3 Music Printing

Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) was the first music printer in Europe. Living in Venice, Italy during the Renaissance era, Petrucci applied for and was granted in 1498 an exclusive right to print music in Venice for the following 20 years. In 1501, he published his first book of music, a collection of polyphonic secular songs by various composers. Petrucci printed his book using the new technology of movable type, using a music font he developed. (The printing press using movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 in Germany.) In the several years that followed, Petrucci printed multiple revised editions of this first book of what we might now call pop songs, an indication of how immediately popular the book quickly became.

Petrucci’s idea to print collections of music using moveable type and to sell them through Europe gave rise to the concept of music as a commodity with exchange value beyond the mere labor of the performing musician or composer. Music could now be purchased in a tangible form, creating a marketplace for songwriters to spread their names and styles across Europe and beyond as trade, exploration, and colonization spread European culture throughout the globe.

Music printing not only spread the reputations of songwriters and their styles throughout Europe, it also created an industry based not merely on providing musical labor but on creating a tangible, portable and reproducible musical product. This product, printed music, now existed in its own economy in which money could be made through the manufacture and distribution of a good that was independent of musical performance. Music now circulated in a market, increasingly independent of either the church, the court, or the state. 

A printer specializing in music manuscripts did not have to compose, play an instrument or sing to be a part of this new economy. Music was now mediated by a middle layer between the performer and the listener. As we will see throughout this book, this middle layer of economic mediation in the music industry has grown markedly in the past 150 years, to the extent that it now accounts for the vast majority of money flowing through the modern music industry. Today, only about 12% of all revenue collected from music consumers ends up in the hands of the musicians. The other 88% goes to support a vast network of distributors, lawyers, accountants, marketers, publishers, and other non-music employment standing between the consumer and the musician.

The new economy of music printing had another profound effect on music in Europe  — it privileged written or notated music over music that was transmitted orally. The vast majority of all musical works throughout the world and throughout human history have been transmitted orally (without written notation). Many musical styles today (including most American popular music) still rely primarily on oral transmission rather than written notation. However, the development of the printed music economy in Europe meant that, in order to participate in that economy, the music had to be notated in order to be printed.

European classical music is and has always been entirely dependent on written notation. Every classical musician learns notated music and most do not know how to learn or play music any other way than through reading it on a page. However, as we will see later in this book, the printed music industry also had a significant impact on American popular music. The system of financial exchange that developed around printed music after Petrucci’s initial efforts in Venice provided a model for American songwriters in the 19th century when they sought to earn a living from their songwriting efforts.

However, popular styles in Europe during the Renaissance and later periods (such as the French Chanson) were also frequently notated. While we might suppose that the early music printing industry was supported largely by trade in what we now refer to as classical music, the opposite was actually the case: the music printing industry flourished primarily through the sale of books of popular songs rather then sacred or other more serious styles. This is an important historical fact, because it gives context to the rise of the American music print industry in the late 19th century, which also gained traction primarily through sales of printed popular songs in the so-called Tin Pan Alley style.

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