winter / 2013

The magazine of branded content

The Sound of Content

A history of industrial musicals offers a rollicking glimpse into days of branded content gone by.
Dec 10, 2013

In the 1950s, when the price tag on a Broadway production neared $500,000, American corporations were budgeting $3 million to stage their own music theater extravaganzas, conceived for the exclusive entertainment of company employees at conventions and sales meetings—branded entertainment for The Greatest Generation.

These “Industrial Musicals” boosted the spirits of workers with songs titled “PDM (Power Distribution Management) Can Do,” “He’s a Penney Man,” and “An Exxon Dealer’s Wife.”

Will the job of selling typewriters, sewing machines or insurance products ever again be endowed with such Broadway bonhomie? Probably not, but as a precursor to the branded entertainment that many agencies currently produce, industrial musicals provide a timeline for brand values and messaging.

“It’s compelling entertainment that’s mapped to your brand,” said David Lang, the recently appointed CEO at Mindshare Entertainment, in a recent interview describing branded entertainment, or entertainment marketing. “It has to be entertainment first, because it has to be consumer-centric. Whether it’s communicating the brand essence, the brand messaging, or the awareness phase, consideration, intent or sales phase, you’ve got to raise [the quality] in order to stand out from the clutter and competition that’s in the marketplace right now.”

Industrial musicals represent a simpler time, with hardly any metrics to speak of. With the release of “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of the Industrial Musical”—a voluminous tome written by Steve Young, a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman, and Sport Murphy, a songwriter and recording artist—we can access an era that at once seems unfathomably innocent yet also inspiring for anyone creating content, in any form.

We spoke to authors Steve Young and Sport Murphy about the glory days of the industrial musical.

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Content: What can the presence of Industrial Musicals tell us about corporate America in the 1950s?
Sport Murphy: Not to paint too idealistic a picture of it, but this was postwar America, and things were booming. A generation of Depression kids had just won the biggest war in history and the sky was the limit. Everyone was accustomed to wartime and New Deal ideas of "one for all" and the corporations either embraced or exploited this, depending upon one's degree of cynicism. The fact is, though, that a family could thrive on the income one parent brought home from a job at Ford or Pepsi. In today's environment, such things seem about as fanciful as Brigadoon. Recall also that corporate sponsorship was prominent in the new world of TV with things like "Spacely Sprockets Theater with Ralph Meeker" or "The Worldwide Wickets Hour starring Lewis and Clark.” Industrials sorta dovetailed conceptually with all this, and likely seemed far less bizarre than they later came to appear.

Musical Poster

Was there any revenue or syndication model for these tunes?
Steve Young: No, the corporations seemed to assume that the songs were only for use at these private conventions, and the ancillary use on the souvenir record albums to reinforce the messages and themes of the convention. Very occasionally the records might be played in a showroom or in a local radio commercial, but they were never really for the public. The records are generally marked "Souvenir recording—not for broadcast or commercial use." I know of a case in which Dodge really liked a song from a Hank Beebe-Bill Heyer announcement show, and wanted to use it in commercials, but their ad agency was very territorial and said "You can't use that song or we'll cut our ties with you." Dodge gave in. However, Beebe and Heyer did once get a nice extra payment when Seagram used their lyrics from a 1965 Seagram Distillers show in a magazine ad.

Musical Poster

Why did the industrial musical fall into a decline?
Steve Young: A combination of factors brought about the decline of the "golden age." Companies realized that new AV technology allowed them to use recyclable video packages and generic songs. Changing generational tastes meant fewer in the audience or in the creative ranks were as excited about traditional Broadway style shows; there was more of a preference for hiring a singer or group to do their actual hits. Economics, technology, and natural evolution brought the curtain down, though we've been hearing reports lately of a few holdout "golden age" type shows.