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In the 1970s, disco hit dance floors with plenty of sparkles, platform shoes, and one-hit wonders. But it also presented a problem for music marketing, Mary E. Stibal writes: Given the records’ extremely short shelf life, how should they be promoted?

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The quandary of how to move disco records produced what Stibal calls “a new marketing system”—one with an outlet beyond radio. Given the huge popularity of disco dance venues, writes Stibal, music promoters changed tactics, relying more on discos clubs than the airwaves to create buzz and generate local sales. The popularity of disco clubs slashed promotion costs for record labels, making it possible to gain fame and even airplay for as low as a dollar a promotion.

Stibal tracks the typical data flow from disco floor to top 40 hit by examining the different players in the disco-sphere. Though large labels had a hard time identifying and embracing authentic disco sound, she writes, by 1977, only five percent hadn’t been able to produce a disco record. In contrast, small labels and even “miniature” ones managed to break through by promoting their dance hits in clubs instead of on the radio. There were even disco record stores, including Boston’s Strawberries.

But backlash against disco made it that much harder to map the anatomy of its success, writes Stibal: “Because the death of disco has been anticipated on a yearly basis, [published information about disco] is not considered essential to market growth.”

From mailing lists to DJs, individual promoters to top-40 programmers, the path of a record from underground dance phenom to national hit was a complicated one. But it was all about the boogie, concludes Stibal: “Disco not only provided the record industry with an alternative method of product exposure; it presented the industry with a network of 15,000 outlets for such exposure in a matter of years.”


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Journal of Marketing, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Oct., 1977), pp. 82-88q
American Marketing Association