Proseminar: Popular Music and American Society, 1955 – Present: an Introduction
Amerika Institut, WiSe: 2003/04
Why did the rock ’n’ roll era begin in 1955?
In this essay I want to discuss why rocknroll emerged at all and also why it did so at a certain time. When did the rocknroll era really begin? Was it when the first rocknroll record was released or was it when a certain song was named “a rocknroll song” for the first time? If you prefer the second option, the date is pretty easily marked. The story is, that in 1952 Billy Ward was giving an interview to the disc jockey Allan Freed at a radio station. When Wards Song “Sixty Minute Man” was running, Freed tried to find a name for this totally new kind of music and did so when he heard the lyrics of the song saying “I rock ‘em roll ’em all night long” (see Ennis 18). But you could just as well take the release of “Rocket 88” in 1951 as the beginning of the rocknroll era, because that was the first rocknroll song. So far we have the years 1951 and 1952 to choose from. Maybe a certain date will turn up while we examine why rocknroll emerged at all. Starting with an essay by Richard Peterson this leads us to the question: In how far is the situation of the music industry of the 1950s responsible for the emergence of rocknroll?
Peterson says that six factors of the music industry have been identified that contribute to the circumstances why a certain kind of music emerges. These are law, technology, industry structure, organisation structure, occupational careers and market (see Peterson 98). He discusses all of them in detail but I will just summarize his findings and arguments. In 1914 ASCAP was founded, an organisation to collect royalties for public performances of music. The royalties were established and regulated by the US Copyright Law of 1909. Until 1950 ASCAP determined what kind of music could be heard on the radio, because only songs ASCAP was in charge of were allowed to be played. Since ASCAP almost exclusively relied on old fashioned music, black music and anything new was virtually excluded from radio broadcast. But then in 1939 the rivalling organisation BMI was formed. BMI was engaged in the music field left out by ASCAP, and when in 1940 all ASCAP songs were excluded from the radio because of disputes over use-fees, only BMI music could be heard. After that, even when ASCAP got back into the radio again after solving the quarrels, songs from BMI were still being broadcasted. But this - the entry of new music styles into radio broadcast - was only one development contributing to the advent of rocknroll. (see Peterson 99-100)
Another important change in the field of law occurred in 1947 concerning the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) policy of restricting radio station licenses. Before that year the FCC restricted the number of stations to three up to five and during the war all requests for radio station licenses were denied. “All this changed in 1947 when the FCC began to approve most of the backlog of applications” (Peterson 101). It did so, because it was thought that the new medium of television would replace radio totally. This way the technological innovation of television had an effect on the radio scene. Other technological innovations, which are important in respect to the emergence of rocknroll, are the invention of the 45 rpm vinyl record, which was practically unbreakable and enabled small record companies to distribute their records nationally, and the transistor, which enabled young Americans to listen to their favourite radio station and to their favourite music anytime and anyplace. (see Peterson 101-2)
The next point of interest is the structure of the music industry. From 1948 to 1958 it changed dramatically. In 1958 the newly emerged independent radio station had to search for a cheap way of programming and therefore turned to playing phonograph records, whereas “there never was a national network programme in the 1940s that played phonograph records on the air” (Peterson 104). This development also changed the record industry, because the more records were played on radio the more records were sold in stores. “The major record companies […] were slow to adopt to the changes that were taking place in radio and a large number of recently founded small record companies […] provided the sorts of music that proved to be more popular” (Peterson (105). In 1948 the market had been dominated by an oligopoly of only a handful of companies, now in 1958 their share of record sales declined and the small firms proved to be able to compete with them. Another reason for this was that they no longer controlled the distribution system, because of the new 45 rpm records. (see Peterson 106)