History of the record business 1/2 – The pioneers

I finally managed to finish the entire Twilight of the Gods, Robert Harris’ excellent five-part series on the rise and fall of the recording industry. Each episode is 53 minutes long, so highlights are in order for those who can’t sit through the entire series but would still like to sample the bits that interest them. Parts 1-3 here, parts 4-5 (Late Afternoon and Twilight) coming soon.

Part One–Dawn

Harris starts at the Edison museum in West Orange, NJ by checking out one of original talking machines, the 1908 phonograph. It is still able to record: you yell into the horn and there’s a pin at the end of the horn that vibrates in tune to the voice and cuts the record of the vibrations into the wax cylinder, where they’re preserved forever. People would take the recorder off, put the reproducer back on, to hear what was recorded.

“Before the record, we always listened to the music in company of others. From then on, we could chose the music on our own and listen to it on our own. Such a sense of personal power over music never existed before.”

Recorded music gains an aura of its own, rather than diminishing the ‘aura’ of the work of art behind it. “They belong to us intimately; that’s their aura.”

If there hadn’t been a business to go with the recording technology, the recordings wouldn’t become so important in our lives, remain more of a possibility. Edison was trying to figure out the economics behind it, but got it wrong. He thought of it as a dictation device, for businesses–wax cylinder to replace the written letter. Also put a phonograph into a doll to try to sell the “talking doll”, and that flopped. A decade later after the invention, nobody still made profit from the phonograph.

Then an entrepreneur had an idea to place the phonographs in public spaces like hotels, and charge the public a nickel to hear them play music. “Coin-slot phonographs”. This became really successful.

They redesigned the machine to be just for playback, to be a simpler, much less expensive machine. Originally the idea was for people to make their own recordings, but now what becomes profitable is producing records. And that’s the beginning of the recording industry.

The society told Edison that what they want to hear on the phonograph is music.

Suddenly, there was this enormous market to serve and it became important in 1890s to find a technology to mass produce recordings. Amiel Berliner created a brand new machine altogether, the gramophone that played not cylinders but flat records. Berliner disks were the beginning of the end of Edison. Although at the end Edison did find a way to mass-produce cylinders, they lost out to recordings.

The less known younger inventors like Berliner and Eldridge Johnson who founded the RCA and patented the Victor Talking Machine, realized they had to learn how to cater to the mass public, or rather how to actually create a mass public. Where Johnson put the money in is the artist, the star names. And at that time, the great singing stars were opera singers, like Enrico Caruso. Records made him an even bigger star.

Discs were created as status symbols, overpriced them initially and found out that the market can take this abuse for years and years and years. Redesigned the machines that played them. Johnson realized that for a new class of upwardly mobile consumer, something different was needed than the Edison industrial design. The lady of the house turned out to be the purchaser of the disc, so they made gramophone a piece of furniture. “E. Johsnon was Steve Jobs of his time.”

The record companies provided a public good; they helped create our contemporary culture, which becomes a very American culture, it turns out. Record business also changed the music it recorded.

Part Two–The 20s: Morning

Records weren’t really records, but entirely new art objects: the orchestra sound changed in order to be able to be recorded. “Violins would have modifications, orchestras would have tubas instead of double-basses, double-bases would be out because the recording horns (only mikes available then) were not able to pick them up.”

As the recording technology improved, the records gained in power.

Library of Congress in Culpeper,  Virginia has everything that was ever recorded in the US.

Recordings changed the world of music from top to bottom. New ways to classify music were introduced, then they divided everything into 3 min limit. By the 1920s, most of what North Americans heard was from the records; gradually but surely American musical universe became completely what was on record.

Records set the musical styles into being, including the African-American music. If it weren’t for the record companies, there would have been no jazz or blues. Recording industry discovered, promoted, and shaped it to their own ends. “Probably the first music to be shaped by recording was jazz.”

But the record companies were not in the business of recording American musical heritage, but in it for profits. “Blues was just a term they used to sell the product.” As a tagline, covered a lot of different things.  Country and western also invented by the record companies. The dividing wall between country and blues, invented by the recording companies, in fact was really thin.

Part Three–The 60s: Zenith

[This is the point of the series focused solely on popular music, and where a classical music aside would have been useful]

In the audience development news, there was the Advent of the Teenager.

On the industry side, it was a bit of a Wild West happening with many artists not being compensated justly. They did not know the laws, and record companies did: the basic framework for recording industry was made back in 1909 by the US Congress.

From 1909, record companies had to pay 2c per record sold to songwriters. Before, if you wanted to make a record, you go buy the sheet music for a nickel, make your recording, make a million dollar off it and keep all the money. Songwriters thought that was unfair, Congress agreed in 1909. The 2C record payment called ‘mechanical royalties’ still exists. In the 50s and 60s many of the companies did not pay – still lawsuits from back then in the courts now. They also kept ‘performance royalties’ from the artists. (Every time a song is performed in public and on the radio, the songwriters should get paid. Last year alone the proceeds totalled almost 1b dollars. In 50-60s it was tens of millions of dollars worth a year, that record companies could trick away from their recording artists)

Harris uses as an example Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybellene’ published in 1955 by Chess records. Original sheet music says it was written by Chuck Berry, but also two other guys. One of them was a top DJ of his time who could make or break a record. Unbeknownst to Chuck Berry, his company gave the DJ the co-writing credits so that each time he played the record on the radio, he would be filling his own pockets too. The other name in the credits was the Chess Label’s landlord: instead of paying rent, they gave him bogus writing credits. So Chuck Berry was given one third of the royalties for his own writing credits.

As  the 50s turned into 60s, teens turned into 20-year-olds.

Record companies decided to take over the RnR market, which eroded their share of the market up to that point (smaller companies recorded rnr and up-and-coming stuff)

Folk started dealing with social issues; there was morphing of folk music with rock. Selling the counter-culture. For a brief few years in mid-60s, record business “worked”. Became force for change—the needs of the business, the artists and of the fans all aligned in near-perfect harmony. At best of times, the partnership b/w entrepreneurs and artists serves both sides. Find artists, developed them to full potential, then presented them with all the marketing skills to the audience. For a while in the 60s, this did take place.

Soon enough the industry realized the lucrative potential of rock music and decided it’s in it for the profits more than anything else, which led to the era of  the monster profits of the 80s and 90s. The record business became the business of the attorneys and the accountants.


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