The Printed Music Industry

When we talk and think about the music industry today, we usually talk and think about copyright, image, marketing, producers, promoters and record labels, and categorize musical compositions into a gazillion genres. Most importantly however, we take for granted that we can hear the music, recorded music that can be played back.

But before there was recorded music, there was music in print.

The origins of music publishing reach as far back as the 15th century, when shortly after the advent of Guttenberg’s printing press, the first printed copies of music were created.

Until then, music had to be written down by hand–a very labor-intensive, slow, tedious process–usually by monks, and most of the music that was written down were religious hymns. Secular music was extremely rare and reserved only for the richest of the rich and for highest of status.

The book of sheet music credited to be the first one printed from movable type is the Missale Romanum, printed by Roman printer Ulrich Han in 1476.

Ottaviano Petrucci, a Venetian printer and publisher took things a step further, and it is likely because of this that he is often mistakenly credited as the first to create a printed book of sheet music using movable type. He was able to secure a monopoly on printed music in Venice during the 16th century. During this time, Venice became one of the major music centers in Europe, thanks in large part to its being one of the main crossroads of trade, and a center of the Renaissance.

Though Petrucci was not the first to publish a book of printed sheet music, he was the first to print a book of polyphony (the style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other) using movable type. He published some of the most known composers of the Renaissance, and using the complicated and expensive triple-impression method, produced some of the cleanest prints of sheet music of the time.

Until mid-to-late 18th century, and the arrival of performers and composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the funds to produce printed sheet music were largely provided by aristocrats or the church, which made the printing of  sheet music a quite exclusive practice, reserved for the elites.

Mozart was one of the first to take his music and perform it to the general public. Post-mortem, Mozart’s music was heavily commercialized and marketed by his wife, leading up to a composition of Mozart’s biography. We could say in a sense, that Mozart was one of the first celebrity-like or rock-star-like figures in the music industry.

In the 1800s, the music industry was dominated by sheet music publishers. In the United States, black face minstrelsy emerged alongside the growth of the music industry. The late 1800s saw the emergence of Tin Pan Alley–a group of publishers and songwriters of popular music in the United States–and their domination of the music market.

The home of the Tin Pan Alley was Manhattan, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues on West 28th Street, and a memorial plaque can still be found in the sidewalk, commemorating this bona fide sheet music district.

Tin Pan Alley can be seen as the last chapter in the popularity of printed sheet music, as it declined with the arrival of recorded music and devices like the phonograph and cylinders or simply put, records.