appears often in Remick's correspondence, the salesmen routinely placing orders for thousands of copies in this format. From these letters one surmises that the professional copy was a promotional issue for complimentary distribution within the music business. The quantities ordered suggest further that these professional copies were produced inexpensively. Both these conjectures are supported by documentary evidence.

By the close of the nineteenth century, the promotional function of the professional copy was apparently well established. Theodore Dreiser provided a clear explanation of its role in 1898:

Usually the first copies of the song printed are what are

called "professional copies," for which the thinnest kind of

newspaper is used. Probably five thousand of these are struck

off, all intended for free distribution among the singing profession

on the stage. If professional people, on hearing the song played

for them in the publisher's parlors think well of it, the publisher's

hopes rise. It is then his policy to print possibly a thousand regular

copies of the song, and these are sent out to "the trade," which is

the mercantile term for all the small stores throughout the country

which handle sheet music.(4)

As the twentieth century progressed, song plugging found other venues in addition to publishers' parlors and small music stores, greatly expanding the distribution of professional copies. A record of this expansion is preserved in succeeding editions of a book entitled How to Publish Your Own Music Successfully, written by Jack Gordon.(5) Across nearly five decades of social and technological change, in addition to music stores and professional singers, Gordon gradually includes music departments in dime stores and department stores, music jobbers, syndicates, recording companies, piano roll manufacturers, band and orchestra leaders, theaters, and radio stations in his lists of potential recipients of professional copies. …

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