A Brief History of How Musicians Get Paid

It’s no secret that there’s less money in recorded music than there used to be. Digital media certainly has radically altered music distribution and consumption, but further complicating the matter is that copyright law in the United States is in an unusual stasis. Even with ASCAP pounding on its doors, the United States Congress is unlikely to get with the times.

But when has it ever been easy for musicians to get paid? While it’s easy to bemoan the hardships we face in the digital age, musicians always have struggled with changing mediums, distribution challenges and collecting compensation since the earliest days of music marketing in the United States.

Here’s a look at the host of issues working musicians have confronted throughout the ages in the pursuit of earning a living.


Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” was a hit. If you don’t know Stephen Foster, you probably know his songs. “Old Folks at Home” since has become widely known as “Way Down Upon the Swanee River.” He also penned the songs “Oh, Susanna” and “Camptown Races,” among others. The 1800s were a boon to popular music, and there was money to be made in publishing sheet music.

Before the days of recording, this is how most people heard music: in their living rooms with a family member or a friend tickling the keys on a piano and singing. People used to buy sheet music like they came to buy records. It would stay an important stream of revenue for years until it collapsed under the increasing popularity of recorded music.


The opening of the Chicago World’s Fair featured the world’s first Ferris Wheel and a performance by one of the most renowned composer/performers of the day: John Philip Sousa.

But Sousa didn’t travel with a large orchestra. In his day, popular songs were published as sheet music and demand for entertainment prompted a large market for music teachers and resulted in a large pool of highly competent trained musicians. In fact, there were enough competent musicians that Sousa could tour and hire local music teachers to help him perform everything from Beethoven to Stephen Foster tunes and his own famous marches.

John Philip Sousa


Sousa was still an influential figure in American music and recording technology was on the rise. But Sousa hated what he called “canned music.” He saw it as dangerous to American art. In his pamphlet “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” Sousa wrote:

“Step by step through the centuries, working in an atmosphere almost wholly monopolized by commercial pursuit, America has advanced art to such a degree that today she is the Mecca toward which journey the artists of all nations. Musical enterprises are given financial support here as nowhere else in the universe, while our appreciation of music is bounded only by our geographical limits.

This wide love for the art springs from singing school, secular or sacred; from the village band, and from the study of those instruments that are nearest the people.There are more pianos, violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos among the working classes of America than in all the rest of the world, and the presence of these instruments in the homes has given employment to enormous numbers of teachers who have patiently taught the children and inculcated a love for music throughout various communities.”

He went on to say that recorded music would destroy music and musicianship. And largely, it has. Very few people in America nowadays spend the effort to master an instrument and many are even discouraged by their culture and their family to start.


Recordings become subject to copyright. Composers began to earn royalties from the sale of records. Previously, they had only been paid for the recording date and made nothing from the sale of each record. When the popularity of the jukebox launched the sale of recorded music into the stratosphere in the 1940s, it wouldn’t crash back to earth until the 21st Century.

These royalties wouldn’t have benefitted many musicians who weren’t composers, however. They would come to make their money from live radio performances along with performing in hotels and in other venues. If they didn’t compose the piece, they weren’t eligible for the recording royalties.


1920 to Prohibition

The 1920s often are known as a good time for music. But aside from gigs opening up for musicians to play live on the radio, however, Prohibition closed a lot of doors for musicians. According to Elijah Wald’s excellent alternative history of American popular music, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll,” tens of thousands of live music venues closed down in the first few years of the decade. Speakeasies weren’t lucrative for musicians either. Many of them chose not to have live music in order to keep the noise down and avoid attracting unwanted attention from the street.

Musicians and venues found a way. As the dust settled and people started to realize how Prohibition was going to be enacted and enforced, venues started to employ tactics such as selling glasses of ice at whiskey prices. People would come with their own flasks, and the venues could pay the band without risking liability for breaking federal law. When Prohibition ended, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, cafes and beer gardens started hiring more bands all across the country.

For further reading, and an in depth look at money in American music, Reverb recommends Elijah Wald’s “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll.”

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