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A London Bridge to the Art of Selling Songs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“The Art of Selling Songs” is a perfect double-edged title for an ambitious new museum exhibition here that documents both the visual artistry and the marketing techniques of the music business in the last three centuries.

Featured in the exhibit, at the regal Victoria & Albert Museum through June 23, are record sleeves, posters, songbooks, concert tickets and other printed paraphernalia related to the music trade. The displayed works range from such rarities as richly illustrated 17th-Century song sheets and a 1920s limited-edition music book designed by Man Ray, to such common goods as the “Led Zeppelin III” album cover and a pair of tickets for David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” tour.

“The basic premise” of the exhibit, says curator Kevin Edge, who assembled it and wrote an accompanying book, “is that music is a commodity. You can sell it, you can profit from this invisible, intangible product.”

Edge wanted to look at the ways music has been made visible, tangible and profitable. Subtitled “Graphics for the Music Business 1690-1990,” the collection is divided into three parts: song sheets and music books; posters, tickets and handbills for live performances, and packaging for recorded sound.

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Overall, the exhibit presents a fascinating tangle of art and commerce in which it is sometimes unclear where the art leaves off and the commerce begins.

Long before the Rolling Stones released “Their Satanic Majesties Request” with a 3-D cover, music publishers and concert promoters realized that compelling imagery could attract attention and customers.

In 18th-Century England, elaborately illustrated concert tickets became collectors’ items, which, in turn, heightened interest in the live performances. During the same period, song sheets were sold that included drawings depicting the theme of the song. The added artwork gave the cold musical notations a more appealing, human--and accessible--dimension.

Juxtaposed with the more subtle marketing aspects of the music business are some blatant sales ploys that were devised just as long ago. For example, the notion of using “airplay” to generate interest in particular songs goes back to at least Shakespearean times. Song sheets were sold on the streets by vendors who would sing the tunes out loud to hook potential customers.

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During the 19th Century, well-known singers were paid by music publishers to include certain songs in their performances as a way to popularize the tunes and increase sales of the sheet music. While some performers were paid a specific fee up front, others took a percentage on each song sheet sold, stamping their names on each sheet to keep track of sales. The stamping became known as the “royalty system.”

Another enduring sales technique has been the “greatest hits” concept, which was used to package assorted works from a single composer into one music book. Examples in the “Selling Songs” exhibit include a collection of Handel compositions from about 1803 and a Bing Crosby compilation LP released in 1956.

An offshoot of the greatest-hits idea is the album that offers recorded compilations of hit songs that are not performed by the artists who made them famous. One of the examples on display is a Top of the Pops collection from 1971, which, the record sleeve notes, contains versions of “My Sweet Lord” and “Maggie May.”

The development of the recorded music industry in the late 19th Century presented all sorts of new promotional possibilities. From the very beginning, music executives realized they had to instill consumer confidence in the durability and longevity of the electronic equipment (hardware) that would play the recorded music (software).

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Today, the entertainment business strategy of linking hardware and software is generally thought of in terms of giant Japanese electronics companies buying American film studios and record companies. The idea is that the parent company is assured of always having something to play on the gizmos it manufactures. The death of the Betamax video format is usually cited as the textbook example of what can go wrong.

One hundred years ago, most companies in the musical recording business were already selling both the hardware and software. Their marketing task was to persuade consumers that buying wax cylinder recordings, and the equipment to play them on, was a worthwhile investment.

The cardboard tube packaging that held the wax cylinder “records” always depicted illustrations and advertising copy that promoted the hardware made by the same company. Inside the early phonograph boxes were pictures of families in harmonious bliss, gathered around the music machine.

The paradox of the situation, both then and now, is that at the same time electronics companies are persuading consumers to buy their latest devices, they are working on new products that could render the current ones obsolete.

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Part of the fun of the “Selling Songs” exhibit is to see how unadulterated marketing can coexist with art for art’s sake. Campbell’s Soup cans aside, there is no mass-consumed product that features more museum-ready packaging than the music business.

Among the scores of works that straddle beauty and salesmanship is the poster for the London Chamber Orchestra’s “power concert” held last year. Hoping to attract a young audience, the orchestra distributed copies of a huge poster that featured a luscious, ripe strawberry under the screaming headline “Classical music bloody loud.”

Promotional materials for the seminal ‘70s punk rock band the Sex Pistols was as raw and influential as the band’s music; both attacked the slick artistic conventions of the time. A pink fluorescent poster for the 1979 soundtrack of the Sex Pistols film “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” declared that “The Only Notes That Matter Are the Ones That Come in Wads.”

With characteristic, but unplanned, panache, another Pistols poster--this one a “guerrilla graphics” collage for their “Never Mind the Bollocks” album--was literally rescued from a garbage can before it was hung on the Victoria & Albert wall.

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Homage is paid to the 1970 Who album “Live at Leeds,” which managed to incorporate the business side of rock music into the artistic side. Stuffed inside the plain, brown sleeve, which was meant to look like a bootleg album cover, were copies of contracts, invoices and a wealth of other business papers. There was even a sales order for smoke bombs.

Says Edge: “It’s the Who, who style themselves as the first pop art band, toying with the idea of the ephemeral and the everyday being a work of art. It’s wonderful. I just can’t see anyone bothering to do that these days.”

The connection between commerce and art in music is turned upside down in a display of materials produced by Crass, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s collective of musicians and artists who, according to Edge, welded disparate social comments with intentionally abrasive sound and pictures to “sell” an alternative system of attitudes.

Crass Records invited amateur artists and musicians to submit their work for pressing, printing and release. The material Crass received eventually appeared on two compilation albums.

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Standing out among the writings and graphic designs on the sleeve of one of the albums, which is on display in the “Selling Songs” exhibit, is the boldface message “Business and Music Don’t Mix!”


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