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The Decline and Fall of the Hit Instrumental Song
Nowadays vocalists control popular music—but that wasn't always true
Today I’m featuring a guest contributor at The Honest Broker.
Chris Dalla Riva combines a deep grasp of music history with probing data analytics. You may have seen some of his earlier research pieces. They’ve generated a lot of discussion and debate, and for a good reason.
For example, check out these recent articles by Chris:
A data-driven study of how key changes have disappeared from popular music.
A trend analysis of the dramatic increase in songwriters credited on hit records
A study of the decline in cover recordings over a 70 year period.
Nobody right now is doing this kind of work better than Chris. I’m delighted to have him on board here at The Honest Broker.
Today he looks at the disappearance of hit instrumental songs over a period of almost 80 years. This is one of the most significant music trends of the last century, but rarely discussed and almost never analyzed.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support this work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
The Decline and Fall of the Hit Instrumental Song
By Chris Dalla Riva
Clarinet players aren’t sex symbols. I say this with no disrespect for those that play the single-reeded woodwind. But if you asked a random person on the street to name a clarinet player, I suspect most people couldn’t come up with one, let alone one known for their good looks. Then again, this isn’t a particular indictment of clarinetists. If you asked that same person to name a sexy musician, I’d bet a large sum of money they’d name a vocalist.
This wasn’t always the case, though. In Kelly Schrum’s book Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls’ Culture, 1920-1945, she notes that in high school yearbooks in the 1930s some students expressed a passion for “Benny Goodman while other girls had a ‘weakness’ for Artie Shaw or were classified as Glenn Miller ‘fanatics,’ faithful fans of Tommy Dorsey, or ‘Happy while listening to Kay Kyser.’ Cab Calloway, Xavier Cugat, and Harry James were also popular favorites.” Of those musicians, only Calloway was a singer. Goodman, Shaw, and Kyser played the clarinet. Miller and Dorsey played the trombone. Cugat played violin. James played trumpet.
Given that our contemporary musical world is dominated by vocalists, this seems bizarre. It feels like if you have a musical group it must be centered around the vocalist. If we measure the average percent of instrumental content per Billboard number hit between 1940 and 2021, we see demonstrable evidence for not just the decline of the instrumental superstar but the instrumentalist generally, with the sharpest declines beginning in the 1950s and the 1990s.
What’s going on here? How could throngs of high schoolers long for the clarinet-wielding Artie Shaw 80 years ago when most teenagers today would struggle to name a musician who isn’t also a singer. I believe it comes down to four factors: improved technology, the 1942 musicians’ strike, WWII, television, and hip-hop.
In the VH1-produced documentary The Brian Setzer Orchestra Story, Dave Kaplan, Setzer’s manager, recounts a conversation he had with Setzer before assembling a guitar-fronted big band in the 1990s: “Nobody had ever fronted a big band with an electric guitar … I asked Brian, ‘Why wouldn’t somebody have tried it?’ [Setzer replied,] ‘Well there weren’t amps.’” Albeit a simplification, Setzer’s quip is pretty accurate.
While there were some famous guitar players among the big bands of the first half of the 20th century, we don’t see the guitar become a driving force in popular music until amplification improved. This was not only a boon for the guitarists but also vocalists. Unlike brass and wind instruments, you can sing while you play the guitar. Thus, it’s not shocking that the rise of the guitar coincided with the rise of the vocalist.
But it wasn’t just guitar amplification technology that was vital. It was also microphone technology. Again, microphones had to improve so vocalists could compete with the cacophony of a loud band. On top of this, recording had to change to capture more subtlety in the human voice.
In the early 1900s, recording was done acoustically. There were some limitations to this method compared to the later electrical method. Greg Milner contrasts these processes in his book Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music:
Acoustic recording and electrical recording share the same basic analog concept. With each technology, sound waves cause a resonating surface to vibrate, and some sort of inscription technology creates an analog of these waves. With acoustic recording, the analogous pattern is caused by the mechanical energy of the sound wave … [T]he phonograph’s diaphragm vibrates, the stylus attached to it etches a pattern, and during playback the process is reversed.
When sound is recorded electrically, the resonating surface is in a microphone. The microphone converts the vibrations into a stream of positive and negative voltages. It is the voltage stream, not the original mechanical energy of the sound waves, that impacts the system.
To record on an acoustic device, your voice must create enough mechanical energy to vibrate a surface that in turn imprints those vibrations into a malleable material. The intimate vocals of crooners, like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, weren’t powerful enough for this. Electrical microphones, on the other hand, could capture that nuance in high fidelity. This made more vocal variety possible.
Improved amplification, thus, laid the groundwork for the popularity of the guitar after 1950. Because the guitar doesn’t require your mouth, you can sing while you play. Concurrently, the advent of electrical recording made it possible to record and reproduce a wider range of singing styles. Both factors helped bring the vocalist to the fore.
1942 Musicians’ Strike
On August 1, 1942, nearly all music ceased being recorded. When I first learned this fact, I struggled to believe it. How could musicians stop recording? That would require coordination on a scale that seemed impossible to manage. But musicians did manage to do it for nearly two years.
The musical work stoppage was overseen by James C. Petrillo, the fiery head of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the largest musicians’ union in the United States. Petrillo was concerned that the proliferation of recording, radio, and jukeboxes would destroy the livelihood of professional musicians, many of whom made a living performing live. And his concerns were founded. Musicians were losing jobs.
Though he made no immediate demands, Petrillo eventually said that the AFM wanted labels to pay a royalty on record sales into a fund that would sponsor concerts performed by out-of-work musicians. The labels wouldn’t budge. Part of this was because three labels—Decca, RCA Victor, and Columbia—controlled most of the industry. It wasn’t that difficult for them to move in lockstep. Plus, they were able to backlog recordings before the strike began.
But the AFM’s members showed resilience in the face of the industry behemoths. With a dwindling backlog and mounting pressure as upstart labels began to agree to Petrillo’s terms, Decca capitulated in 1943. RCA Victor and Columbia followed suit within the next year. While Petrillo’s strike had many effects, one of the most unexpected was further cementing the vocalist as the musical star.
Vocalists were not eligible to be members of the AFM. Because of that, labels circumvented the strike by recording them a cappella or backed by instruments that were deemed too amateurish for union membership, like the harmonica. Dinah Shore’s instrument-less “I’ll Walk Alone” from late-1944 illustrates the former idea.
We can see the impact of this on vocalists and band leaders by comparing number ones from before and after the strike that feature Frank Sinatra. First, let’s look at the pre-strike “I’ll Never Smile Again” from 1940.
Though Ole Blue Eyes is featured on this record, you likely wouldn’t say it was his. It was trombonist Tommy Dorsey’s. He and his orchestra get top billing. Sinatra is listed in much smaller text as performing the vocal refrain with The Pied Pipers. Compare that to “Five Minutes More,” a post-strike Sinatra number one from 1946.
Now, things have flipped. Sinatra gets top billing while the orchestra leader, Axel Stordahl, is listed underneath in much smaller text. This trend is consistent for many musicians whose career persisted through the strike. In fact, by the middle of the 1950s, if a song had a vocalist, it was almost certain that they’d get top billing.
According to a Gallup poll reported in Billboard’s September 5, 1942 issue, 75% of Americans opposed Petrillo’s strike. This was not surprising given that the strike took place at the height of the Second World War. At that time, labor disruptions were viewed as anti-American because of the war effort. Plus, many people struggled to see musicians as laborers in the same way they thought of, say, coal miners and carpenters.
But at the same time as Petrillo’s strike, the war was also reshaping popular music in America. One of the saddest ways the war did this was by killing tons of people. Some of those people were musicians. By the time peace was achieved, many of the famous instrumentalists from the 1930s were either much older or no longer alive. For example, famed big band leader Glenn Miller died in 1944 when the plane he was on went missing while he was traveling to entertain troops in Europe. Younger vocalists helped fill the void left by aging and deceased bandleaders.
In the paper, “Household Appliances and the Use of Time: The United States and Britain Since the 1920s” authors Sue Bowden and Avner Offer capture the meteoric rise of television in the United States. Just one percent of U.S. households had a black & white television in 1948. By 1955—only seven years later—75% did. That’s astronomical growth. As a point of comparison, it took the refrigerator 23 years to achieve the same level of penetration.
I think the proliferation of television helped make vocalists musical stars. The reason for this – and it will sound so obvious that it’s not worth stating – is that television is at least as visual as it is auditory. You can’t just sound good to make good television. You also have to look good.
Vocalists have two advantages that make for better television. Primarily, their faces aren’t blocked by a wind or brass instrument like the saxophone or trombone. This is important because television often focuses on people’s faces and their expressions. Secondly, singers are freer to move about than most instrumentalists. Of course, there are some instruments, like the piano, that chain you to one part of the stage, but even others that lack those restrictions, like the violin, don’t lend themselves to the excessive movement of their performer, especially when a microphone can’t be directly attached to the instrument. In short, I think people find singers more exciting to watch on television, so the rise of television exacerbated their rise.
Earlier, I noted that there were two marked declines in instrumental content in popular songs. First, in the 1950s, and then in the 1990s. The previous four trends capture that first decline. The second decline is almost exclusively captured by the rise of hip-hop.
Of course, instrumentals are important in hip-hop. Ask any hip-hop head about their favorite beats, and they’ll unfurl a long scroll of instrumentals crafted by their favorite producers. That doesn’t negate the fact that hip-hop is a lyrical artform, with the emcee being the star since the 1980s.
Though hip-hop was born in the Bronx in the 1970s, it didn’t make a major impact on the Billboard charts until the 1990s. Since then, it has been the most dominant force in popular music. Because of that, it’s not shocking that we’ve seen an astounding decline in instrumental content since 1990.
I wrote most of this piece during a short trip to Switzerland with my girlfriend. She had to go for work, so I figured I’d tag along as a trophy boyfriend. While sitting in the airport on the way home, I asked her a variant of the hypothetical that I posed at the beginning of this piece.
First, I inquired who her favorite musician was. “Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift,” she responded without hesitation. Like any good boyfriend, I knew the answer to that question. But I wasn’t sure how she’d respond to the follow-up. “Who’s your favorite musician that doesn’t sing?” I asked. After hemming-and-hawing for a few moments, she said it was the drummer from the local cover band we often go see. She was half-joking, but she also didn’t have a better answer. Vocalists dominate her musical purview. I then texted my sister the same line of questioning to make sure my sample of one wasn't deceiving me. The conversation was similar.
Chris: Who’s your favorite musician right now?
Sister: Harry Styles or Luke Combs
Chris: Who’s your favorite musician that doesn’t sing?
Sister: Idk. I guess Kevin Jonas even tho Nick is my favorite Jonas Brother. I can’t think of anyone else that doesnt sing tho [sic]
I have a hunch that this conversation would play out similarly with most people below a certain age. But go back to the 1930s – nay, even the 1980s – and you’d likely get a different answer. Your silent generation respondents might name one of the big band leaders we spoke of earlier. Your Gen X respondents might name a guitar-slinger like Eddie Van Halen or Jimmy Page.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that instrumentalists will remain by the wayside. Though it feels like there are no alternatives to our current culture, vocal-heavy music is ultimately a trend. Some trends last a few months. Others last decades. Maybe within our lifetimes we will see the instrumentalist rise again. Maybe we will see a dashing flutist steal the limelight from their microphone-wielding bandmate. Maybe we will see a clarinet player capture the imagination of teens across the United States like they did long ago.
Chris Dalla Riva is a musician who spends his days working on data analytics and personalization at Audiomack, a popular music streaming service. His research has been spotlighted by NPR and The Economist. If you want to hear more from him, subscribe to his Substack Can't Get Much Higher.