Vesta Tilley and the 19th-century music industry in the UK #iaspm2017


Nancy Bruseker: Independent scholar

How to find out more about the 19th-century music business in the UK

Tilley

Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), in and out of drag (source – Wikipedia).

ABSTRACT: Technological advances in music distribution have radically changed business and audience practices and the way music itself is made by musicians. However, these technological developments affect not only music being made and sold today. Modern technological advances have made sources like historical newspapers and genealogical records more accessible, allowing researchers the opportunity to begin to reconstruct musical lives and musical worlds beyond the 20th century, including ones that predate recorded sound. This paper uses sources like the British Library’s 19th century newspaper archive, the British Newspaper Archive, Ancestry and Digimaps historic maps, to reconstruct one British music hall performer’s, Vesta Tilley’s, touring schedule across five decades – 1870s to the 1910s – in order to show what a music industry structured around live performance, rather than record production, looked like. The data allows an extensive view into Vesta’s working and touring life: how often she was on tour, how far she went, and how her work patterns changed from childhood to adulthood to retirement, and how her repertoire interacted with these developments. In brief, without an album release schedule it was relentless. Furthermore, the data illustrates how a large number of independent venues gradually gave way to a series of syndicates (Moss, Stoll, De Frece, and others), changing the shape of the tour, providing us a view of the birth of the equivalent of the 21st century Academy circuit in the UK: the evolution of the business of entertainment up to the earliest days of sound recording.

Nancy starts by outlining that her research, though historical, is nonetheless digitally powered, and that the 19th century music industry might have much to tell us about how later music industry models evolved.

She describes a typical mid-19th century music hall venue; visitors would sit at tables facing each other, eating and drinking, with the performers/stage at 90° to them. Later in that century, venue owners realised they could sell more tickets by seating the audience in theatre-style rows.

Nancy now describes The Era, a 19th century weekly periodical which she has used as a source to try to reconstruct the typical performer’s music industry life. She quotes from its self-description of the time: “[The Era is the] largest Newspaper in the World, containing Sixty-four Columns of closely-printed matter in small type. It is the only Weekly Newspaper combining all the advantages of a first-rate Sporting Journal, with those of a Family Newspaper. Literature and the Metropolitan and Provincial Drama has more space allotted to them in the Era than in any other Journal. The Operatic and Musical Intelligence, Home and Continental, is always most copious and interesting.”.

[here’s a video that Nancy didn’t show, but I think it adds context for those unfamiliar with Tilley’s work]

We zoom in on the ads page, and see a mass of running ads for performers’ tour dates. The ads were not only for the public – they also provided booking agent contacts for the industry. In a limited wordcount the factual information was sometimes augmented with descriptive information about a performer or their repertoire, even though ads were only between 1 and 6 column inches. We hear the first of many references to 19thC performer Vesta Tilley, the case study for the paper and also the subject of Nancy’s PhD.

London gigs, Nancy asserts, were badly paid but had the advantage of many venues in the same locale, so a performer could compensate for poor fees by moving between venues, undertaking up to four performances in one evening. Vesta was known as a ‘provincial performer’ – i.e she played lots of shows outside London. Nancy provides a graph comparing the prevalence of London vs provincial gigs, and states that there is an interesting comparison to performers now, who may have a different London/touring balance. We also see a graph of Vesta’s number of ‘resting weeks’ in a given year, and Nancy observes that in 1900, the year Vesta’s mother died, she (Vesta) took the most weeks off, and could afford to do so because her fame, income and presumably savings were sufficient to allow this.

We now turn to the reviews section of The Era, and Nancy discusses reviews and ‘songographies’; at the height of Vesta’s fame, normally fixed ticket prices were raised for one night only, and even then thousands of fans were turned away from venues (sometimes with police support). We now hear detailed quotes from Tilley reviews, and Nancy reads from a [really entertaining!] 1892 gossip page, in which the writer attempts to counter rumours that Vesta’s recent operation had adversely affected her performances. A Tilley interview is shown, in which the performer talks about her personal life and the emotional and professional effects of the death of her mother.

Nancy now shares her methodology, and explains the mechanism for using text search (with patch OCR) in the 19th century section of the British Library Newspapers database. “There is no keyword search in the analogue world”, says Nancy with some regret!

[JB note: who knew that one of the most inspiring music industry-related presentations at this conference would be sited in the 19th century!?].

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