By Tony Walas / Harris-Teller, Inc. / author Visions of Music – Sheet Music in the Twentieth Century It’s interesting to remember that our organization was originally called the RSMDA (Retail Sheet Music Dealers Association). There’s that important phrase – sheet music. It’s something we sell and are familiar with, yet do people (ourselves included) really know much about it?
In recent history, it is a mere shadow of what it used to be. Certainly at one point in the early twentieth century, sheet music was the driving force of the music industry and the major money maker for the publishers. The great American songwriter Irving Berlin is reputed to have said “A good song . . . is a song that sells.” What he was talking about was not digital downloads, or CD’s, or LP’s, or tapes, or 45s, but sheet music. During that time period, some titles would literally sell millions of copies, and were advertised as “available through your favorite music dealer or wherever music is sold,” which was a commonly printed phrase on the back of many pieces.
Before recordings were widely available, sheet music was the best way to hear and learn the newest Tin Pan Alley or popular songs, usually coming with a photo of the artist or an image from the production on the front. In fact, the publishers had illustrators on staff to produce eye-catching and artistic covers to help sell the music, which now makes them more collectible. I was working in the print music industry for over ten years before I started to realize and appreciate the unique nature of some of the sheets I was seeing on a daily basis. Up to that point, it was a commodity that I would pull for customers or fill on orders. It’s only when people would ask to go back into our files and spend hours searching through our sheet music drawers, looking for interesting titles, covers or artists, that my eyes were truly opened. It was one of those Ah-ha! light bulb moments.
Only when we examine these covers do we truly appreciate the artistic elements of style that were used to promote the sale of this sheet music. We need to connect with these pieces from the past, and preserve them, before we lose the remarkable perspective, the visual delight – the colorful history, that they represent. They remind us of how things were. Vintage sheet music is something to be used, yet also a thing to be saved and visually enjoyed. The covers give us a keen insight into the world as it was, and they reflect the passage of time . . . a world long forgotten. It’s the memories and history they evoke that transcends the music they contain. Unfortunately, the dumpster is often the fate of old music titles, since in many people’s opinion it’s just “collecting dust” and they see no value in it. Because of this, I see myself as a preservationist as well. That factor adds a whole different aspect to the idea of being a collector.
Seen in this light, sheet music can be considered as interesting historic artifacts, freezing a moment in time and creating a snapshot of the past for us to view. Sheet music is an aspect of the music industry that is fading away from our awareness, but one which deserves to be remembered and enjoyed. As members of the RPMDA, we should acknowledge the fact that, though our name has changed, the history remains with us, and it is something we should cherish as part of our musical heritage.