The Fascinating History of Billboard Magazine

The Billboard 1900

Editors Note: Considering the fact that most people have never read Billboard, as it is primarily a music industry publication, it is amazing just how much the magazine has impacted the music business. Theirs is a fascinating and inspiring story. While many regard Billboard as THE contemporary guide to the music biz, in fact the publication debuted in 1894, before the music industry as we know it today existed. Interest in the long-running paper is not just with new top 40 performers, or the occasionally mobility challenged Keith Richards (who could probably use a few mobility scooters!), but also with yesteryear's music-makers, even if they are now rocking out with a walking cane or getting down in power wheelchairs!

"The Billboard developed the Letter-Box, a mail-forwarding service for traveling performers. A precursor of today's E-mail, the Letter-Box listed the names of performers whose mail was waiting for them at The Billboard's offices. It presented a monumental task to the publication, but the Letter-Box created a link between Billboard and the creative community that remains unbroken."

From Billboard.com:

"[Billboard] magazine was launched in the fall of 1894 by two partners, William H. Donaldson and James H. Hennegan, as a publication for the billposting business. Donaldson was a salesman for his father's lithography company, which specialized in printing advertising posters. Hennegan also worked for a family printing firm.

"Donaldson saw a need for a publication that would inform the roving bill posters of industry news. What's more, the new publication could help the Donaldson and Hennegan family printing firms stay in touch with their major clients.

"The new magazine was named Billboard Advertising and was published monthly. As declared on its ornate opening page, it was 'devoted to the interests of advertisers, poster printers, bill posters, advertising agents and secretaries of fairs.'

"That first issue was dated Nov. 1, 1894. It was eight pages long and carried a cover price of 10 cents (90 cents for a full year's subscription). The magazine was headquartered at 11 W. Eighth St. in Cincinnati, Donaldson and Hennegan's hometown.

"The cover of the first Billboard Advertising carried a grainy black-and-white cameo of one R.C. Campbell, a Chicago advertising executive described within as 'an infallible expert and reliable authority on that particular branch of the science of advertising embraced by the billboard.'

"This 'science' was further explored in columns headlined Bill Room Gossip and The Indefatigable And Tireless Industry Of The Bill Poster, wherein readers learned that the bill poster 'loves to be out on the street at night, when, should he discover a fire, he can bill the front of a building and then turn in an alarm.'

"By its first anniversary, Billboard Advertising was running a steady 16 pages; the one-year subscription was up to $1.

"In June 1896, the first hints of entertainment coverage started slipping into Billboard Advertising with the introduction of a Fair Department. Here the magazine began reporting on the carnival and fair attractions that often were advertised on billboards of the day. The magazine also began running ads for such colorfully named attractions as Cook's Royal Roman Hippodrome & Equine Paradox and the high-flying LeRoy Sisters, billed as 'The Dauntless Queens Of The Air.'

"In February 1897, Billboard Advertising made a major shift in direction. The magazine's name was shortened to The Billboard, a handle it would carry until 1961. Listings of fairs and ads for outdoor attractions began to dominate. There were diving animal acts, hot-air balloon rides, baseball-playing "Nebraska Indians" and such extravaganzas as Capt. Bob Cook's Water Show & Fireworks Co...

"By 1902, The Billboard's cover was bannered with the words 'Dramatic, Operatic, Burlesque, Circus, Billposters.' This fairly summed up the entertainment scene of the day -- as well as the magazine's new priorities. Inside, the first two pages still covered bill posting, but beyond lay the new meat: 14 pages with departments like Stage Gossips, Tent Troopers and Street Fairs And Carnivals. The pages were crammed with long lists of fairs and attractions. Other pages carried news of show biz comings and goings, deaths and bankruptcies, openings and closings, robberies and railroad wrecks.

"Thanks largely to the growth of American cities and the rail lines that linked them, the entertainment business was thriving. And while the entertainers at fairs and carnivals continued to labor in relative obscurity, the stage had created a new class of stars. Veteran performers, such as Sarah Bernhardt, John Drew, Maurice Barrymore and Maude Adams had become household names; their activities were followed closely by The Billboard....

"The Billboard developed the Letter-Box, a mail-forwarding service for traveling performers. A precursor of today's E-mail, the Letter-Box listed the names of performers whose mail was waiting for them at The Billboard's offices. It presented a monumental task to the publication, but the Letter-Box created a link between Billboard and the creative community that remains unbroken...

Billboard Magazine

"When the 1960s rolled around, the magazine was still called The Billboard and coverage of tent shows and carny pitchmen still shared space with music stories, charts and reviews. It was time for a radical change. And so, with the issue dated Jan. 9, 1961, the carnival and fair coverage was spun into a new publication, Amusement Business, and The Billboard took on a new name: Billboard Music Week. 'For the first time, Billboard is no longer a general show business publication, but a weekly business journal for the professional user of music, with the emphasis on recordings, and of music playback equipment,' the magazine declared...

"Today's Billboard is helmed by president and publisher John Killcullen, with co-executive editors Tamara Conniff and Ken Schlager heading up the editorial team. Under their leadership, the magazine underwent a major redesign and repositioning in May 2005. Although music is still the heart of the matter, the magazine and its Web sites have expanded their scope to cover all manner of digital and mobile entertainment.

"Billboard is now read in more than 100 countries around the world. Billboard.com attracts more than 2.5 million unique visitors each month. The Billboard Music Awards is one of television's most popular annual entertainment events. Billboard's stories and charts are licensed for use in every possible media, including mobile phones..."

Read the ENTIRE history of Billboard at Billboard.com.

Joel Whitburn's Billboard Charts

World's Oddest Billboards


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