History of the Record Industry, 1877 — 1920s

Part One: From Invention to Industry


The Evolution of the Sound Recording Industry

The history of the sound recording and the record industry stretches back to the mid-1800s, when methods of capturing sound were first devised. There is some evidence to suggest that as far back as the 1200s, the famously inventive English philosopher Friar Roger Bacon managed to crudely record a few words, and similar accounts of ancient novelty inventions exist. But it was during the great “mechanical age” that inventors and scientists focused on sound reproduction.

By the early 1800s, makers of ornate music boxes that did brisk business with the upper classes. Aside from also being pure novelties aimed at those who could afford them, there isn’t much of a connection between music-box manufacturers and early records. However, some aspects of music boxes may have inspired the inventors of records. Like record players, music boxes had two basic elements: a surface with musical information on it, and an instrument that translated that information into sound. On music boxes, the information was stored as pegs or bumps sticking out from the surface of a cylinder or flat disk. As the cylinder or disk turned, its bumps plunked a melody from resonant pieces of metal placed next to them—not that different from a record needle vibrating on a record. Also like record players, some music boxes allowed you to change the cylinder or disk so that you could hear a different tune.

However, there was never even the notion that music boxes could someday record or reproduced sounds– they just made them.

Before the telephone was invented, no one would have imagined hearing disembodied human voices. And few (if any) writers before the telephone speculated that sounds would end up being captured just as photography (an 1820s invention) captured sights.

In the 1850’s, scientist Leon Scott de Martinville did construct a device, the Phonautograph, which graphed out sound much as a seismograph records earthquake vibrations. It contained the essentials of a record player: a hearing-horn focusing the sound onto a vibrating diaphragm (precursor to microphones), and a rigid pig’s hair sketching the diaphragm’s vibration onto a soot-covered paper cylinder. But the scientist never even thought of using the device to recreate the sounds he captured, even though all he would have had to do is use wax- instead of soot-covered paper and run his machine backwards. He eventually sold a version of his device which automatically transcribed telegraph signals.

By the 1850s, telegraph wires were sending messages across whole continents. The traffic of messages quickly got to the point where anything that made the system more efficient could make an inventor rich (very much like the capacity problems which still affect the Internet—essentially, there’s only so much you can fit through any bunch of wires, whether they’re dots and dashes or ones and zeroes.)

One of Thomas Edison’s first major inventions was the “quadruplex,” a system by which a single telegraph wire had four simultaneous signals pass through it, each on a different harmonic wavelength. This automatically quadrupled the number of telegrams that could be sent on one line and with the money from this invention, Edison set up his first research lab.

The idea that the wavelength of a current passing through telegraph wires could be divided into sections led many to experiment with sending audible tones across wires. Soon harmonic telegraphs were devised, which sent several Morse code signals, each one tapped out on one note in the musical scale, across one wire, with tuning forks resonating at various frequencies clicking out the messages at the receiving end.

Alexander Graham Bell was experimenting with exactly one such device when he noticed he could hear not just a click of a certain frequency, but when amplified with an electromagnet, he could briefly hear the vibrating sound of the tuning fork. He experimented with stronger and stronger electromagnets until a voice could be amplified, and the telephone was born.

Other inventors had hoped to send melodies across telegraph wires, with some believing this could become a novelty telegraph service—for example, sending a melody to a loved one, like a primitive “singing telegram.” But Bell’s telephone breakthrough was far more important, and caught most people off-guard– including the famously egotistical Edison, who always regretted not having invented the telephone himself.

Edison was nevertheless working on a telephone-related idea when he accidentally discovered sound reproduction. His idea was to get a machine that would help extend the range of phone lines (as voices could only travel a few kilometers at the time before the signal became too faint.) He had invented something similar to the Phonautograph for telegraphs, whereby incoming Morse code messages were punched into strips of paper, and then fed back into a telegraph. This repeater allowed for messages to be re-sent intact numerous times, extending the range of transmission indefinitely.

Edison was apparently working on a similar device for telephones, which could repeat and re-send phone signals, when he pricked his finger with one of the cactus needles he used as part of his sound-graphing device. The resulting curse he shouted was lightly engraved into the paper strip he was etching the phone signal onto, and when backing up the device, Edison heard the faintest reproduction of his swear word. I don’t think anyone ever found out what exact curse ended up being the first sound recording in history…

This was in 1877. In the same year, a French scientist already conceived of a full working phonograph and even patented it. He never built it, however, and so usually the credit for inventing the phonograph goes to Edison. This was mainly because of Edison’s well-marketed public unveiling of his device, during which he said “Mary had a little lamb” into his device and replayed it to the astonishment of an invited crowd. People had just gotten used to the previously insane notion that a voice could become detached and float far beyond the range of the human voice (with the telephone); now, they were confronted with voices being captured for posterity, as photographs had done for sights. (The word “phonograph” means “sound-writing.”) The sound quality was horrible at first (as it was for telephones in their early years), and Edison soon stopped working on phonographs, focusing instead on inventing the light bulb. He did plan on getting back to it, though, and envisioned three storage formats for sound: tape (actually long strips of coated paper), cylinders and flat discs. He also made a list of possible uses for this invention, which downplayed the potential for making them play music (because of the poor sound quality of the time), but emphasized such uses as recording books for the blind, having families preserve the voices of elderly relatives, as dictating devices for businesses, for the teaching of proper elocution as well as school subjects, as clocks that talk (for example, announcing lunchtime in a factory), combined with phones so people could record messages or conversations, etc. etc.

As with the birth of film about 20 years later, many other inventors came up with working sound reproducers more or less at the same time as Edison. Most early devices used cylinders covered in tinfoil—not the most durable of media. Each time you played it, the sound would get worse, until the indentations on the foil was totally smoothed out.

The first commercial version of a phonograph sold to the public was as a dictation device. Cylinder dictating machines were relatively popular by the end of the 1880s, used by the well-to-do and businesses. Such machines actually stayed in use well into the 1950s, when dictaphones using wire or tape instead of wax cylinders replaced them.

An article from Harper’s Magazine from 1886 on phonographs says a lot about their early stages. The author refers to the initial buzz and then tapering off of interest in Edison’s first phonograph, explaining that although several hundred were sold early on, they “failed to make a success, for the reason that the machine was not only a clumsy piece of mechanism, frequently getting out of adjustment, but more especially because the surface upon which the record was made was pliable, and likely to be obliterated by a mere accidental pressure on it.” This writer goes on to describe a new, improved kind of phonograph, invented by Chichester Bell (related to Alexander) and Sumner Tainter. The Bell-Tainter “graphophone” (essentially the word “phonograph” inverted) used a wax instead of a tinfoil surface. The wax was soft when the record was cut, and would be hardened afterwards. They also pioneered having the groove run side-to-side instead of up and down (as Edison’s record grooves did), and also unveiled a disc version of their new records to go with their new cylinders. The Harper’s author astutely pointed out that the new disc format could potentially be stamped on a press instead of cut one by one as cylinders were. He also mentions the possibility of voice-mail– literally, by sending a cylinder through the mail to someone who also has a graphophone.

The First Commercial Uses

As with the early days of videotapes— when they were mostly just rented, not purchased, by consumers— record companies set very high prices for records, but the owner of a “coin-slot” would then get to charge people each time they wanted to hear a song.

For awhile in the 1890s, most major cities saw venues spring up called “Automatic Phonograph Parlours” which consisted entirely of numerous coin-operated phonographs. In these parlours, customers would line up at rows of listening stations which had each had two tubes you would put in your ear. Requests were made to an operator through a speaking-tube, who would then put on one of up to 150 titles available. The patrons would be billed for each song (or comedy piece or whatever) they heard, except for in certain parlours where some selections were free—although these “free” ones contained a brief spoken advertisement at the beginning or at the end. (This is not much different from a brief trend of the nineteen-nineties where people could get free minutes on their cell-phones, as long as they were willing to listen to a brief ad every two minutes…).

As for what was on all these records back then, mainly one could only hear the most popular or novel music or crudest comedy routines, all appealing to the lowest common denominator (i.e. the widest buying public). Thus, with a few exceptions, most of the music that exists on record before 1900 hardly represents the highest quality or best performers of music from that era. (The most recognizable songs from this era are probably Hello Ma Baby and Sweet Adeline, which were both big hits in 1898-1899.) The range of what could be recorded on early popular records was also quite limited. To ensure the most plays before a cylinder wore out, comedy routines were shouted very loudly, and only the loudest instruments (mainly brass bands) were recorded. Vocal groups, such as the “barbershop” or gospel quartets which were popular at the time, often had their records advertised as being “loud and distinct.”

The late 90's also saw the heyday of John Philip Sousa and his famous marching band. His songs sold massive amounts of sheet music as soon as they came out, and since his was a loud brass band, he was also able to sell tons of records. You can still find Victor records of his from around 1900 for one or two dollars in junk shops, and they are truly LOUD records when played on a real phonograph. The most stunning thing is the clarity of all the instruments—some are clearly louder than others, and when the band builds to a climax, the whole record gets louder. There’s no doubt that the best way to listen to recordings of Sousa’s band is on a good acoustic (wind-up) phonograph (much as rock and roll from the 50's is best heard in mono, not simulated stereo). Acoustic phonographs reproduce sound in the purest form– the artist’s sound made the stylus cut a groove, then on playback the groove recreates the sound directly and physically, without first converting the sounds into electromagnetic or digital signals (which level off the volume and range before turning the signals back into sound.)

A one-sided 7-inch record circa 1899-1901

Records Begin to Improve

There was a major global recession between 1890 and 1894 or so, which set back to some degree the advance of the fledgling record companies. One exception however was the Berliner Gramophone Company (which later became Victor), set up by Emile Berliner, a German inventor who emigrated to the U.S.

Berliner was the first to perfect the hard flat disc as opposed to cylinder, and most importantly, was the first to mass-produce records. As with so many other technologies, from cars to books, mass-production was the essential step in enabling mass-consumption.

Even during the harsh recession of the early 90's, Berliner managed to sell 1,000 gramophones and 25, 000 records in 1893. His competitors could still only produce at most a few copies of each performance on a cylinder, making it almost impossible to match Berliner’s production volume.

But a combination of the reviving economy and more reliable spring-motors installed in phonographs by 1895 helped to get the whole industry going again. As employment rose and prices of phonographs fell below $40 (considered a “magic number” at the time, much as DVD players first took off after dropping below $400), these devices started becoming a popular consumer item– despite protests from those who ran coin-operated phonographs (who feared that people would stop using them. They didn’t, as shown by the continued presence of jukeboxes in at least some establishments over 100 years later.)

Inventors took interest in sound reproduction again as phonographs surged in popularity through the late 1890s. A patent was registered for a stereo record in 1898 (though none were ever manufactured or sold at the time.) Another scientist patented a method for sputtering flecks of metal in microscopically precise patterns onto non-conductive (i.e. non-metallic) surfaces back in 1884. This technique wasn’t really used for anything until well into the next century, when it served as the basis for the manufacturing of compact discs.

A variety of quite strange items appeared at the turn of the century. These included novelty records pressed on very hard chocolate, which wore out rather quickly, but the idea was that once they did, you could eat them. Novelty phonographs include the Lampograph– a phonograph which doubled as a lamp– and another phonograph which came with a mouthpiece you’d attach to your teeth, enabling you to hear the music playing in your head!

The Sound Recording Industry gets it’s Wings

The first decade of the 1900's was dominated by “the Big Three” major labels— Colombia, Victor and Edison. Edison produced only cylinders, stubbornly believing they would eventually be the only format around, all while aggressively suing any other company which made cylinders without giving him a cut. (He would have had a much better chance of seeing cylinders become the main format if he allowed other companies to make them, but that wasn’t his style.) His cylinder boxes were telling of the importance given to musicians and performers at the time: Edison’s frowning face appeared in a large black and white photo on one side, with a long, long list of patents and warnings against potential imitators of the cylinder on the other. Finally, along the edge of one side of the cylinder, in very small type, there was the name of the song and performer or band. For a long time, cylinders had better sound quality than discs, partly because their grooves went up and down instead of side-to-side (as on flat records). But cylinders were hard to store. They came in cardboard cans which were given to rolling off of tables or shelves and shattering the cylinder inside. The cans also gave rise the term “canned music.” Flat records, on the other hand, easily fit most bookshelves, and made steady progress in sound quality and durability so that by around 1910 they sounded as good as cylinders.

Edison finally started making discs in 1913, though he stuck to the up-down groove, so that people had to buy special record players that only Edison made. (By 1929, the Edison company gave up on the record business entirely.)

By sticking to cylinders, Edison missed out on the first big boom in the sales of record players and records. Between 1901 and 1920, record players became a part of most households, whether rich, middle-class or poor. Some models sold for very cheap even for the time, while other phonographs were deluxe models for the rich only, made of fancy milled hardwood and gold or brass parts. By the first years of the century, most phonographs (or gramophones, or graphophones, depending on the brand involved) no longer had those big external horns that most people at the time found unsightly (today, these are the most valuable phonographs.) Instead, the horn was curled under the turntable, a design pioneered by Victor in their Victrola.

Records became a big business in the first decade of the century. Overall sales went from about 4 million in 1900 to almost 30 million in 1910. They kept going up right through World War I, when patriotic songs of all kinds were big sellers (the most famous being It’s A Long Way To Tipperary). The portable phonograph was invented during the war, so that the troops could enjoy music on the front lines. After the war, portables were big sellers in spring and summer, marketed for use on picnics and vacations. Some portables were as small as a pack of cigarettes (these came with fold-out cardboard horns.)

A Victrola portable player from the 1920s, note the heavy steel needle. The diaphragm whose vibration is amplified by the steel horn is made of mica, a very thin slice of layered rock. Later diaphragms were more cone-shaped and made of aluminum.

Both phonographs and records were sold in furniture stores, especially after the Victrola proved a phonograph could also be a pretty piece of furniture. Piano and musical instrument stores, which were far more numerous back then than they are today, also sold them, and some of these also began their own labels (such as the Starr and Gennett jazz labels which grew out of the Starr Piano company.)

Victor sold only flat discs, Edison only cylinders, and Colombia sold both formats. By the early 1800s, all three companies had divisions in Britain, Germany, France and elsewhere.

Apparently the first Victor record to have the famous picture of the dog listening to “His Master’s Voice” on the label was Caruso’s first Red Seal record. The Victor Red Seal imprint, and the signing of opera star Enrico Caruso, were major turning points in making both the public and performers view records as valid cultural items as opposed to crude novelty items. This parallels turning points in other media, such as D.W. Griffith proving films could tell serious stories (and be more than 15 minutes long) with his Birth of a Nation in 1915.

The Victor Red Seals were premium records, selling for $1 each in 1903 (with music on only one side! Often, elaborate designs were stamped into the other side.) By 1942, they sometimes retailed for $7, equivalent to who knows how much today! Still, they were THE gold standard for lovers of “serious” music, and more than 130 million were sold between 1903 and 1942.

Another watershed moment in the young record industry occurred in 1904, when Victor began pressing songs onto both sides of a disc for the first time (and raising the price accordingly.) The French scientist Ademor Petit discovered that molten shellac spread more evenly if it was squeezed by record stampers on both sides simultaneously (instead of being stamped into a flat mold. Victor quickly patented the idea everywhere it could, and Colombia immediately challenged the patent. A few years followed with both parties in the courts, culminating in 1908, when the lawyer for Colombia dramatically held up a record in the courtroom and demanded to know that “If we are to be restricted to one side of the record, which side shall it be?” From then on, the concept of the two-sided flat record has remained in the public domain.

In 1917, Jazz (or at first, Jass—some say the spelling was changed because Jass sounded too much like Ass) became the first new kind of music to originate on records. (The earlier ragtime and tin-pan alley styles had instead first been popularized in music halls and through sheet music and piano rolls.)

The first jazz band to strike it big on record was the Original Dixieland Jass Band—an all-white band playing music invented by the black musicians of New Orleans. Some would say that as with Elvis and rock and roll, the majors waited until a white-only jazz band came along before marketing the new music, but most histories make it seem more like a coincidence than a devious plan. According to legend, jazz great Freddie Keppard was offered a record deal by Victor shortly before the first ODJB records, but he turned it down because he worried that other musicians would play the records over and over and learn all of his playing tricks. (Early jazz was far less improvised and very complicated musically, leading some musicians to even turn their backs to the audience during their fancier solo parts.) Another version of this story says that Keppard actually was holding out for more money from Victor, demanding to know how much Caruso was being paid, and that Victor eventually lost patience. Either way, once the ODJB hit it big, demand for the new style was such that most jazz musicians (regardless of colour) got to put out records if they wanted to.

The Threat of Radio

In 1920, commercial radio began and even by 1921, it had an effect on record and phonograph sales. The record industry did get a boost in late 1921, though, when Victor’s patents on flat records were defeated in court, and immediately many independent record companies began making records. In the end, this only helped Victor because the greater variety of music the new record labels made available to listeners spurred the sale of phonographs, of which Victor’s were by far the most popular. (To this day, you can get a perfectly functional portable Victor from the 1920s for about $150. They were really built to last!)

When commercial radio began in 1920, the sound reception was mostly fuzzy and not very good. It improved a lot over the next few years, however, and record companies were furious about this business of people getting music piped into their homes for free. Many listeners, though, believed radios would quickly make phonographs and the whole record industry obsolete. Why pay 50 cents or $1 (equivalent to at least $10 — $20 today) per song when you can get non-stop music for free? Also, with radio, you didn’t have to get up after each song to change the side, not to mention crank up the phonograph for each song. Plus, music on the radio never wore out—there were no scratches or ticks as there were on your old records. And by 1924 or so, the sound quality of most radios was better than that of most phonographs.

Much like the lawsuits major labels initially reacted to digital file-sharing with, record companies in the 1920s tried to prevent records from being played on the radio, even though stations at the time preferred broadcasting live musicians (as records played on the air resulted in mediocre sound quality.) They certainly could not stop the growth of radio, however, and after accepting this reality, they focused on innovation to improve records and record players. After all, some listeners would always want the option of putting on whatever music they want, rather than listen to the choices of a radio station.

And so, starting in the early 20s, the record companies and phonograph makers introduced several important innovations. First, they made more models which ran on electricity, so people didn’t have to wind up the device for each song. In 1925, Victor introduced what they called “orthophonic” sound, which meant the music was recorded electrically, with the new electric microphones and amplifiers, instead of acoustically as was the case before. The new “electric” sound (quickly adopted by most of the other labels) was much clearer, and was closer to the sound people heard on radios. Also, for the first time ever, the fainter instruments, such as keyboards, guitars, the lower bass notes and higher high notes were audible (partly because soft instruments could now be “microphonally amplified” through the new “loud-speakers.”) Instruments such as drums also appeared on records for the first time, presumably because before that a drummer would drown out the other sounds. In short, the noticeable improvement in sound helped turn sales around. Shortly after this “electric sound” revolution, record sales for the top songs of the day surpassed sales of sheet music for those same songs for the first time ever.

By the end of the roaring 20s, radio-and-phonograph combinations were being sold as one unit. Obviously both mediums found a way to complement each other; although records were still never played on air, it never hurt a major star’s record sales to perform their hits live on the radio. Aside from that, the booming economy, the increased purchasing power of the middle class, the new consumer youth (those “flappers” and their fur-coat wearing boyfriends), and the ever-increasing popularity of jazz all helped fuel huge record sales by the end of the decade.

But as with everything else, the Great Depression changed all of that. The downturn in the record industry was by far the worst in its history (far worse, in fact, than the losses of today’s majors.) Total annual record sales dropped from about a hundred million in 1927 to just six million in 1932. Radio, which from the beginning was driven mostly by advertising (which tends to stay stable in hard times) was less badly hit.

A major shakeup in the record industry followed. Nearly all of the smaller, independent labels disappeared almost overnight. RCA, a major radio manufacturer, bought the venerable Victor Records, in what was probably the first instance of media “convergence.” (Many people pointed out this precedent back when AOL bought Time-Warner, i.e. that the new media was buying up the old. After AOL’s stock collapsed, however, it became more like the old propping up the new, and Time-Warner just recently dropped AOL from its name.)

A couple of years later, another of the majors, Colombia, was bought by the CBS radio network. (The fact that CBS stands for Colombia Broadcasting System is actually a coincidence.) The third of the original majors, Edison, had faded out by 1929.