The Glenn Miller Orchestra was, arguably, the most popular band of the swing era

Q. What Killed the Big Bands? A. The Cost Disease!

The Glenn Miller Orchestra was, arguably, the most popular band of the swing era
The Glenn Miller Orchestra was, arguably, the most popular band of the swing era.

I love going to thrift stores and flea markets.  Mainly it’s the thrill of potentially finding something I might actually be looking for, but more often than not it’s the thrill if finding something I was never looking for.  In this case I found a book by Earl Wilson from 1971 called “The Show Business Nobody Knows.”

What sold me on this book was Chapter 7, “What Killed the Big Bands?”  The opening paragraphs from the chapter states:

Why are they no more, those sweet, sentimental, danceable, romantic big bands of yesterday–the Tommy Dorseys, Jimmy Dorseys, and Glenn Millers we used to know?  The answer is simple.

The singers–the crooners–left the bands to go out on their own and make their fortunes.  Then came the rock groups, and recording companies developed more of them.

:They were easier to promote and less expensive to record,” says Willard Alexander, the agent and entrepreneur who booked the biggest name bands for many years.

“They blossomed into big money because it cost so much less to record three or four voices.”

As I mentioned in my post, The Pop Music Industry and the Cost Disease, Larry DeBoer in his piece, “Is rock ‘n’ roll a symptom of baumol’s disease?” (1985), states:

It was one factor accounting for the shift in the dominant form of US popular music from big band swing in the 1930s and 1940s to rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. Baumol’s disease made the smaller band a necessity, although cultural forces determined the music’s content. The recording industry responded to these cost pressures by concentrating on rock ‘n’ roll music.

and sure, the fact that the Dorseys and Glenn Miller died (or was presumed dead) as well as the mass of musicians who left for the war were surely a contributing factor to the loss of the big band, in the end the popular music industry responded to the economic factors and cut their costs accordingly by focusing on the smaller four piece Rock ‘n’ Roll bands which became the dominant pop cultural force in music for the post WWII youth cohorts.

In the end, it was just getting far too expensive for big bands to be the predominant form of popular entertainment.

When Pop Music and Jazz Were One and the Same

Big bands existed in an era when pop music and jazz were one and the same and many of the artists during that time recorded with a big band backing them.  While I was touring with multi-Grammy award winner and Country Music legend, Ray Price, the chief (as we often called him) had increasingly experimented with what was known as the Nashville Sound replacing the Honky Tonk of the 40s and early 50s.  This called for string accompaniment and big band brass and for a time he would tour around with a 15 piece string orchestra.

The following video collage, from when I played in his string section, was from a show we did at the Ryman Auditorium (the former Grand Ol’ Opry) in April of 2008:

That was a special show and we rarely used those forces and the extra strings.  During the three years I toured intermittently with the chief, the string section was composed more austerely of fiddle, three violins, one (or two) viola(s) and one cello.  It is just too prohibitively expensive to have the full string and brass/wind backing band.

It still takes the same number of musicians to play “Hey Jude” now as it did for the Beatles

There’s nothing particularly special about Popular Music as compared to Art Music economically speaking.  It is just as prone to the Cost Disease as any other performing organization.  The response to market forces might be a bit swifter, and the utilization of emerging Broadcast Media as one integral part of audience building might have helped to build the house of popular music cards, but as they labels start to fail and as traditional broadcast media become less and less relevant we’ll start seeing the same long tern structural issues in popular entertainment as we see in arts organizations.

That is unless some new infrastructural model can be constructed to prolong the slow demise of the popular entertainment industry.  It’s just too bad that the classical music industry is just now starting to adopt many of the old structures used by the pop industries–it just means that again, arts organizations will be behind the curve.



DeBoer, L. (1985)  “Is rock ‘n’ roll a symptom of baumol’s disease?”  Journal of Cultural Economics9(2): 48-59.  doi: 10.1007/BF00187744

Wilson, E. (1971) “The Show Business Nobody Knows” Chicago:Cowles Book Company, Inc.


  1. “That is unless some new infrastructural model can be constructed to prolong the slow demise of the popular entertainment industry.”

    Like making pop music on a computer with pre-made samples …


    • Interesting, because pop music is now increasingly focused on crowd-funding to “fix” the downward spiral of their traditional recording industry. And, of course, big nonprofit ensembles have been all over “crowd-funding” for generations. We just call it “development.”

      There are some innovative examples in pop music. OK, Go arguably makes better video content than they do live music (and they’re not the only ones), but their extremely enjoyable, clever video performances have earned them a big following that had nothing to do with studios. Good luck convincing a symphony orchestra to try that! You’d lose about 1/3rd of them to immediate heart attacks, caused by your sacrilegious suggestion. 20% would demand to be paid insane sums to participate, and a vocal minority would argue intensely and unendingly about digital compression rates and the impact on the musical quality. That would be the most productive part of the discussion.

      OK, Go now also get corporate sponsorship for these video efforts, which is hailed as innovative, even though the innovation is just combining corporate sponsorship with a seemingly DIY video performance aesthetic. And again, nonprofit ensembles have been doing this for a long, long, long time.

      I guess it’s not bad for industry A’s innovative effort to be a recycling of industry B’s fading strategy. Funding strategies are sometimes just good for a certain time and a certain place. If it works, I’m happy.


      • Excellent point, Aaron! I hadn’t thought of “development” being the same thing as crowd-funding, but that makes sense. To be fair, pop groups have been long using what they call “street teams” before the current crowdfunding/crowdsourcing initiatives, though those types of initiatives were primarily for local promotion/marketing rather than fundraising, but basically a similar idea.


  2. I’m also reminded of a long vimeo talk with Steve Lawson and Zoe Keating where he bluntly states that it’s easier to be a soloist because you don’t have to split the money multiple ways.


    • That’s basically what Mike Doughty said too–I quoted his blog in that Death of the Pop Music Industry post:

      Summary: be solo, or a duo, because a full band is financially untenable; work much, much harder, under much more stressful conditions, than bands of earlier generations had to. Be very young, or have the ability to take the broke-ness, the physical and emotional knock-around, that very young people can.


      • Related to what we were talking about on Eric’s blog as well — when it comes to playing session/cover work and your own stuff, the musician is the best functional unit, not the band.


      • I recall a study done with pianists that showed that it was much easier for them to play with recordings of themselves than to play with recordings by other people–which makes sense as we’d be much more in tune with our own idiosyncratic playing quirks. I know it’s far easier to record multiple lines when it’s my own work, or when it’s with a group I’ve been playing with for some time than it is to record someone else’s or to fill in a line on someone else’s recording.


      • Not just that one person can stand in for many, but that one person can make that model work more easily than a band: doing session work AND one’s own work both, and possibly using the session work to financially subsidize the time one spend’s on one’s own projects.


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