The Bristol Sessions looms large in history for artistic reasons: They launched the careers of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, whose music would define the parameters of country music for generations to come.
However, the Sessions were not primarily an artistic exercise, but rather an economic one. Ralph Peer wasn’t in Bristol looking for great musicians; he was looking for musicians with commercial potential. As a representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company and of his own Southern Music Publishing, he came to Bristol to make money. It’s impossible to understand the Sessions and their impact without understanding the economics that were in play.
Ralph Peer was a businessman, not an artist, and he wasn’t a country boy: Born in Independence, Missouri, he lived most of his life in New York and in Hollywood. He was passionate about horticulture, not agriculture, and became an authority on camellias. His personal taste in music reportedly ran to classical.
He realized, however, that there was money to be made in popular music and, more specifically, in Southern forms such as jazz, country and rock ‘n’ roll (in the 1950s Southern Music published songs by such artists as Buddy Holly and Little Richard). This idea was based on two insights in which Peer was ahead of the rest of the record industry, one technological and the other economic.
The popular-music business of the 1910s and 1920s was centered around New York and the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. It catered to a middle-class taste, selling records to an urban and suburban clientele that favored clever, sophisticated words wedded to snappy, danceable tunes. By the mid-1920s its offerings were driven by radio: Getting airplay for a song was a sure way to boost record sales and sheet-music sales.
That targeting made perfect sense: After all, the cities and the suburbs were where the money was—literally: In turn-of-the-century America, the cities were comparatively modern economies, while the rural majority of the country lived in a largely cash-free economy based on agriculture. The country was largely without electricity, so radio required expensive batteries that were quickly exhausted. Nobody simply sat around with the radio on in the background, and radio hits weren’t usually popular in the countryside.
To a wealthy suburban family, in short, a phonograph was a trendy acquisition; to a rural family it was an expensive luxury that required months, even years of scrimping and saving to raise the cash to pay for it.
The Victor Talking Machine Company wanted to take advantage of that. Whereas many phonograph manufacturers focused on the elegance of their machines and their clarity of reproduction, Victor focused on price: It manufactured a line of small, hand-cranked phonographs that were available at rock-bottom prices. Sometimes they were even sold at below cost—because, being also a maker of phonograph records, the company could afford to view the phonograph itself as a loss leader. Once a family had a phonograph, it would find the money to buy records.
Unlike radios, which required electricity in one form or another, these wind-up phonographs were technologically as viable in the hinterlands as in a Park Avenue penthouse. Peer realized that this technological innovation had opened a new market for records—one that wasn’t as interested in the European-inflected sounds of Tin Pan Alley or classical music, but loved the traditional country sounds of blues, jazz, folk songs and mountain ballads.
First with Okeh and then with Victor, Peer made it his business to find those traditional sounds. When he could, he brought traditional musicians to New York (or, more accurately, to Camden, N.J., where Victor did most of its recording), but that model worked only with musicians he already knew and who already knew Victor—and the real money, Peer realized, was in musicians he didn’t yet know.
It’s often assumed that Peer was a Victor executive or a contract producer. In reality he was more of a talent scout and freelance producer. His salary at Victor was a princely $1 a year, for which he brought the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. In return, however, Victor gave him the two things he wanted most: Complete independence in selecting the musicians and material that he wanted to record, and a special arrangement whereby Victor, which customarily retained copyright of everything it recorded, retained copyright only on the recording itself, waiving copyright on the source material.
This would have been a preposterously bad deal if Peer hadn’t seen a way to make money out of it, but of course he did. Most people in the music business regarded the copyright as a minor detail in a successful song, secondary to record sales and (for musicians) fees for personal appearances. However, the copyright—which, if the record company didn’t buy it, remained with the songwriter—was a potent source of revenue. If a song was successful on records, it would be published as sheet music and would be covered by other artists on stage, on radio and, within a few years, in talking pictures. The original singer and the original record company would get none of the money from those uses, but the copyright holder would clean up.
Peer established Southern Music Publishing to do exactly that. The artists who signed with Peer at Bristol (and elsewhere) actually signed two contracts, a record deal with Peer as a representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company and a rights deal with Southern Music Publishing. Whether or not they had actually written the songs they sang, Peer encouraged his “songwriters” (notably Jimmie Rodgers and A.P. Carter) to claim copyright. They then signed over the management rights to Southern Music, which published the sheet music, licensed other uses of the material and, for a time, also operated a bookings agency for its artists.
This was a good deal for everyone. Victor got a whole new stable of artists, including (in Rodgers and the Carters) some top-selling names; the artists got copyrights, publishing royalties and a strong legal department to make sure that those copyrights were respected and that all due royalties were collected; and Peer got a piece of Victor’s action (the record royalties went to him as representative of the artists), a piece of the songwriters’ royalties, the bulk of the publishing revenue and a portion of the royalties from all subsequent uses of the material—which, especially in the case of Rodgers and the Carters, were enormous and have remained so to the present day. Today Southern Music Publishing is called Peermusic and is headed by Ralph Peer II.
The full shape of this was, at best, imperfectly understood by the people auditioning at Bristol. They were country people with farms and businesses and families to worry about—of all of them, only Blind Alfred Reed was a full-time musician—and the legalities and the economics of the music business were beyond their ken. They played music because they loved to, and they had a vague sense that, if their music got onto records, they could make some extra money off the deal.
To them, the economic attraction of the Bristol Sessions was the promise that, if they passed Peer’s audition, they’d get to record—and would be paid a “session fee” of $50 per side (usually meaning per song), payable up front and in cash, whether or not Victor ever did anything with the record.
Today $50 doesn’t sound like much, but this was 1927 (in 2017 dollars it would be $703.89). According to an article in The Chicago Tribune of February 21, 1927, which cited the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average American income in 1926 was $770. When Alfred G. Karnes recorded six songs on July 29, 1927, he therefore earned $300, handed to him in cash by Anita Peer, and pocketed almost half the average American’s annual income for a single day’s work.
Royalties were a nebulous concept to most of the people who attended the Bristol Sessions, but five ten-dollars bills wasn’t hard to grasp. It was the sessions fees that persuaded practical-minded Sara Carter to agree to her dreamy husband’s insistence that they should slog off to Bristol for several days to sing; she’d never have done it for the vague promise of an unspecified amount of royalties down the line.
To get that cash, these artists would have signed practically anything, and there’s no record of any of them having any reservations about the Victor or Southern Music contacts. Most likely few of them even read the contracts before signing.
The royalties were the real story, though. Each record sold for between 80 cents and $1.25, with $1 being the average price, and for each record sold the artist received a royalty of 2 ½ cents; after Southern Music took its slice, the artist would finish with a bit less than two cents—worth picking up off the street in 1927, but still not much to talk about.
It added up, though. In November 1927 Rodgers would record “Blue Yodel” for Peer, and it would sell well over 400,000 copies, earning him $8,000 in royalties (10 years’ income for the average American)—not to mention boosting sales of his other records and jacking up his fees for personal appearances. Rodgers started buy cars, fur coats and jewelry.
The Carter Family’s royalties weren’t that high, but they were considerable and they kept coming, years after the recording session, a session for which they already had been handsomely paid. A.P. and Sara Carter didn’t agree on much by then, but he never had trouble getting her to agree to a recording session. No matter how high the royalties got, though, that $50 per side, up front, was still in the equation; country people liked those words “up front.”
The artists at Bristol came to sing, not to make money; but some of them wound up making a lot of money. Peer came to Bristol to make money, not to make music, and he wound up making a lot of money for himself, for Victor and for his musicians; but he also was responsible for a huge volume of great music being made, then and in future years.
Capitalism and the arts aren’t often comfortable bedfellows, but sometimes it works out. The Bristol Sessions was one of those times.