Someone going by the name of "quickbrownfox" sent over a link to a delightful rendition of the song "By Special Permission of the Copyright Owner,"
by Smith Ballew, which you can listen to below:
I'd never heard the song, but the specificity of the phrase, and the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with copyright -- other than mentioning that phrase -- immediately sent me searching for more info on the phrase and the song. It turns out that it's from the Broadway show, "The Gang's All Here," which was apparently a total flop (23 performances). According to the notes on another rendition of the song
the show tanked in part because the star of the show would come out and warn the audience that the script was horrible, and the show should have been a revue, rather than a "book show." That version of the song has a few more lyrics at the beginning, which provide another clue to the oddity of the lyrics. It starts out saying:
Every time a radio is playing
"and next... you will hear us play
something with the publisher's okay."
Listening to this great announcer trilling
Told me what to do
Try this very notion out on you...
And from there it breaks into the same lyrics in the first version above. So we're a step closer to understanding the details of the phrase. And then... I found this fantastic Time Magazine article from August of 1932 that explains how the music industry was dying because of radio
, and that our friends at ASCAP required radio stations to not just get permission to play any song on radio, but also to make the statement that was the title of that song, with "no facetious trifling":
The American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers is Tin Pan Alley's clearing house. Its 800 composer & publisher-members own the copyrights to nearly all the music composed in the U. S. since 1914. It is affiliated with similar societies abroad. To many radio listeners and broadcasters the phrase "by special permission of the copyright owners" has been irksome. A. S. C. A. & P. used to insist upon it, permitting no facetious trifling with the announcement. Lately, however, it lifted this requirement. Most of its songs may be performed without special permission, but a number are restricted, for example musical comedy songs which the producers do not wish to be too soon familiarized.
That's ASCAP. Pissing people off for nearly a century. But what was a lot more entertaining about the article was the paragraph above this, in which it seemed to suggest that radio was absolutely killing music. Stop me if you've heard this before, but the refrain may be familiar:
Tin Pan Alley is sadly aware that Radio has virtually plugged up its oldtime outlets, sheet music and gramophone discs. The average music publisher used to get $175,000 a year from disc sales. He now gets about 10% of this. No longer does a song hit sell a million copies. The copious stream of music poured out by Radio puts a song quickly to death. The average song's life has dwindled from 18 months to 90 days; composers are forced to turn out a dozen songs a year instead of the oldtime two or three.
Has there ever been a time, ever, in which the music industry's established players weren't complaining about the industry dying?