Incumbents, Innovation, and Competence: the Emergence of Recorded Jazz, 1920-1929

July, 2004

We examine recorded jazz as a musical innovation of the early twentieth century. Consistent with much research on radical innovations, the dominant incumbent record companies exhibited hesitance and limited competence in offering jazz in its radical form. In contrast to much research, these same incumbent firms were first movers in recording an ‘‘illegitimate,’’ (but profitable) form of jazz. However, they would distance themselves from these early efforts, and they eventually responded to elite pressure against jazz by inserting symphonic elements (recording ‘‘orchestras’’ and white musicians) into the original, but illegitimate, form. We draw upon research on cultural industries to understand this and examine the competence of dominant incumbents in recording jazz. Using data on Midwest jazz recordings, our findings suggest diminished competence when they did record nonwhite jazz musicians. At the same time, these firms recorded jazz ‘‘orchestras,’’ with increased competence.

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