In Chapter 18 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée offers tales of his encounters with an arm of the music publishing industry that was a dying breed even then: The song plugger.
THE SONG PLUGGER
DUE to the influx of theme songs and sound pictures a most interesting species of human being is fast disappearing from the musical world. I refer to the song plugger.
He is an individual with perhaps one of the most thankless jobs that anyone could have and a task that requires more cajolery, diplomacy and salesmanship combined with the ability to take more rebuffs than the proverbial insurance and book agent. From early morning until late at night his hours are spent among artists who might be the means of presenting one or more of his songs to the public.
The history of the success of a song is more complicated than that of a best seller in fiction. A successful song writer must be a keener psychologist, possibly, than any other artist.
In the first place there is the period to be considered. There are Mammy periods, Oriental song periods with subdivisions when Chinese, Japanese and Hindu songs are especially popular; Hawaiian periods; Dixie periods, closely allied to the Mammy periods; periods when the public seems ready for “nut” songs with the lyrics about Fords, bananas, ice cream, and so forth. But the public is always ready for a love song, especially a love song in waltz tempo.
Assuming that the song writer has written the correct song for the period, the next problem is to introduce it to a public spread not only over forty-eight states but over the entire world.
In the old days this tremendous task was accomplished first by vaudeville acts and traveling singers. Later, phonograph records became, with vaudeville, a successful medium. Today the radio as a means of introducing songs to the public is a thousand times more effective than either of those other two, considering that at some radio broadcasts the listening audience may number five or even ten million people. Nowadays a good song can almost be “made” by one or two broadcasts over the giant networks from coast to coast.
Once the song has become successful in America, it is purchased by foreign agents or individual publishers who in turn exploit it by radio and records. The triple hook-up of radio, records and vaudeville is responsible for the tremendous royalties paid to song writers today.
An outstanding example of this is “Sonny Boy” which in a period of a month and a half reached a sale, thanks to Al Jolson’s motion picture, of over one million sheet copies and several millions of records, which nets both the composers and the publishers a pretty penny indeed.
Thus it will be seen that the vaudeville song plugger, or publisher’s representative, who tries to persuade the acts to use his particular tunes in their routine, is practically unnecessary, as is the man whose business it was to take the recording heads out to luncheon and plead with these experts to record his tunes. Today if the orchestra leader can be persuaded to broadcast the tune to his audience of millions, it will, on its own merit go over in the various music stores, whereas the record companies are only two anxious to record the tunes for which there is a great sheet music demand.
Again, most of the vaudevillians have radios and hear for themselves just how wonderful a tune is, or get the effect of a broadcasting of this particular tune.
Then again, the motion sound picture with a reiteration of its theme song reaches almost as many as the radio, since there may be simultaneous showings of the same picture in almost every good sized city throughout the country for weeks.
The song plugger formerly included in his routine visits to the vaudeville artists’ dressing-rooms and the dance hall, where he attempted to persuade the orchestra leader to feature his tune. Often he himself would sing while he stayed there. When you heard a strange singer at a dance you could be pretty sure that he was probably a song plugger.
But the dance hall public is only a tiny part of the tremendous number reached by one hour’s radio broadcast; and today these same song pluggers are instructed to train their guns on the radio orchestra director and not to return without a promise from this director to play one or more of the firm’s tunes on a particular broadcast.
Thus it is not unusual for me to fine ten or even more individuals, who represent music publishers, waiting for me at my club on broadcasting nights to ask me to broadcast some particular tune.
At the time I write this, surprising as it may seem, the Connecticut Yankees are considered one of the ace broadcasting bets on the air, and it is laughable at times the ways and means whereby these song pluggers seek to gain their point. There are the blunt individuals who come directly to the point and ask me to play such-and-such a tune, without giving any reason why I should play it. Then there’s the opposite type who avoid the subject entirely and talks of anything but “shop,” hoping that the mere sight of him and his refusal to talk “shop,” combined with the pleasantries he does exchange, will prevail upon me to feature one of his songs.
There is a still deadlier species yet to come. This is the type who spends hours trying to convince me of the merits of a tune that I have probably never even heard and would not care for if I did.
They have stock expressions which they all use. I take a great delight in confounding them with their own expressions which I have humorously labeled “song plugger’s expression number one-two” and so on.
Here are some of their best ones:
“The song is beginning to show up.”
“Everyone who has heard it predicts it as a hit!”
“With you on it, the song can’t miss.”
“Every big leader has recorded it but you.”
And since my rise to stardom and the general belief that there is a special type of Rudy Vallée song, one of their pet expressions has been “It’s a typical Rudy Vallée,” or when the composer himself is talking to me, “I wrote it just for you.”
Realizing that I am no better than the songs I have to sing, that these songs are my means of expression, my tools, my instruments, I try to see personally every song plugger who wishes to see me, even though I may be ready to drop in my tracks from exhaustion. I never know when I might be turning down a tune that fits me.
Although it is considered something to be whispered about, something almost unethical, I must mention the practice of being “cut in on” a song. There is really no reason why the subject should be kept in the dark as though it were a disgrace, because the orchestra leader who is responsible for making a song into a hit has a right to expect a recompense.
There is, however, the unreasonable jealousy of other orchestra leaders who believe that they too should be “cut in on” songs, forgetting that their support of a song may mean little or nothing to the public.
It is a peculiar thing that we have, single-handed, popularized many songs for which we have received little or nothing. I have never asked for a cut and have refused to be “cut in on” many songs when I had no faith in them or felt, in the case of songs not suited to me, that my support of them would mean very little to their chances of becoming hits.
I know orchestra leaders who are “in on” as many as twenty songs; some of the songs will net them thousands, others will bring them nothing, even though the expenditure of effort on each may have been the same.
When I signed the contract with Victor, I became doubly attractive as a means of helping a tune to stardom since Victor records enjoy a tremendous sale.
But after all, as time has proved, no amount of plugging, broadcasting or recording can make a bad tune a hit, and no one can absolutely predict what tunes will be hits and what tunes will not be hits. The man who could would be worth a fortune to any publisher.
I have been fairly successful in predicting and starting hits, but I have been so completely aghast at the way some tunes have turned out that I fear to predict with any degree of certainty just whether a tune will click or not. The public that buys sheet copies of songs has a taste that is as variable as the weather and, although I have several tests which help me in feeling the public pulse, I find that we are all amateurs in song prophecy.
Some of the song pluggers are my dearest friends, in fact I welcome most of them, though there are times when I wish they would leave me alone. Of course their presence is usually mutually beneficial to me and the firm they represent. But there are times when to all of us our rest and sleep are worth thousands of dollars; and in their loyalty to their respective firms these enthusiasts are so insistent that it is sometimes very hard to listen to them.
These men have so affected me that my radio program building has become a task I dread since they have made me feel that unless I take care of them all they will suffer; indeed some of them have lost their positions through their failure to secure promises from orchestra leaders to play their respective tunes. So whenever possible I try to give them a “break.”
However, I will welcome the day when the song plugger has ceased to be and the publishing companies adopt letters or test records as advance agents and reminders to the orchestra director to feature their tunes.