150 Years of the Tennessee Music Business
University Library Special Collections
Fall & Winter, 1999-2000
by Paul F. Wells
Director, MTSU Center for Popular Music
Music and related entertainment businesses generated more than $4 billion for Tennessee's economy in 1998. Although much of this business is centered in Nashville and Memphis, music entrepreneurs ply their trade in virtually every corner of the state. Commerce in music has been conducted in Tennessee since the early 19th century, and in operations ranging from cottage industries to multi-national media conglomerates. This exhibit offers a glimpse at some of the variety of products of this business. All items on display come from the collections of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University.
It is important to underscore the fact that the focus of the exhibit is on the products of Tennessee's music business, rather than on Tennessee's music. There are many and various influential artists who have come from Tennessee, but whose recordings or publications have not been issued by companies operating in the state. Where possible, though, we have tried to display material that represents both the state's music and the business of packaging and selling it.
The materials on display are just the tip of the iceberg. For every item selected, for every point illustrated, difficult choices had to be made, and countless equally deserving items had to be left in the Center's archives. For example, in searching for sheet music items to represent the early history of secular music printing and publishing in Tennessee, we identified nearly 200 pieces, published under 35 different imprints, prior to 1920. Similarly, the Center has over 450 Tennessee imprint items in its rare books collection
Most of the items on display in the exhibit--and the selections presented online here--show the degree to which they were used and cherished by their original owners. Some have homemade covers, many have signatures and other inscriptions, and very few are in the sort of pristine condition usually associated with public exhibits. One of the things that makes the study of vernacular musical traditions so important is the fact that the music plays a central role in the lives of the people who participate in its consumption. Most of the recordings, sheet music, and songbooks that have found their way to the Center for Popular Music have had long, often rough, lives prior to their arrival. We are happy to act as their caretakers and to ensure their continued existence.
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