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The Music Industry and Radio

1950sRadioInColor_CoverBaby Boomers got their music from the radio, right?. We ran to the record stores to pick up the latest albums, but we heard everything first on radio. TV shows like American  Bandstand and Hullabaloo reinforced the message, but radio ruled.

You can even get books about it, like the one at right.

You might be thinking that I’m going to start ranting about how everything has changed. YouTube has replaced TV! iTunes drove the record stores out of business! Kids these days listen to garbage, etc. etc.

Actually, I’d like to make a bigger point: The music industry has ALWAYS been changing. We got dropped into the post-war era and made a couple of assumptions:

  1. Our music was new and different and our parents’ music was old and boring, and we were the first generation to be so innovative.
  2. Radio and records ruled. There was no other way to hear music.

ts_wkomdyctBy now, Boomers have dealt with children and grandkids listening to rap and hip hop. We’ve all been in the position of crying “You call that music?” and realizing that our parents said exactly the same thing.

So Assumption Number 1: debunked.

As for Assumption Number 2, records–LPs–are antiques. You know that, right? Radio is for the car, and songs nowadays are pretty much introduced by referrals to YouTube or iTunes.


But here’s the real problem with Assumption Number 2: the radio format of our day, with disc jockeys spinning Top Ten records and taking listener requests, as well as 45s and albums, were a fleeting fad. They had no history. That was not the Way Things Were–at least, not for very long.

The music industry has always been in flux. Constant change seems to be the nature of the beast.

download (1)Irving Berlin was the songwriter of our parents and grandparents’ generation. He was incredibly prolific and many of his songs–”White Christmas” and “God Bless America” come to mind–will probably be sung into the 22nd century. But when he wrote his first songs, a little over a hundred years ago, the only way music got distributed was through sheet music sellers and live performances.

That’s it. No radio, no movies, no nothing. Live performances: Vaudeville, musical revues, and paid “song pluggers” that stood on street corners, or outside stores, or even in theater balconies between acts to suddenly burst out singing a new tune so that everyone would run out and buy the sheet music. That was the music industry.

In the late 1920s, radio–a fairly new invention–started to change things. This is only thirty years before we were born! Radio stations started playing music mostly with live musicians, but some put a Victrola next to the microphone. The sound was terrible at first, but people listened–if they lived close enough to a station.

As radio stations began broadcasting more music, Irving Berlin–by now the biggest music star in America–joined with other composers to insist that radio stations pay royalties to composers and artists when they broadcast their music. Radio stations were aghast. Hey, they paid for the records they played! Why on earth should they have to pay royalties?

radioIt was a new world. ASCAP–the America Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers–hammered out agreements with stations. Through the 1930s radio signals grew stronger and media names that we recognize–CBS and NBC–set up networks of stations that spanned the country.

Gone was the innovative, local music that fledgling stations had played in the 20s. Now, everything was recorded and packaged in New York. Stars like BIng Crosby and Kate Smith had weekly shows. Backed up by studio orchestras, they sang the songs New Yorkers loved, and that’s what everyone listened to. If a big star on radio introduced a song, it was almost guaranteed to be a hit. Everyone in every state would run out to buy the record and maybe the sheet music too.

Dramas and news were broadcast too–all prepackaged for listeners. All that changed in our era. Why? Television!

1950s family TV’s popularity grew phenomenally fast, and the networks were quick to dump their radio shows and stations. The stars moved over to TV, lock, stock, orchestra, and big-money sponsors. And their audiences followed them.

Local entrepreneurs could take over abandoned radio stations–but what to do with them? Turns out tons of talent that had been ignored by corporate media was happy to play live or cut records for the new, independent stations. Musicians of color and ethnicity, jazz and blues, hillbilly and folk, and something new–rock and roll–got heard on the airwaves for the first time.

That’s where Boomers come in. When we listened to the Platters or Elvis on the radio and followed our favorite disk jockeys who told jokes and kept us entertained between songs, we thought we were hearing radio the way it always was–only the music was new. Actually, we were hearing a new style of music promotion, one that hadn’t existed before.

When you think about it–and add in the switch from sheet music to phonograph records of changing sizes and speeds, to 8 track and cassette tapes to cds, Napster, MP3s, MTV & cable shows from the 80s that used to play music, iTunes, YouTUbe and all the rest–I don’t think there has ever been a 20-year period in which the music industry was not completely shattered and reformed.

Change is its nature.

You can read a lot more about radio through the years here, at American Radio Works.

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One comment on “The Music Industry and Radio

  • Nik Goodman raises a relevant question by asking whether radio gets a fair share from the music industry in terms of marketing budgets, as record labels mostly advertise in other media to promote music. “I don’t have a very good answer, apart from to say that the record industry is spending less and less on TV as well”, Wadsworth replies. “The mix of the marketing money and focus for record labels changed completely with the advent of social media.”

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