100 years ago, music radio stations did not yet exist. But record players were around, so people could purchase music to play at home. So now the music industry had to figure out what kind of records people would buy. Is it the same kind of music they would go hear in a performance hall?
In America the popular song is of comparatively recent introduction. Its prototype was a composition with monotonous refrain and elaborate setting, which could only be rendered by a trained voice after laborious practice. It was seldom heard outside of drawing rooms, where it was sung with due ceremony and technical precision by prim young maidens in fresh white gowns and dapper swains in swallowtails. The only part of it that ever impressed the unfamiliar ear was the insistent refrain, which always ran something after this fashion: “Evangeline, where wendest thou? Where wendest thou, Evangeline — where wendest thou — where wendest thou — wendest thou — wendest thou-thou-t-h-o-u!!”
The song always left you in doubt and wonderment. You never learned where fair Evangeline wended, nor why she wended; nor, indeed, any single fact of interest or consequence regarding her.
That sort of song could never have become popular. You couldn’t expect the messenger boy and the shopgirl to take a very keen interest in Evangeline’s wendings when they led to nowhere. The masses need something more direct — something with a more human appeal. One of the chief secrets of popular song writing is to tell a simple story and to tell it completely.
At that time no attempt was made to cater to the musical tastes of the people. It was not supposed that they had any. Almost the only approach to popular ballads were a few well-worn war songs and plantation ditties. But two or three American song writers were trying to get a hearing with the kind of appeal to the people which in England, where the music halls afforded a ready avenue for reaching the masses, had been successfully made for many years.
The article goes on to describe the elements of a popular song. What should it be called? What should it be about? I found this article a delightful read. Today, of course, songwriters have the same challenges, but manufacturing a hit has become as much a technical and business endeavor as a creative one.
HOW POPULAR SONG FACTORIES MANUFACTURE A HIT: The Original Score Is Sometimes Hardly Recognizable After the Tinkering Is Completed — Luck a Big Factor in the Business (PDF)
From September 18, 1910