To sing forevermore: How the microphone, radio and the Crooners changed the music industry

Thursday, October 18, 2018 - 5:04pm

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra Buy this photo
Wikimedia Commons

This article is half of a two-part piece on how the invention of the microphone altered music. The other article can be found here.

Imagine: You’re standing in a hot, crowded concert hall and the hour is late. Fellow patrons are dressed to the nines, buzzing with sharp, apprehensive energy. Then, the curtains rise, and a lone figure steps out on stage. As the chattering voices hush, all eyes watch captivated as the music starts. The music is soft and gentle, barely a murmur, yet each word is crisp, clear, as if someone is singing into your ear. You catch a brief glimpse of the singer: They stand nearly twined along the shaft of a strange instrument like a vine, lips ghosting over the the top of it, hands cradling it. You stand in unabashed wonder — you’ve never heard anything like this. What is that strange, metal instrument the performer sings into?

That is a microphone. And this mysterious singer who reigns over his subjects with song? A Crooner of the ’20s and ’30s — one of the first artists to ever use a microphone in performance. It’s a time marked by post-war bliss, the Flappers, swing dancing and Jazz, the Prohibition and much, much more. It is the era of the young, who live as if everyday is their last. It is the introduction of the microphone, and later the radio, to the music industry. It is the formation of the American “musical identity.” It is the birth of music as we, the citizens of the 21st century — know it.

The microphone was around long before it entered into a long-term relationship with musicians. Since the 17th century scientists have been fascinated by the transmission of sound, and early sound transmitters were developed as early as the late 19th century, albeit with poor sound quality. One of the first successful microphones created, the carbon microphone, was used for the first ever public radio broadcast: a performance of the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1910. When the ’20s and ’30s rolled around, the microphone was introduced to the music industry as both a tool for live performance and studio-recording sessions.

Before the incorporation of the microphone in musical performance, live performance and record players were the primary methods that the public interacted with music. Popular styles included ragtime music, early jazz, orchestral music and barbershop quartets. As the music industry held a monopoly on the technology used to produce records, listening to music was very much an elitist, privileged activity. Only Americans who were able to afford record players and individual records were able to participate in this culture of sophistication, which primarily featured classical/orchestral ensembles. This was because the music industry held exclusive rights to the technology used to produce records, preventing other competitors from gaining ground, allowing the music industry to market records to a very specific demographic. This meant that there was no true “mainstream” music during the period which predated the microphone. Rather, regional styles developed in isolated communities by means of live performances or cultural traditions while primarily orchestral music achieved notoriety through the production of records. There were very few — if any — major artists or groups who enjoyed a national audience and widespread fame.

Without the microphone, artists were also limited by their own dynamic range and the acoustics of their venue. Only performers with impressive and versatile ranges — recall the style of opera singers or Broadway stars — would achieve any level of success. It was a matter of whether their voice and lungs were powerful enough to project their voice to fill an entire hall. Think of the classic scene in Monty Python’s satiric film, “Life of Brian,” in which the sage of words of the prophet fell victim to bad acoustics — as the wise lord once said, “Blessed be the Cheesemakers.”

Then, the microphone changed the game.

To start, the record monopoly of the music industry was broken, allowing for a larger variety of artists to break out onto the national stage. Music suddenly became accessible for households across the nation. Because the microphone wasn’t exclusive to the music industry, the technology wasn’t patented and other competitors to the big-name record brands were able to start producing music independently for the radio. Moreover, while music could be recorded and reproduced on records, there was still no way to amplify the sound. This resulted in both a consumer and professional shift away from the use of records to the radio, as the radio was both a more affordable option and provided a new variety of music not available on records.

The radio also enabled the development and diffusion of musical styles; for the first time, the unique voices of the nation could reach far and wide. Thus, a community of musicians which transcended socioeconomic and regional differences was formed, allowing Americans to find a new, common identity in music. Never before had a single artist or group been able to reach the ears, minds and hearts of families across the 50 states — for the first time, an artist could become a household name, their music and their image becoming ingrained in the very foundation of the American people.

But it wasn’t simply the microphone and radio themselves which transformed the music industry and American way of life so completely. Rather, it was the artists of the ’20s and ’30s who changed the face of American music — it was The Crooners who heralded in this new era of culture and independence.

The Crooners is an epithet for artists of the early to mid 1920s through the 1950s, all of whom can be characterized by a distinctive soft, subtle style — or in other words, “crooning.” These artists were generally accompanied by a big band (think of jazz ensembles of the early 20th century) or more simple piano accompaniment. Recall household names like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Fred Astaire — all of them were Crooners: the rockstars of their day.

But before Sinatra wooed hearts with his romance among the stars, or even Bing Crosby, who is affectionately known as “America’s Crooner,” there was one man and his megaphone who started it all: Rudy Vallée, America’s first “pop-star” and the father of The Crooners.

Both Vallée and the microphone worked simultaneously to create The Crooners’ style, one which was intimate, understated and romantic. This is also where Vallée’s trademark megaphone originates: The megaphone works similarly to the microphone in its ability to project sound, but while also creating a nasal sound quality. With or without a microphone, Vallée used his megaphone to create this distinct sound, ushering in a new style of subtlety and enchantment. It is important to note that later artists, like Bing Crosby, were able to recreate Vallée’s unique sound by using the microphone alone to manipulate their voices, rather than using a cumbersome megaphone. While Vallée is responsible for the development of this unique style, it was the microphone which enabled its success.

However, the fame of artists like Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby didn’t simply etch their names into the legacy of American music. No, the advent of The Crooners to national — and global — stardom is far more significant than that. For the first time, the nation had musical icons to admire, love and even hate; for the first time there was a tangible representation of American music. This was a result of the emergence of a new relationship between artist and audience, a relationship that was driven by the incorporation of the microphone to form a perpetual threesome with the performer and listener.

This relationship was characterized by a never-before-seen — or rather, never-before-heard — level of intimacy between the artist and the audience. First of all, the sound amplification of the microphone allowed the artist to become physically closer to the microphone. So close that at times the artist almost seeming to whisper sweet nothings to the microphone as if it were a lover. When listening to The Crooners on the radio or in concert, that intimacy was felt in full by the audience. The physical and figurative barriers that divided the audience from the performer were now demolished.

The Crooners’ appeal came from this intimacy and subsequent romance of their crooning. During a period like the ’20s and ’30s, which was characterized by emotion, freedom and at times hedonism, the intensity of the experience produced by a Crooner’s song catered to the desires and sensibilities of the public. The significance of this cannot be overstated: for the first time, an artist independently represented the attitude and values of the nation. For the first time, the culture of the nation was evident in the music it’s performers produced.

This elevation in status for The Crooners, from mere music-makers to cultural icons, was both their victory and ultimate loss. On one hand, The Crooners changed the game by making music relevant to pop-culture and identification on an individual, regional and national level. Music was suddenly very important, and no longer the indulgence of the wealthy. However, because The Crooners tied themselves to the culture of the ’20s and ’30s, they signed their death warrant: As the popular culture of the nation ebbed and flowed, so too would their popularity. This is evident in the early ’50s, when The Crooners gave up their throne to the new kings of rock ‘n’ roll.

This succession in the musical monarchy occurred during a cultural shift in America. To start, The Crooners, while popular, had their fair share of critics (as any respectable artist or genre does). Many criticized The Crooners, predominantly men, for being too effeminate in their soft and subtle crooning style. As mentioned before, one of the main points of appeal in The Crooners’ style was the romance of their music, like Dean Martin’s “Beyond the Sea” and Sinatra’s famous “Fly Me to the Moon.” While many (appropriately) swooned from The Crooners’ bewitching crooning, others accused these artists as being emotionally manipulative. When World War II arrived in the ’40s, these criticisms grew more passionate and more substantial as this style of music was seen as counterproductive for the morale needed for war.

Then, the 1950s and ’60s rolled in on the tail-end of the war, ushering in both an era of prosperity for the American Dream and a time of stifling conformity. From this came the development of rock ‘n’ roll. Here, the romance of the ’20s and ’30s conflicted with the post-war culture; relaxed, soft crooning had no place in the loud, opinionated dissent of the teenage rebel. And while the Flappers were no wallflowers, what self-styled rebel ever wants to admit their parents — or even grandparents — were “the bee’s knees?” So, of course, this part of The Crooners’ history was conveniently forgotten — out with the old and in with the new was the motto of the young.

Here, too, the microphone struck again. The amplifying power of the microphone, combined with the development of loudspeakers adequate for concert use, and the rise in popularity of instruments like the (acoustic and electric) guitar and the drums all enabled rock to gain its roll. And while the microphone may not have had the same singular significance to the artists of rock ‘n’ roll, it was the introduction of the microphone which catalyzed the later evolution of technology in music.

Now, not only did The Crooners’ style no longer suit the needs and wants of the public, but the genre itself had suddenly become outdated. Big bands were replaced by four- or fiveman ensembles of guitars, drums and vocals; intimate jazz clubs and traditional concert halls were abandoned in favor of massive venues which could accommodate the intensity of rock ‘n’ roll; subtlety discarded for shock factor.

The Crooners embodied an era of wonder, romance and excitement. In the dawn of the 21st century, the heyday of these revolutionary artists can seem so distant to the modernity of contemporary music. On the verge of sounding too much like the foolishly wistful characters of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” one can’t help but wonder if there will ever come a time when the spirit of The Crooners may experience a revival. In an era where music can sometimes be used too often as a tool to further an agenda, a longing can arise for a time when the simple wonder of song itself was enough to inspire and bewitch audiences. Maybe it is all too foolish to waste so much time being wistful for the past, but while the music-makers of today are certainly masters of their craft, there remains an undiminished yearning to play once more among the stars.

More like this