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The Entertainment Industry

Author(s):Haupert, Michael
Reviewer(s):Bakker, Gerben

Published by EH.NET (April 2007)

Michael Haupert, The Entertainment Industry. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006. xxi + 271 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-313-32173-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerben Bakker, Department of Economic History, London School of Economics.

This book gives a concise overview of the economic history of entertainment in the United States. It has selected a few businesses whose histories together give an impression of the industry’s evolution.

A chapter on vaudeville relates the emergence of the genre in the 1880s, the emergence of circuits, the domination of the business by a few major organizations, and the eventual decline, coincident with the arrival of talking pictures. The subsequent two chapters tell the history of the film and music industries. The next chapter, on radio, devotes substantial attention to the technical aspects ? the inventors, their patents and their exploitation. A chapter on television relates how it continued the vaudeville tradition after the last vaudeville theater had closed. The last chapter contains brief biographic sketches of some personalities that played a key role in the industry’s history. The rather wide scope ? six different businesses over more than a century ? means that the book does not always go into great depth. Nevertheless, some chapters give a fascinating insight into the details of the business. This is especially so for the part on vaudeville, whose history is less well known than that of theater, opera, film or music.

Aimed at a wide audience, the book is written in an admirably accessible way. The chapters provide a broad narrative synthesis of some of the secondary literature. Generally they are structured thematically, which means that they often jump backwards and forwards through time. The book does do not contain figures and tables, but quotes many useful anecdotal figures. It may be handy as a rough-and-ready point of first entry for those unfamiliar with the industry. This also means, however, that there is no clear research question or hypothesis driving each chapter and the book as a whole forward. An over-arching model of the entertainment industry would have been useful to organize the text.

The book is U.S.-centered, although this is not explicitly signaled in the title. It does not discuss the history of non-U.S. entertainment industries or make comparisons with other entertainment markets. It thus misses out on some important historical turning points. The reader remains unaware, for example, that in the mid-1900s, over half of films shown in the U.S. were made in Europe [Bakker 2005]. The book also restricts itself to market entertainment, while the twentieth century saw a sharp rise in ‘non-market’ or publicly provided entertainment, with ever more people visiting national parks, joining sports clubs, associations, going on hunting and fishing trips, or enjoying other outdoor recreation.

Over the past decade, substantial economic history research on entertainment has appeared. A large chunk of this is not quoted in the bibliography, and little is critically discussed in the text. The book also contains several small omissions, inconsistencies and inaccuracies, which is probably inevitable given its broad range. The first substantive chapter, for example, notes how talking pictures led to vaudeville’s demise, while a later chapter notes that “it was television which sent vaudeville revues to their grave.” Likewise, the book notes that during World War II Hollywood’s overseas business shifted to Latin America, “which had been largely unexploited,” while most histories put Hollywood’s Latin expansion far earlier. By 1927, 19 percent of foreign income came from Latin America, versus 27 percent from non-UK Europe [Vasey 1997:85]. The Motion Pictures Patent Company, dominant between 1908 and 1912, is mentioned as a horizontal cartel, yet the Supreme Court did not find it guilty of ‘horizontal’ collusion in pooling members’ patents, but of using the resulting legal monopoly to monopolize an adjacent business ? film distribution. The lack of annotation or even a chapter-specific bibliography makes it hard to verify statements or get leads for further reading.

The book could also have included more historical insights that help understand the industry. It does not mention the geographic dimension of the interwar Hollywood cartel, which rested on reciprocity (“if you show my pictures on the East Coast, I’ll show yours on the West”). It does not discuss Hollywood’s subsequent failure to enter television (that they had just been found guilty of collusion by the Supreme Court did not help their applications for TV licenses). Likewise, the book puts the creation of a mass market for the phonograph in the 1900s and 1910s. This could have been slightly more nuanced, as it remained a bit of an elite product for a limited audience, compared to cinema and later radio. Only a third of households had a record player by 1920, and from then on this fraction declined until 1945. Only during the fifties and sixties did music become a true mass product.

Despite these quibbles, however, this book provides a readable introduction into the history of the US entertainment industry. It may certainly be useful to academics, when consulted alongside other works. For the non-academic reader unfamiliar with the topic this will be an entertaining read.

Gerben Bakker is assistant professor in Economic History and Management at the London School of Economics. He received his Ph.D. from the European University Institute in Florence and was awarded the Herman E. Krooss dissertation prize (2003). Recent publications include: “The Decline and Fall of the European Film Industry: Sunk Costs, Market Size and Market Structure, 1895-1926,” Economic History Review (May 2005); “The Making of a Rights-Based Multinational: PolyGram and the International Music Industry, 1945-1998,” Business History Review (Spring 2006); and “The Evolution of Entertainment Consumption and the Emergence of Cinema, 1890-1940,” Advances in Austrian Economics (2007).

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII