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Irving Berlin: Marching to Success
We are used to marking grades of success using various metals. First place in a competition is gold; second, silver; and third, bronze. The practice of using metals to characterise success extends to music as well. Sell a million records, and you have achieved platinum or increments of platinum. We often hear of songs achieving double platinum sales and associate them with being successful ones. But before all this, the mark of a good song was not how many copies it sold, or how many digital downloads had been made. In bygone times predating the invention of the phonograph, the mark of a good song was how many copies of sheet music it sold, for the medium of paper was the determiner in assessing its popularity.
And in the first two decades of the twentieth century, you would be hard-pressed to argue against the fact that the song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was the most successful song then. Written by none other than Irving Berlin, the song was a multi-million-selling hit and brought American popular music into the mainstream. The tune featured a simple catchy tune, and most people would have heard it played on the piano by a friend or family member. Though the song is ragtime in name, it was only in a nominal sense, and less complex than the more popular Scott Joplin song, "The Entertainer". Its lack of complexity in a way helped it to become more accessible, as the song was a simpler one that amateurs could master ... which encouraged more sheet music sales. In just over eighteen months, the song sold over 1.5 million copies, making Berlin a hefty share of royalties. Later variants of the instrumental tune included lyrics and became songs in their own right. It was just as well that Irving Berlin displayed an astute business sense in copyrighting the song in 1911, not dissimilar to the business sense displayed by the classical composer Joseph Haydn. Some argue that the commercial success he achieved on the back of the song gave him a period of financial stability to concentrate on his song writing, churning out later hits such as "White Christmas" and "There's No Business Like Show Business".
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