Before the advent of recorded and broadcast sound, popular music was disseminated by the publication of music in print, often on one sheet of paper, folded in half, with an illustrated front cover.

By the late 19th century in America, the pop music industry was the music-publishing business, centered in New York City. In 1892, "After the Ball" by Charles K. Harris, sold one million copies, and inspired rapid growth in the music-publishing industry. Songs would be spread through vaudeville performances, with an eye to selling more sheet music. By the 1920s and 1930s (The "Golden Age" of Tin Pan Alley), music publishers also used Broadway musicals, radio, and dance orchestras to further spread their songs and increase sales. At the same time, rapid improvements in technology made phonographs and radios more affordable and popular. Recordings finally surpassed sheet music in sales in 1953.