History of the Record Industry, 1920— 1950s
Part Two: Independent labels, Radio, and the Battle of the Speeds
The history of the record industry continues here with its emergence as a part of the mass media that coalesced between the world wars. The industry was already well-established when it was seriously challenged by radio in the mid-1920s. As it would again many times over its history, the industry responded to this challenge by innovating and marketing new kinds of records and record players. The kinds of music that were sold on records also changed significantly during this period, as upstart independent labels appeared to present artists and styles previously ignored by the monopolistic major labels. But before we explain these developments in some detail, it’s worth looking back at how the record industry developed in the first place.
Until the 1920s, the music business was dominated not by major record labels, but by song publishers and big vaudeville and theater concerns. In those days, sheet music consistently outsold records of the same hit songs, proving that most of the music heard in homes and in public back then was played by people, not record players. A hit song’s sheet music often sold in the millions between 1910 and 1920. Recorded versions of these songs were at first just seen as a way to promote the sheet music, and were usually released only after sheet music sales began falling.
Records grew steadily in popularity throughout that time, though, with sales going from 4 million units per year in 1900 to 30 million in 1909, and to over 100 million per year by 1920. But in relative terms, records were still a small part of the entertainment pie, and recording them in the years before 1910 was no more exciting for musicians than acting in early films was for stage actors. Both film and records were considered novelties. Live shows remained the main income source for musicians, and songwriters lived off of sheet music and performance royalties.
In the 1890s, most people listened to records in arcade-like “phonograph parlours,” where each listener would listen to their selection of music or comedy through ear tubes. Coin-operated phonographs and automated player pianos were seen by many musicians as cheapening and commodifying music, perhaps because these machines usually played the most generic pop songs. But coin-ops may have introduced music to a lot of people who otherwise never much cared about it. And since listeners heard the music on earphones, they were able to focus abstractly on it with no visual distractions for perhaps the first time. It may have helped whet their appetite for the then-novel experience of listening to a band or orchestra in one’s home; in any case, sales of home phonographs grew steadily from 1900 to 1910 (with half a million sold in 1910 alone.)
In the early 1900s, only the biggest stars received royalties from record or sheet music sales. Most artists got a flat fee for recording sessions and songwriters were paid per song by sheet music publishers. John Philip Sousa, one of the biggest names at the turn of the century, demanded royalties of 15% of sheet music sales, and was among the first to get royalties from records. Despite making tons of money from it, he disliked the record industry and was convinced it would threaten the livelihoods of musicians in the long term. In 1906 he remarked that “canned music is as incongruous around the campfire as canned salmon by a trout stream.”
Popular opera singer Enrico Caruso single-handedly raised the reputation of recorded music when he signed a contract with Victor in 1904. In 16 years he made up to $5 million from record sales, getting $4000 per song recorded plus a staggering 40 cents in royalties per record (at a time when records cost $1 or $1.50.) The hoopla around Caruso’s signing, combined with growing overall sales, convinced more and more performers that records could be profitable (and respectable.)
However, the industry continued to avoid paying royalties unless the musician was popular enough to demand it. In 1909, a new copyright law passed by the US Congress forced royalties from record sales to be paid to songwriters and publishers, though not to performers. The industry didn’t like the new law at first, but it ended up attracting more talent to the industry. Getting a cut from record sales encouraged publishers to provide record companies with songs at the same time that performers were playing them live. A new context emerged where someone could come home from a show looking forward to buying records of it, or sheet music, or both. Sure enough, sales of everything just kept increasing through to the 1920s.
This was an early example of rival forms of media eyeing each other with suspicion until they figure out how to cross-promote their products. Similar situations occurred in the 20s with radio and the record industry; in the 30s (to some degree) with sound movies and the stage; in the late 40s with television, film and radio; in the 70s with videocassettes and the film industry and today with digital files and the record industry.
Publishers and record companies soon realized that strange things could happen in this new context, such as in 1910 when Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?, a record by Broadway singer Nora Bayes (co-writer of the classic Shine On Harvest Moon), became a hit for the Victor label, but the play it was supposed to promote bombed. Soon, big stars of the stage such as Billy Murray and Al Jolson became recording stars with huge hits between 1910 and 1920 such as By The Light of the Silv’ry Moon and Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
New Labels Create New Styles
Despite the booming popularity of records during WWI, only a very limited selection of the music of the times was released. Sometimes this was due to technical limitations (pianos and other instruments didn’t record well), often it was due to labels catering to the tastes of upper-class Victrola owners, but mostly it had to do with competition being limited to just three or four major labels. As with the big labels today, their goal wasn’t documentation or rewarding talent and innovation: it was to put out records that would move a lot of units, and please the listeners with the most disposable income.
The dominant majors in North America before 1920 were Victor (the biggest by far), Edison’s National Phonograph Company, and Columbia, while in Europe there was Pathé among a few others. The North American majors aggressively defended their patents in the courts to prevent new competition, but the number of companies making records still grew in the US from about 18 in 1914 to over 160 by 1918. That number exploded after 1921, when the Gennett label successfully sued Victor, placing the 78 RPM record firmly in the public domain.
Almost immediately, labels totally independent of the distribution and licensing monopolies of the majors (hence, independent labels, or “indies”) appeared. In 1921, the typical cost of producing a record was about 20 cents, including payment to songwriters or performers. Retailers kept no more than 15%, and consumers typically paid between 85 cents and $1.25 for a record. Most costs were recouped after 5000 copies were sold, with the rest being pure profit. This was considered pretty good business, which accounts for why so many people with no prior interest in music, such as furniture companies and department store chains, started putting out records.
The explosion of new labels coincided with the jazz craze in the US. Jazz had broken out in 1917, and outside of New Orleans, Chicago and the handful of other places where it was played in nightclubs, no one had heard jazz music before they heard it on record. This was new: since the invention of recording, the music styles people heard on record had already become popular through sheet music or on the stage. What’s more, the cheap sound quality and usually cheesy selections didn’t exactly inspire musicians to copy music from records.
But not long after the first hit jazz records came out, the style was being copied by bands in many different places. For the first time, musicians were learning music off of records and spreading a style without any firsthand contact with its original performers. And also, bands and orchestras who would never have played this strange music before start doing so, just to cash in and sell some records. (The most prominent commercial—and white—bandleaders included Isham Jones, Ted Lewis, and Paul Whiteman, who recorded the original version of Rhapsody in Blue with George Gershwin on piano.)
This was a profound and permanent change from the record industry’s first decades: from now on, obscure regional styles would sporadically pop up on records and suddenly be popular across the country, or even across the world.
The next new style after jazz to break out big through records was the blues, which had previously been confined to vaudeville stages and rural porch-fronts. It hit big when upstart New York label OKeh released Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues in 1921, the first record by a black artist to sell a million copies. (Any records made by blacks and aimed mainly at black audiences were called “race” records, an industry term only replaced by “rhythm and blues” after Billboard renamed its charts in 1951.)
The huge sales of Crazy Blues led the majors to sign their own blues singers, such as Bessie Smith (who recorded for Columbia) and Ma Rainey. But the style’s popularity grew from the efforts of independent labels like Paramount Records and Gennett, a division of the Starr piano company of Indiana.
Gennett was a good example of a label that put out overlooked music not so much out of artistic mission but because the major labels weren’t bothering with it. They released records of any and every passing fad for as long as they sold. They put out various ethnic and polka records, vaudeville and comedy records, exercise records, religious records (both hymns and preaching), marching bands, hotel orchestras, blues and “hillbilly” artists and even briefly made records for the Ku Klux Klan (which was having a national resurgence at the time, although they were still controversial enough that some Gennett employees refused to work on their records.) They recorded everything they could, and began releasing jazz when the manager of the large Starr Piano store in Chicago noted the profusion of black jazz bands arriving there from New Orleans after WWI.
Since Gennett used employees from their piano factories to run their recording operation, the music recorded was usually not altered or directed to sound a certain way by the staff. Anyone recording there was able to play whatever they wanted, however they wanted. King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings were among the seminal jazz names recording at Gennett as unknowns in the early 20s
Paramount Records was another important independent, an arm of the Wisconsin Chair Company that found its way into records by first manufacturing phonograph cabinets, then phonographs, then deciding it could promote phonograph sales by selling records. As with Gennett, the company’s general lack of interest in what it recorded led it to release a lot of raw blues music untainted by efforts to make it sound more commercial (except for occasionally requesting that performers clean up dirty lyrics.) By the mid-20s, Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first big star in the country blues style. Surprisingly, one of the main bulk buyers of both white and black rural music from labels like Gennett and Paramount was the Sears & Roebuck Company. Among the best customers of its famous mail-order catalogue were rural folk, both black and white, who lived far from any department store. Sears was more than happy to sell them cheap phonographs and records of the music they liked to hear, which most often was country or blues.
Much of this music was recorded in the 20s by white scouts who traveled the South with portable disk recorders searching out interesting street musicians or porchfront amateurs. They would usually pay them a few bucks for their time, and then sell the material to record labels further north. Mayo Williams and A.C. Speir were two of the best-known scouts who discovered such legends as Charley Patton, Son House and Blind Blake. It’s estimated that about 20 000 “race” records, mostly of country blues, gospel, preaching and comedy, were produced between 1922 and 1932.
Only a few bigger labels paid royalties to these rural artists, usually just a fraction of a cent per disc. Some scouts never bothered explaining the concept to the artists, and got rich by pocketing royalties on hundreds of records for years (with the labels presumably thinking that they were going to pass them on to the performers.) The labels often took even further advantage of these itinerant singers: Gennett, for example, was known to create pseudonyms for its artists when pressing records on budget labels commissioned by chain stores like Kresges. None of these artists got paid for these extra record sales, and some of those who’d become jazz legends by the 50s were reported to be quite surprised when collectors asked them about some of their old “nicknames.”
While considered just as quaint and somewhat backward as blues music was, “hillbilly” music (which I’ll henceforth refer to as country music) became even more popular across the US in the 20s. The first big country star was “Fiddlin’” John Carson, the “Singing Brakeman,” who put out a string of huge-selling hit records starting in 1923. The first million-selling country record was put out by Victor’s answer to Carson, one Vernon Dalhart, whose The Prisoner’s Song/ Wreck of the Old ’97 was a smash with rural and urban audiences in 1924, eventually selling over five million copies! Country remained a strong style for the big labels into the 30s, with the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers both releasing million-selling singles by 1928. Country music, and the early silent Cowboy movies, also had international appeal, even spawning an Australian star called Tex Morton who had a few hits in the late 20s.
Records and Radio: The Threatening New Menace of the Music Industry
Although Marconi technically invented radio (or “wireless telegraphy”) in 1901, radio as we know it was developed by David Sarnoff. Sarnoff was the young wireless-telegraph operator on duty when the Titanic sank in 1912, whose 70-hour shift that night earned him worldwide fame. He wrote an article shortly afterwards imagining that this “wireless world” could lead to appliances that would carry music into people’s homes. At the time, the airwaves were only commercially exploited for communications between ships and from ship-to-shore, with most people thinking that the fact that anyone could listen in on public airwaves made them useless in the home.
In 1920, Sarnoff’s celebrity status got him the top job at RCA, a new company set up by GE and other big corporations on the ashes of Marconi’s bankrupt “wireless telegraphy” business. RCA’s mandate was to explore (and exploit) the commercial potential of the airwaves. Within a couple of years, as more and more stations began broadcasting music, radios became fairly popular consumer items, but they only really took off when Sarnoff conceived of a national network made up of the best-liked shows aired on small stations around the country. (At this point, the whole idea of a national network was to sell more radios, not to revolutionize communications or even to sell advertising.)
Sarnoff’s ideas, combined with the huge capital his corporate backers put behind them, worked extremely well. In 1924, radios cost over $200 and were in a few thousand households; by 1927, some sold for just $35 and were in over 10 million households. (This boom may proportionately have been bigger and faster-growing than the late 90s surge of households connecting to the Internet.)
When radio began growing in 1921, early stations found that live musicians sounded much clearer over the air than record players did, so few if any played records. The record industry and musicians’ unions were still nervous enough to encourage US President Herbert Hoover to outlaw the playing of records on air, which he did in 1922. Hoover’s reasoning was that the public airwaves should be used for the public good, which included creating jobs for musicians.
However, the record industry still had serious fears that people would just sit at home listening to music for free without ever buying a record again. Concert promoters had similar fears: in Boston in 1924, a famous violinist sold 3000 tickets for a huge concert which a radio station later announced would be aired live. When ticketholders heard this, more than half asked for their money back. This incident may have been more indicative of a temporary “radio-mania” than anything else, i.e. an exaggerated conviction that radio would replace everything, kind of like how some people in the 90s believed that email would replace postal systems. Cooler heads understood that radio couldn’t replace the experience of a live concert, and that music listeners would always want the option of choosing what songs they listened to.
However, the electrical microphones and speakers used by the radio industry sounded much better than hand-cranked phonographs did, and after peaking in 1921 when 110 million records were sold, record sales declined each year until 1925. The situation forced Victor to unveil better-sounding “electrical process” records and electric record players you didn’t have to manually crank for each song. Soon, all the other labels also put out new “electrical” records, helping North American sales climb to 140 million by 1927, and global sales to 200 million records by 1929.
The whole time, musicians were less nervous about radio than record companies were, thinking that stations across the country would have to hire musicians if they were to broadcast live all day and evening. However, as national networks quickly coalesced, there was lots of work for musicians living in a dozen or so bigger US cities but not much radio work anywhere else.
Ultimately, this may have been the beginning of a musical class system that exists to this day: for musicians who toured extensively or already had a big enough name, radio could spur them on to superstar status. But for the vast majority of musicians and bands that weren’t in the top tier on the concert circuit, radio was less a door to superstardom than at most another union-scale gig backing up a big name. Although the big performing stars in both pop and classical fields previously had agents and managers and so on to help line up gigs and tours since the 1800s, it was radio that first got mass-market-minded producers and programmers involved in the aspirations and fortunes of musicians and bands.
The first artists appearing on the national radio networks in the late 20s unsurprisingly played very safe, recognizable songs on their shows, in styles that weren’t exactly cutting-edge. Many of these, like bandleader George Olsen, already had reputations on vaudeville stages where they learned how to please audiences of average people anywhere. It’s hard to say whether they thought of any long-term potential to radio or just saw it as a higher-paying gig, since the fledgling networks at the time (and the companies that made and sold radios) were looking for anything that could play to a mass-market. But any dream of radio being a permanent new gig for musicians was way off, though George Olsen was among many who translated brief radio success into a long career of steady live gigs. Although radio grew to employ over 1200 musicians in North America by 1935, that number began falling by the 50s and has been pretty much zero for decades now. In the 1950s, some pioneers of early radio looked back at the medium as having become a “cesspool” of crass commercialism by the late 20s.
The Collapse and Recovery of the Sound Recording Industry
The onset of the Great Depression combined with the ever-growing popularity of radios caused the near-total collapse of the record industry in the early 30s. Never before or since have sales ever dropped so precipitously, falling from over 100 million units in the US in 1929 to just 6 million in 1932. On top of this, the increased competition from independents as well as radio through the 1920s had forced most labels to lower the price of their pop records from $1.00 to 50 cents before the collapse began. It became so hard to turn a profit that by the mid-30s, nearly all the independent labels either disappeared or were bought by the remnants of the majors, with the majors themselves soon bought out by the radio companies (RCA bought Victor, CBS bought Columbia and semi-major Brunswick/ Vocalion, and Edison’s National Phonograph Company went bankrupt.)
When the industry collapsed, the first music style to go was the “race” market, limiting the blues to being recorded by folklorists if at all. Country music hung on for awhile, and in fact, many legendary country records came out in the early depression years. College students kept the market for dance bands alive for awhile as well. The expensive classical records, always maintained as much for a record company’s prestige as for profit, were pretty much phased out by 1934—even Victor’s famous Red Seal brand was put on hiatus. The historical cost in some cases was immense, as Paramount, Gennett and other labels sold the original metal master disks of many seminal blues and jazz recordings for scrap.
With their radios still selling in decent numbers, RCA Victor spent money on new technologies to revive the record division. In 1934, they released the Duo Jr., the first component record player (meaning you had to plug it into a radio speaker to hear it, presumably using an early version of RCA plugs.) RCA Victor sold the device at cost, hoping that more households with record players would result in more record sales. They also aimed it at young people, who accounted for 40% of all record sales.
The music then exciting younger listeners was swing music. This “big band” style grew out of early 20s jazz, and no doubt evolved partly from young musicians—white and black—patiently learning to play it off of their jazz records. Several bandleaders (leading from 10 to over 20 musicians) were gaining popularity in clubs, on record, on radio, on the charts, and perhaps most importantly, in jukeboxes, which had become ubiquitous by the early 30s.
Jukeboxes had existed since the turn of the century, but only became more popular after 1927 with the arrival of machines that let the listener make a choice (from a selection of 20 records. Before that, machines played just one song or cycled through a dozen or so in order.) By 1930, 12 000 were in use; by 1935, 120 000 new jukeboxes were sold in the US alone, and their operators accounted for one-third of all record sales.
Some of the big stars saw jukeboxes as great for their careers, as kids played their records over and over in soda parlors after school. Club and restaurant owners were happy to save the expense of live musicians, and also made a cut from the money poured into jukeboxes. Less happy were average working musicians, whose union in the US estimated that over 8000 had lost jobs directly because of jukeboxes. The union’s president phrased it bluntly: “Records are multiplied and duplicated by the thousands and then sold to and used in places where otherwise musicians would be employed.”
But labels probably agreed with their recording stars that jukeboxes were great for promoting records. In fact, they cut back on nearly all other forms of promotion for awhile, shipping the first-ever “free promo” records to jukebox operators. By the late 30s, a price war erupted between the majors vying for space in jukeboxes, lowering the price of records sold to their operators to as little as 20 cents each. Offsetting these slim profit margins was a resurgent market in classical music, which always sold in lower volumes but at much higher prices than pop records. Record companies also compensated by not paying royalties to artists on free promos or even on any records sold for jukebox use, sometimes cutting artist royalties by half. But while they told the artists all these units were booked as promotional items, they were telling Variety magazine, which compiled the American best-seller charts at the time, that these were sales. (These charts were important because jukebox operators used them when selecting their records.) This double accounting confused Variety to the point where they stopped publishing any charts for awhile in the mid-30s.
Further squeezing industry profits was the arrival of a new major label in 1934, Decca Records. Decca hit the scene marketing new records by big-name stars for just 35 cents, as opposed to the standard 50 cents. While the majors had long made cheaper records, they were usually on cheaper plastic and of equally cheap no-name performers or obscure old material. Decca sold quality records of such big stars as Bing Crosby and the Dorsey orchestras. RCA Victor and Columbia were much chagrined by this price drop, but it was just what the public needed to get excited about buying records again.
The lower prices, popular new swing music, improved recording and jukebox technology all reinforced each other and led to the fourth big boom of the record industry (with the first occurring at its real beginning in the 1890s, the second coming at the end of World War I, and the third occurring in the late 20s.) By 1938, annual record sales in the US had climbed back up to 40 million units, and reached 130 million by 1941. Although these were great times for the labels and their biggest stars, the average musician was in a different position. For many of them, radio, records and jukeboxes were taking a large dent out of their employment prospects, and they weren’t going to sit and do nothing about it anymore.
The Rise of DJs, Unions, and Recording Bans
Musicians first saw radio as a new opportunity, with the main threat being the playing of records on radio. NBC and CBS voluntarily banned the playing of records in 1930, but the ban wasn’t rigidly enforced. Many smaller stations who couldn’t afford musicians still played records. In 1929, this practice drew the ire of the main US musicians’ union, the AFM, which managed to force any Chicago radio stations playing records to hire union musicians to spin them. (This practice lasted over ten years, but mainly just in Chicago.) At that time, DJs were very far from being considered glamorous: in fact, being paid just to turn over a record was considered to be about as dumb a job as you could get, and DJs were derisively called “pancake turners.” Once it became more normal for this “pancake turner” to actually select the songs and introduce them, they gained a bit more respect, with the term “record jockey” appearing in 1940 and “disc jockey” appearing in 1941.
The first well-known DJ was Martin Block, whose long-running radio show, The Make-Believe Ballroom, started in 1935. Another popular show of the time, Your Hit Parade, helped form commercial radio as we know it today. (The show also popularized the notion of songs officially becoming “hits” because of their appearance on less-than-objectively-constructed charts.) The more successful DJs were soon wooed by record companies (and in the early 50s, actually bribed by them.) The first of what might be considered “club DJs” (i.e. spinning records for a dancing crowd) appeared during WWII, essentially just soldiers tasked with playing records over a loudspeaker to a hall full of troops.
Capitol, a new label formed in 1941 with the intention of quickly becoming a major, originated the practice of giving free promo records to radio stations. At the time, the other majors were still hoping to win lawsuits forcing radio stations to pay them royalties each time their records were played, so they weren’t about to follow Capitol’s lead. (Their lawsuits were struck down on the basis that whoever bought a record owned it, and so could do anything they wanted with it.)
The smaller labels that had begun popping up again in the late 30s quickly began giving out their own freebies, gaining valuable promotion, especially from smaller stations with limited record-buying budgets. In this way, small labels and small radio stations found a way to help each other and ensure the survival of rural “race” or country music and the regional ethnic music that major labels were by then neglecting. The last majors only began giving away promos in 1948.
What became a larger threat was the use of RCA Victor’s new 16-inch, 33-1/3 RPM (which I’ll refer to from now on as just 33 RPM) radio transcription records, which allowed radio stations to record live broadcasts and repeat them later.
The 33 RPM speed first appeared in an early format of 20-inch records designed to provide sound for films. In 1930, RCA Victor had hoped they could become a new long-playing consumer record format, but they could only be played so many times before they wore out. This wasn’t an issue with radio stations, who would rarely repeat a recorded program more than once. By 1932, three-quarters of all radio stations used these discs for some programming, and soon some companies were using the technology to bootleg radio shows off the air and sell the discs cheaply to small radio stations. (These bootlegs make up most of the evidence we now have of what early radio sounded like.)
The practice of repeating radio shows immediately drew the ire of some of the bigger recording stars, who formed a group called the “National Association of Performing Artists” and pushed to have the words “Not For Radio Broadcast” or “For Home Use Only” printed on their record labels. In 1935, bandleader Fred Waring (who quit all recording in 1932 out of protest), sued a Pennsylvania station that played his records and won.
Going against the earlier decision about record ownership, this court declared that the artist’s property rights to his recorded material remained even after their sale to the consumer. In other words, even though you bought the guy’s record, he still owned what was on it, and so you couldn’t do certain things (like broadcasting it) without his permission. Similar lawsuits were later filed, but were all struck down by 1940, on the same basis that a recent lawsuit regarding purchased digital files was struck down in Canada: that once someone buys something, they could do whatever the hell they want with it. (Although songwriters eventually managed to secure royalties from radio airplay, I don’t think record companies or musicians ever did get paid for broadcasts of their records.)
What this early litigiousness showed more than anything was that successful recording artists will always be willing to try to milk more money from their work, and will use idealistic talk about saving the livelihoods of all musicians—all while their very domination of record sales and airplay is actually the biggest barrier facing the average musician struggling for attention. Although in some ways things have improved, it is still only a small fraction of the musicians, songwriters, styles and composers who ever get a chance to get documented on record or heard on mass media. This lottery-like selectivity could have been mitigated early on, such as by curbing the major labels’ monopolistic advantages, regarding both manufacturing and distribution as well as their leveraging power with other media; or by making state radio and recording services more appealing and dynamic. Although the business cycles of the free market have seen periods where many small labels exposed electrifying new styles and artists shunned by the majors, somehow the majors always ended up digesting most styles (and labels) and homogenizing mass culture once again, until the next disruption by independents. The dream of the earliest pioneers of sound recording was that their inventions would lead to fair and wide documentation of everything, if not outright world peace due to the ensuing increase in communication. Somehow instead, the very words “record industry” are today synonymous with “greedy scumbags.”
All hindsight aside, in the 30s, musicians unions were quite certain the industry needed to change if a wholesale degradation of music in general was to be avoided. Although they neglected the enduring appeal of playing and listening to music, they argued that with steady reductions in jobs for musicians, young people would have no incentive to pursue a career in music. As musicians kept losing jobs even as the Depression wound down and the radio and record industries boomed, the American Federation of Musicians threatened to strike. Finally, in the summer of 1942, the AFM announced a total ban on all recordings, proclaiming that their musicians would no longer “play at their own funeral.” The ban lasted from August 1942 to November 1944. Record companies and radio stations (whose radio transcription records were equally affected) reacted by recording as much new stuff as possible before the ban went into effect.
The strike was soon outdone as an inconvenience to the record industry by a shortage in shellac, which records were made of (and which came from Southeast Asia, now off-limits because of the war. Who knows what rare records were lost forever when wartime rationing allowed people to buy a new record only if they brought in an old one to be recycled!)
Some of the union demands were a bit extreme, such as halting the sales of records to jukebox operators (based on the false premise that all jukeboxes were in establishments that would otherwise be employing musicians, which was unlikely in most soda parlours and diners.) Even if such demands were met, there would have been serious limits to their enforcement, which would have conflicted with the livelihoods of radio stations, jukebox operators, small businesses who couldn’t afford union musicians and ultimately, the public who just wanted to hear music one way or another.
But what denied popular support for this strike more than anything was the fact that the nation was at war. AFM President James Petrillo was accused of everything from supporting Hitler to harming public morale, though he countered by pointing out that 25 000 union musicians had enlisted in the Army. The facts did support Petrillo’s contention that the broadcast of recorded music was hurting the careers of musicians, since by then radio stations employed an average of less than 3 musicians.
The union’s argument that fewer jobs at radio stations would eventually lower the quality of live music was countered by broadcasters claiming that the quality of union musicians was getting lower because they were guaranteed work whether they were good or not. Some who operated jukeboxes in small rural towns said that they tried but couldn’t find musicians competent enough to please their customers, while others testified that their customers preferred hearing their favorite records than hearing live music anyway. Still others argued that while many previous jobs musicians held were lost for good, many new jobs that never existed before were created in sound recording, broadcasting and the film industry. In the end, the debate was relatively civilized and all sides agreed that they had to adapt to new realities while trying to ensure these realities were as fair as possible.
The recording ban ended in 1944 after Petrillo signed deals with the big labels and broadcasters, who promised to donate a percentage of record sales to special funds compensating union musicians for lost work. (The deal was signed first by Decca in 1943, who took advantage of their head start to sign away stars from other labels, crank up production and surpass the other majors in sales.) The deal made history in that for the first time an entire industry agreed to compensate the workers who lost jobs due to advances in technology. After the war, unions representing auto, railway, printing and other industries struck similar deals.
After the War
The war years and their aftermath spurred on some technical developments in the recording industry. Some ideas never really took off, such as an early precursor to MP3s where jukeboxes were wired to a phone line through which customers requested songs that a DJ would then play over the line (and through the jukebox speaker.) There were also video-jukeboxes called Soundies, which were quite popular for a few years, but disappeared by the 50s. (Their staged vignettes interspersed with footage of singers and bands lip-synching their hits followed the same formula used by most music videos today.) But the most important changes were in technology: the more advanced plastics and engineering developed in the war were quickly applied to most manufactured consumer goods.
Hi-Fi audio, for example, owes its origins to the British Navy’s invention of wider-frequency recording machines used in ships during wartime to analyze the sound of submarine propellers to detect which ones were the enemy’s. The Decca label was the first to use this technology after the war, and they marketed it with the letters “ffrr” printed on record labels, meaning “full frequency range recording.”
Another important invention were V-Discs, which were like radio transcription discs (16 inches, 33 RPM) but made of sturdier plastic, recorded and pressed by the state-created Victory Disc Record Company in the US. Sets of 20 such discs, totaling four hours of material, would be sent to overseas bases to entertain the troops. Though V-Discs were still not sturdy enough for many repeated listens, and therefore unfit to be a new consumer format, their advances were useful for the eventual development of LPs.
The return home of millions of soldiers fueled a huge economic boom that boosted the fortunes of the record industry along with most others. Sales finally surpassed 1920s levels, surging to 350 million units in the US alone in 1946 and 375 million in 1947. Labels small and large began rushing out their own versions of whatever hit songs were released on other labels, a practice that remained common until the mid-60s (presumably stopping after LP sales overtook those of 45s, since it was less feasible to make a cover version of a whole album.)
Capitol, MGM and Mercury emerged as new major labels after the war. Even though these weren’t immediately as big as RCA Victor, Columbia or Decca, they all had their own studios, A&R departments, pressing plants, and distribution networks. The formerly British-owned Decca became an American company as a result of the huge postwar debt Britain owed the US. “Albums” of new music began appearing at this time, usually presenting selections from a musical or opera or compiling past hits from current stars. They were basically cardboard binders holding two or more 78s, with artwork on the front and sometimes liner notes on the inside front cover. As in the early 1920s, the growing number of labels allowed for the exposure of an expanding number of new styles. Among them was an outgrowth from swing and jazz called “jump,” “jump blues” or “rhythm and blues,” a fast, high-energy music made for dancing that had a more prominent drumbeat than swing had. This music, along with the electric blues style pioneered by Mississippi bluesmen moving to Chicago after the war, led directly to rock and roll.
In pop music, by the late 40s the swing era begat the “sing era,” when the vocalists who were once token members of the big bands stepped forward to become the real stars (Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne etc.) Their sugary pop songs had a wide appeal, though white male jazz nerds remained fixated on the bands and star soloists who were just then pioneering bebop (smaller bands playing more complex music with more solos.) There was also a rediscovery of the “hot jazz” of the 1920s, forming perhaps the first real “retro” movement since recording began, accompanied by perhaps the earliest rare record collecting and specialized used-record stores. But the most important post-war development was to help the be-boppers lay down their long jams for posterity, and help the nostalgics reissue their favourite hot jazz tunes on a single platter. That development, of course, was the LP.
The Invention of the LP
The story of the long-playing 33 RPM record begins with chief researcher at CBS-Columbia, Peter Goldmark, a pretty smart guy who also invented colour television. His boss, Ed Wallerstein, had been at RCA Victor in the 30s when they invented the 33 RPM radio transcription disks. Wallerstein claims Columbia had planned to develop the LP in the 30s but was interrupted by the war.
Goldmark claims the LP was his personal initiative, and in any case attacked the problem of a longer-playing record with vigour. He used a “total engineering” approach that analyzed every component of the sound reproduction system, considering all possibilities and materials for everything from the needle and tonearm to the speakers and amplifiers to the record itself. Goldmark decided to focus on the main challenge—the spot where the needle sat in tiny grooves on the record—and worked outwards from there, arranging every other part of the overall machine so that it would function smoothly without causing the needle to wear out after repeated listens and skate across the groove like they did on transcription discs.
During the process, new materials for the needle and the record were tried and decided on, and in the end, new tonearms, motors, drives and wiring were designed. (Goldmark even ended up inventing the condenser microphone just so the full range of the new record could be exploited, although it turns out the Germans had also developed one. Goldmark also invented the modern speaker while he was at it, using elastically suspended cones and vented cabinets for the first time.) During the process, the speed of 33 RPM was retained, partly because it was fairly irrelevant (the eventual length of about 45 minutes per 12-inch record was set by fixing the width of the grooves), and partly because Columbia had for awhile been recording duplicates of their 78 RPM recording sessions at 33 RPM as well, so as to have material ready in case a consumer long-playing format ended up working out.
Victor and its Red Seal brand had long dominated the high-margin classical music field, although CBS-Columbia started hitting back in 1940 with their new Masterworks imprint. The LP was seen as a chance at cornering the whole classical market, and Wallerstein determined their length after listening to hundreds of operas and symphonies and concluding that 95% were no longer than 45 minutes.
However, Wallerstein later claimed to have been concerned that the LP wouldn’t have much use in the pop market, which was made up of two- or three-minute songs, and thought Columbia should unveil an improved version of the 78 as well. Either way, once the LP was ready, it was important to get it out there before Columbia’s competitors found out about it.
Launching the LP would take more effort than just inventing it, though. People would need a record player to play them on. Colombia wisely gave the major manufacturers all the plans they needed to start making record players for the new speed. At the same time, they designed an adapter, sold at cost, which would allow people to play LPs on their existing record players. Finally, while all these things were happening, Columbia had to completely redesign their pressing plants so as to mass-produce the new records.
Considering all this, it’s surprising that when the president of Columbia summoned the president of RCA Victor and his research team to his office for a chat, the RCA president had no clue that a new format was in the works. Remembering how earlier, heavily-patented long-player ideas by Edison never took off, Columbia decided not to patent the LP format, and hoped RCA Victor would help make it the new industry standard by using it, too. But the head of RCA, David Sarnoff, the former Titanic telegraph operator and radio pioneer, was outraged that “little Columbia” would have the gall to suggest that RCA Victor, the very inventors of radio and 78 RPM records, become a cheerleader for its competitor’s inventions. He is said to have chewed out his staff right in front of Wallerstein, hollering at them for not having thought of the LP first, and later ordering them to come up with something even better. The “Battle of the Speeds” had begun.
The Invention of the 45
Columbia wasn’t going to let RCA Victor’s rejection derail the unveiling of the LP. They officially released it on June 18, 1948 with a press conference wherein Wallerstein stood beside a 10-foot-high stack of 78s, holding a foot of LPs which he said contained just as much music. He then played a scratchy 78 followed by the same selection on LP, and the assembled crowd applauded the vastly clearer sound. Columbia’s ads soon claimed that the LP’s “advantages will eventually make it the only way to play music in the home.” Though LPs are still with us today, the fact is that ever since then, there have been multiple ways to play music in the home. RCA Victor set about creating one of these the minute they found out about the LP.
They started by digging through their archives for failed or half-finished experiments, and came across an automatic record-changing device conceived in 1938. RCA decided that they could one-up the LP by creating a record-changer fast enough to essentially allow people to create their own long-playing experiences (much as digital files, whose users enjoy eliminating the filler that’s loaded onto major-label CDs, are now touted.)
The record-changer design included specifications for a new type of record, which RCA Victor also revived, know that to compete with the LP they would also have to improve on the sound of 78s. The new record was to be seven inches in diameter, just like the original Victor 78s from the 1890s, and have a bigger center hole so they would fall into place on the changer without wobbling on the way down. Also, the outer edge of the record and the record label were a tad thicker than the rest of the record, so that the record grooves wouldn’t rub together when records were stacked on top of each other. Lastly, the record would be made from a lighter and more durable new plastic, since the shellac compound 78s were made of would chip or crack after being dropped even a short distance (which was actually why the original record-changer idea was shelved.) The plastic selected was called Vinylite by its inventor, Union Carbide, and was soon being referred to as vinyl.
Some claim that the record speed of 45 RPM was arrived at by subtracting 33 from 78, just so RCA could spite Columbia, but this is untrue. The speed was calculated from groove size and record diameter, much as the 33-1/3, 78 and later 16-2/3 record speeds were. RCA hesitated at first to call their new record 45s, since Columbia had been hyping the 45-minute length of their new LPs all year. But after LPs came out, people began calling 78s 78s (they were just called records before that), so it seemed inevitable that 45s would get called 45s. (For awhile after their introduction, however, 45s were often referred to as “doughnut discs” because of their large holes.)
The Battle of the Speeds
There had been earlier battles between record formats, the first (and longest) being that between cylinders and flat records. (Both were in wide use from the 1890s to about 1910, with cylinders finally disappearing in the mid-20s.) Even between flat records, there were numerous speeds until most companies finally agreed on 78 RPM around 1900. (Even then, some records in Europe spun at 80 or 100 RPM for some time after.) Until the late 20s there was also confusion between flat records where the needle went up and down (the “Diamond Disks” developed by Edison) and those where the needle goes from side to side (which has since been the standard.) But all those differences occurred when the industry was quite a bit smaller than it was at the end of the 1940s.
RCA spent $2 million in just the first 6 months promoting their new format. They also spent huge amounts converting equipment at pressing plants, and setting up speedier distribution systems to take advantage of the vastly lighter weight of the new records. They promoted the format to stores by promising the ability to ship records almost overnight in order to stock shelves within days of any record becoming a surprise hit. This meant that the 45 did more than just replace the 78: it made regional hits and novelty songs easier to turn into national hits, and increased the importance of “hit singles” in general to record company profits.
The price of 45s was set at 65 cents when they first came out (except for Red Seal 45s, which were 95 cents, just as Red Seal 78s had always cost more.) This was lowered to 49 cents after initial sales were disappointing. By comparison, pop 78s had long cost 50 cents or less by then, and Columbia’s first LPs were priced at $1.25.
The format was officially introduced on March 31, 1949. RCA used a different colour of plastic for each category of music, which they claimed “helps you determine the type of record at a mere glance.” Their categories were folk and country (on “grass green” vinyl); “blues and rhythm” (encompassing the new R&B sound as well as blues and some jazz, on orange vinyl); “international music” (polkas, rhumbas etc. on light blue vinyl); light classical (dark blue vinyl); serious classical (Red Label titles, on red vinyl); children’s music (yellow vinyl) and pop songs (regular black vinyl.) Korean War rationing forced RCA to use just black plastic for all their 45s by 1951, though coloured vinyl was used for both LPs and 45s quite often in the 50s (especially for children’s records.)
A total of 104 singles covering all the categories were released when the format was unveiled. The most noteworthy of these today is the first release in their rhythm and blues category, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s That’s All Right (Mama). It wasn’t a big seller, but among the people who bought it was a kid called Elvis Presley, who learned the song off the record and cut it as his own first single five years later.
The first songs to hit No. 1 on any chart that were available on 45 were one by Perry Como and Riders in the Sky by Vaughn Monroe, less than 2 months after 45s were introduced. Other labels were slower to adopt the 45 as they had been for the LP, probably because their advantage over 78s was a lot less obvious than LPs were, and labels had already just spent a lot of money converting pressing plants (although both Columbia and RCA Victor let other labels use their new plants at first, to help the formats gain a wider foothold.) Capitol was the first label besides RCA to issue 45s (and the first of any label to use both new formats), followed by MGM and Mercury, with Decca, Coral and Brunswick being the last semi-majors to put them out. EMI in the UK was disgusted by this apparent anarchy and vowed to give its customers at least 6 months notice if it ever switched away from 78s (which it did about two years later.)
Although it was obvious the market viewed 45s as a newfangled version of the 78, RCA still contorted themselves trying to convince people they were also better than LPs and perfect for classical music and soundtracks. They sold small cardboard box-set “albums” of 45s that you could stack in a certain order on your record changer to listen to an LP’s worth of material, and touted the space savings with claims that “more than 150 singles or 18 symphonies fit on one foot of bookshelf space.” However, for most classical works and some soundtracks, the sound of the music fading out every three minutes or so and fading back in after a bunch of mechanical noises just couldn’t compare with the seamless play of LPs.
RCA didn’t take long to give up on these ludicrous box-sets and start producing LPs themselves. (It’s thought that their star conductor Toscanini, whose sold over 20 million records in his career at RCA Victor, pressured them to adopt the LP out of jealousy of the other conductors recording on them.) However, they didn’t exactly lose the “battle of the speeds,” since by 1950, Columbia was making 45s, too. (For awhile they tried to compete with the 45 by issuing 7-inch records that played at 33 RPM.) But if there was a clear winner by 1950, it was actually the 78, which in that year outsold both 45s and LPs combined.
Sales of LPs by 1950 were strong enough to convince most that it was here to stay; by 1951 it seemed obvious the 45 would at least eventually replace the 78. But if it weren’t for the US market and RCA’s stubbornness, the 45 may never have lasted, because internationally it only appeared later, if at all. (The first LPs in Europe appeared in 1952 and in some places, the late 50s, with 45s taking even longer. The Soviet Union never adopted 45s at all: their 7-inch singles were all 33 RPM, unwittingly following Columbia’s 1949 exhortation that “One speed is all you need!”)
Manufacturers of record players helped ensure the multi-speed universe by selling models that played at 33, 45 or 78 RPM by 1950. Aside from soundtracks and operas, LPs were used as collections of hit singles aimed mainly at adults, while young people were assumed to want only 45s. The LP format also helped spur the be-bop and post-bop jazz movement, allowing musicians to stretch out on long jams and solos. But listeners still seemed more comfortable with just two songs per record: in 1952 sales of 45s were more than double that of LPs. The 78 was fading fast by then: 45s surpassed them in sales in 1955, and most North American companies stopped making them in 1959.
Though a short transition in comparison with the ongoing multiplicity of digital formats today, the format confusion of the “war of the speeds” found most listeners waiting to see who won before taking sides. Record sales dropped during both years that new formats came out, and took five years to recover to 1947 levels.
But the drop in sales was also due to the fact that most top executives at the majors were growing old and conservative in their musical tastes, refusing to try new things to attract young buyers and sticking to a “they’ll like what we tell them to like” mentality. People had a limited appetite, though, for bland pop songs, light classics and disposable novelty hits, and in 1949 only one out of every 25 songs released by the majors turned a profit at all. Records were becoming an increasingly expensive gamble, with major-label promotion costs averaging about $25 000 per hit song. (Promotion had also been a large expense in the sheet music days of the 1880s and 90s, with some estimating each title cost publishers $1300 in print advertising, promotional copies and outright payments to musicians to make sure some played the song. Apparently, less than half of all sheet music titles broke even, and just one out of 200 was a hit.)
Since the 50s, major labels have been said to recoup the initial costs of developing new artists for only one out of every eight artists signed. This figure is surely smaller for independent labels, who couldn’t possibly afford such a high rate of duds. But they’re less likely to miss their mark anyway: their smaller size makes it easier for them to know their audiences better, as well as have direct contact and flexibility with their artists. They’re also usually run by people who are passionate about the music they sell, banking on their artists’ talents to wow listeners more than on marketing and copying fads.
But it doesn’t appear that the reduced wastefulness of independents ever translated into higher royalties or more money for their artists. Smaller labels are still at pains to compete with the economies of scale caused by the larger pressing-plant volumes and distribution networks of the majors, who also possess a steady revenue stream in their large back catalogs. The standard royalty artists received in the 40s and 50s on independents was five per cent of sales, not much different from what the majors paid.
The Post-War Independents
The post-war boom boosted the demand for records such that an estimated 1000 new labels formed in the US between 1948 and 1954. (The boom in independents didn’t hit Europe until the 60s, however, delayed by the need to rebuild cities after WWII.) As in the label boom of the early 20s, businessmen realized you could make a big profit by keeping costs low and consistently putting out records that sell just a few thousand copies. It also helped to stick to one style and one regional market, which kept overhead low and made it easy to figure out your audience’s tastes.
Another musicians’ strike aimed at the majors in 1948 prevented them from recording their main stars, some of whom recorded on independents instead. By then, faced with the inability of using the majors’ distribution networks, six of the bigger independents started their own, with better terms than normal for both companies and stores. All these factors made the late 40s a great time to start a label.
As in the 20s, this boom in small labels brought to light some new music styles and many original artists. One example was bluegrass music, then becoming popular in Kentucky and on records released by the Rich-R-Tone label from Campbellsville. There was also a large folk music revival, fueled by labels such as Elektra and Folkways (which also released ethnic music from around the world.) In numerous large American cities, smaller labels sprang up to provide all sorts of ethnic music to immigrants arriving after the war and during the Eastern European upheavals of the 50s.
Atlantic became one of the most successful new labels, begun by the sons of the Turkish Ambassador to the US, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who started the label with money they got selling off their large collection of rare 20s jazz records in the late 40s. Their artists revolutionized popular jazz, rhythm and blues, and later soul music, and the label became one of the largest majors in the 70s after combining with Warner Bros. and Elektra. Other labels profoundly affecting popular music with their artists (and with the unique sound of their records) included Chess of Chicago, Sun of Memphis and King of Cincinnati.
Among the many important small jazz labels was Blue Note, started in the late 30s by Jewish jazz fans who’d just fled Germany. The label became popular in the early 50s with major jazz discoveries such as Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell. Jazz music was changing, and the devoted fans who started labels played a major role in its evolution. Often a label had its own sound and style, though roughly the music was divided into the “east coast” style heard on labels such as Riverside, Prestige, Verve and Atlantic and the “west coast style” heard on the Contemporary, Fantasy and Pacific Jazz labels.
Riverside was started by the editors of an early record collector magazine called The Record Changer. The label began by releasing LP collections of out-of-print jazz from the 20s, selling them at low prices just to have the music in circulation again. The label received a boost after founder Orrin Keepnews wrote an exposé of shady major label practices in The Record Changer in 1951. He discovered that RCA Victor, which routinely pressed other labels’ records in their plants when they had spare capacity, was pressing some bootleg albums for a shady label called Jolly Roger. Such labels didn’t own the rights to the music they were releasing and paid no royalties to performers or songwriters. RCA Victor certainly got paid for pressing the records, though, and Keepnews implied that they were giving the bootleggers access to the original master disks. Keepnews’ muckraking paid off when RCA Victor gave him the rights to reissue their old jazz masters from the 20s himself. Armed with these, as well as the rights he bought to old Paramount masters, Riverside became a major re-issue label and later released such legends as Wes Montgomery.
Another noted jazz label was Dial Records, which started as a Los Angeles record store which sold jazz 78s from the 20s that the owner scoured the countryside to collect. The store’s customers pressured the owner to carry more of the new “be-bop” jazz and told him about local gigs where he could hear some of it. After seeing Charlie Parker play, the owner started the label just to record him, and today Parker’s Dial records from 1946-47 are jazz history. (The label was less excited, however, about Parker making them pay half his royalties to his heroin dealer.) When LPs came out, Dial was one of the first independents to use the format to issue full-length versions of jazz sessions.
Some labels grew out of record stores, whose owners had a very good idea of what their audience wanted to hear, as well as of what music wasn’t yet available on record but would sell if it was. Some stores had their recording studios in the same building and were able to play test pressings to customers to gauge whether a record was worth pressing a full run of. (At the time, it was common for fledgling vocal groups to sing on streetcorners for money, and supposedly some would sing on the sidewalk in front of stores in hopes of being invited to cut a record.) Other noted record-stored-turned-labels include the Commodore label in New York in the 30s and the Delmark store in Chicago in the 60s.
But independent labels weren’t always there just to cater to special or regional styles and artists; often they were there to make a fast (and shady) buck. Some such labels employed local singers and bands to record cover versions of current hits. The bands would get a flat fee, the songwriters or publishers would get nothing, and the owners would keep all the profits. Such practices had existed since the days of 78s, with some companies doing what K-Tel was later famous for: cramming more music onto cheaper plastic at a reduced price (and sound quality.) Labels like Prom and Tops had sound-alikes produce countless four-song EPs through the 50s, many of which you can still find in junk shops today.
By the end of the 50s, small labels had made a huge impact on pop music, launching the careers of many huge stars and allowing more obscure artists the freedom to continue innovating new sounds and styles. But many of the artists (as well as the new sounds and styles) developed by the independents were poached by the majors, particularly in the late 50s when they snapped up a slew of singers after initially deciding to wait out the “passing fad” of rock and roll.
However, times were still good for small labels at the end of the decade: independents had released just five of the 168 million-selling singles between 1946 and 1952—less than 3%—but released 101 of the 147 top-ten songs between 1955 and 1959—almost 70%. Of course, over time most of the active small labels from this era were bought up by majors, most of which later became divisions of huge entertainment companies—but new smaller labels never stopped turning up to deliver alternatives to what in 1960 folklorist Alan Lomax derisively termed “automated mass-distributed video music.”