1898 And All That
Fred Dellar presents a potted history of the people who bring you the 'product' - the record companies.
Fred Dellar takes a long-term look at the history of record companies
There's a guy down our street who hasn't even got his own record label! An exaggerated put-down?
Maybe. But things are certainly heading in that direction and hardly a day passes without a Dylan from Dorking, a Marley from Mitcham or a Rotten from Rickmansworth arriving at the various one-stops and other record emporiums with a batch of home-made discs to sell.
A notch or two up the scale are the more organised minor companies, bucking for a tilt at Decca House or the denizens of Manchester Square, Quixote-like in their ambitions, though sometimes succeeding against the odds. Stiff, Radar, Illegal, Lightning, Chiswick, Raw, Ensign, Beggar's Banquet, Wanted, Sensible, Pogo, Real, Step Forward, Refill... the list is almost endless. 'Where will it all end?' cry bewildered retailers, frustrated in their futile attempts to track down weird labels ordered by trend-conscious punters. But our task is to track down exactly where it all began — which, for the purposes of this article, brings us to 1898.
For it was during '98, just a few months before the outbreak of the Boer War, that a trading syndicate backed to the tune of £15000, began importing discs from Germany and equipment from the US. Within a year, the company had set up a studio and began issuing discs under the title of The Gramophone Company, the famous HMV 'dog and trumpet' trademark coming into use after the original painting of Nipper the dog was bought from artist Francis Barraud. Initially the discs were of 7in diameter but by 1901 10in Celebrity discs had come into use, with 12in pressings following shortly after. During this period The Gramophone Company opted to hedge its bets and became The Gramophone and Typewriter Co for a while, recording 10 titles by Enrico Caruso — for which they refused to pay the 'exorbitant fee' of £100.
Zonophone, the first label offering popular music — mainly of the music hall variety — sparked into life in 1904, the year before Odeon of Germany issued the first double-sided discs. Came 1908 and the HMV factory opened at Hayes, initially pressing what was considered to be the amazing number of 700 discs a week. And though production leapfrogged for the next few years, the fracas with Kaiser Bill in 1914 put the brake on proceedings as The Gramophone Company began producing munitions.
Meanwhile, over in Woodrow Wilson territory, jazz had arrived and following the release of some titles on cylinder, Victor issued the first jazz disc — the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's Livery Stable Blues (1917), Okeh releasing Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues, the first single by a black blues artist, in July, 1920. With the return of peace, the record industry began to experience a boom. Paul Whiteman's Victor recording of Whispering, waxed in 1920, sold a million in just over a year, while other Victor releases by such artists as trumpeter Henry Busse and bandleader Ben Selvin, also did much to swell the coffers at Camden, New Jersey.
Probably the most successful of the record companies at this time, Victor, then bought a controlling interest in The Gramophone Company — but a new British giant was emerging in the Columbia Graphophone Co.
In 1925 came a technical breakthrough and the arrival of the first commercial electrical recordings. Record buyers suddenly found that they could hear bass and treble sounds that they had never heard before — with the result that discs began selling by the cabinet-full. And such was the popularity of the gramophone record that in 1927 the BBC instigated a record programme presented by Christopher Stone. Thus the DJ was born.
But the bubble had to burst and following 1928, in which year the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) purchased Victor, the Wall Street Crash saw many American companies fold — while in Britain too, many labels found themselves in difficulties.
Decca's Sir Edward Lewis, in his book No CIC, recalls the period. 'The Columbia Graphophone Co, under the inspired leadership of Louis Sterling, had become the major factor in the business, the shares rising from 11 shillings in 1923 to near £20 at the peak in 1929; the shares of the Gramophone Company (HMV) likewise rising to almost as high a price. There were dozens of other companies, mostly new flotations, among them Edison Bell, Vocalion, Crystalate, Metropole, Dominion, producing between them millions of records. There was also the Duophone Unbreakable Record Company, started by Pemberton Billing, the shares rising from 10s to a peak of 90s.'
It was the latter, Malden-based company, chiefly manufacturing Al Jolson recordings, which was taken over by a Lewis-headed syndicate in 1929, the same syndicate also purchasing Decca, a company which had manufactured playing equipment for many years. And while many other companies began to flounder — the slump was such that while 107 million discs were sold in the US during 1927, only 6 million crossed the counters in 1932 — in Britain, The Gramophone Company and Columbia Graphophone joined forces during 1931 to form Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI), a giant that was to dominate the industry for years to come.
But Decca — who'd purchased the American Brunswick label in 1932, paying £15000 for a catalogue that included Bing Crosby and The Dorsey Brothers — had themselves run into difficulties. Unable to pay their accounts, their telephones were cut off and a bailiff was in attendance. However, after closing their French and German branches and the staff accepting a number of salary cuts, fortunes revived and by 1934 the company was at last able to show a real profit. It was also in '34 that Decca literally went west, forming American Decca and starting a 35-cent label featuring major artists. Sir Edward Lewis, then plain Ted Lewis, argued that RCA and US Columbia (who we'll henceforth call CBS in order to avoid confusion) would be unlikely to cut their major lines to 35 cents and that the possibility of an undercut was out of the question. Nobody expected such an assault in the States — the record industry was still in the doldrums and RCA was increasingly getting involved with radio manufacture — but the Decca gamble paid off, Bing Crosby's records began selling in six figures and a novelty release by Riley-Farley's Onyx Club band in 1936 (The Music Goes 'Round And Around) became a monster hit world-wide. It seemed that the British record industry had shown the Americans just how to sell records in their own neck of the woods.
Back home in union-jack land, the last of the small companies found themselves squeezed between EMI and Decca. Crystalate, who supplied Woolworth's with a line that retailed for sixpence and also manufactured the Rex label, sold out to Decca, while the British Homophone Company, which had survived mainly through the enormous sales achieved by one artist, pianist Charlie Kunz, was jointly purchased by Decca and EMI.
So the two companies became sole rulers of the entire British record industry — and that's the way things stood in 1939, when a certain Adolf Hitler decided to try and take over not only the British record industry but also the rest of Britain, causing not only a lack of shellac through his attempts, but also considerable destruction at Decca's New Malden factory and at the HMV Shop in Oxford Street, London, both of which suffered bomb damage. The cessation of hostilities saw a number of new labels proliferate in Britain, through licensing deals; Capitol and MGM arrived here, while such unfamiliar logos as Tempo, Esquire, Melodise and Vogue, began appearing in the jazz shops.
In America, Decca had relinquished control of US Decca (now known as MCA) but continued flag-waving via the London label, utilising the company's full frequency range recordings which were infinitely superior to anything being marketed on the other side of the Atlantic. The results were unbelievable. Primo Scala's Accordion Band playing Underneath The Arches became a US top 10 disc, Vera Lynn began selling like firecrackers on the fourth of July — eventually topping the Billboard charts for nine consecutive weeks in 1952. And Anton Karas' zither-bedecked rendering of The Harry Lime Theme did even better, holding the pole position for no less than 11 straight weeks in 1950. The Americans fought back — CBS marketing the first LPs in 1948, to be followed by RCA who offered 7in singles that played at 45rpm. But it seemed that never the twain would meet, for one company manufactured players that only revolved at 33⅓rpm while RCA's decks were only capable of playing their 45rpm, no centre 'do'nuts'. For a while the conflict continued — CBS releasing some 33 rpm singles in order to usurp RCA in that particular market — and an unsure public dithered, trying to make up its mind about which system offered the best value for money. Eventually came the compromise and the multi-speed record deck was born, playing discs at 78, 45 and 33⅓rpm, using a turnover stylus to deal with the differing groove dimensions.
However, in Britain EMI declared 'There is no future in the longplaying record' and didn't change their minds for nearly three years. Decca, who had gone microgroove in June, 1950, must have smiled.
The longplayer was by no means a new idea — the Edison company had introduced their Diamond Discs, playing up to 20 minutes per side, as long ago as 1926, while other companies had also made attempts to manufacture LPs from time to time — my favourite being a type which required a special player that revolved at a reasonable rate while the disc's outer grooves were being negotiated, slowing down as the spiral neared the centre. As the record had been cut in the same way, a playing time of some minutes duration was achieved. During the early 50s new giants stepped in to threaten the EMI-Decca hold. First into the fray was Pye, a company with an established reputation in radio manufacture, followed shortly by Philips, the Dutch electrical concern, the latter doing a deal with CBS that provided them with an instant catalogue of best-sellers by such acts as Doris Day, Johnnie Ray, Rosemary Clooney etc. It was at this juncture that EMI, having lost their long-standing CBS connection to the newcomers and realising that even their ties with RCA were soon to be broken, decided to buy the US Capitol label, thus achieving two aims — obtaining a strong replacement catalogue... and gaining a foothold on the American market.
But times were changing. Where once virtually all top US material had emanated from major companies, much of it now came from such labels as Imperial, King, Bullet, Derby, Tennessee, Cat, Abbey, RPM, etc — a situation that had evolved during the mid-40s when many independents moved into a strong position, quickly rushing to sign an agreement with the American Federation of Musicians, while CBS and RCA held out against an AFM recording band for two years, issuing little in the way of new product during that period... although they did score some hits with material performed by vocalists only!
With independents in the ascendancy, EMI and Decca rushed into a number of licensing deals with various US nobodies, sometimes acquiring whole catalogues, at others only signing for one specific disc — the best of these early deals being an EMI one-off deal with ABC Records of New York for Paul Anka's Diana, which proved to be a million-seller in Britain.
The market was changing too. Where once it was the older generation, the parents, who purchased the bulk of record releases, the teenagers had moved up to rank as the heaviest spenders. No more was Ruby Murray to log five simultaneous saccharine-coated chartbusters. No more was David Whitfield to register with tonsil-testers like Cara Mia and Mama. For between 1956 and the close of '59, Elvis Presley registered some 27 British chart entries and virtually all the old guard was swept aside as teen power took over.
But sometimes things went wrong even for those who thought they knew what was required. Lord Rank formed his own Top Rank label in 1959 and signed both British teen acts and US one shots by the boatload, gaining hits by Sandy Nelson, Freddy Cannon, Jack Scott and The Fleetwoods in the process. However, despite such chart glory and heavy promotion through Rank's cinema empire, by August 1960 the label had become part of EMI after reportedly losing a fortune as an independent. And though Top Rank continued to figure in chart listings — B Bumble's Nut Rocker gained a No. 1 spot as late as May 1962, EMI gradually phased the label out.
The 50s had seen the arrival of record clubs in Britain, providing buyers with an opportunity of obtaining albums at a reduced rate, though these suffered a loss in popularity as the budget labels came onto the market. One of the first to arrive was Gala, which retailed for around 16s, looked impressive, having good sleeves and providing fare by such top line artistes as Lena Horne, Mel Torme and Earl Hines — but suffered the distinct drawback of being pressed on vinyl that went prematurely grey. Shortly after came Saga, Allegro, Ember and Music For Pleasure, all seeking to offer old favourites at reasonable prices. It was Pye though, with their Golden Guinea range, that really showed how to sell low-cost albums. They advertised their wares on TV — thus setting a trend that K-Tel, Arcade, Ronco and the rest of the commercial-break fillers were to emulate — gaining phenomenal success.
It was Pye that did much of the ground-breaking during this period, being the first company to introduce stereo discs to Britain in 1958, beating EMI and Decca to the punch — though it has to be remembered that an EMI patent of 1931 accurately described the system that was to be utilised many years later. As the 60s progressed and Beatlemania took its hold on the world of music, new labels continued to proliferate in Britain. Polydor, Elektra, Reprise and Warner Bros all opened up shop here either as separate entities or through licensing deals. And Philips, who were aware that they might one day lose all their CBS material, bought Mercury, a US company formerly licensed to EMI. It was a period when records just couldn't be pressed fast enough. In 1962 Decca made a profit of over four and a half million, while EMI netted a tidy seven and a half.
Impressed by such figures and undeterred by the Rank fiasco, more and more people decided to get into the act — among these being Dave Betteridge, who worked for Lugton's, a London record distributor, and Chris Blackwell, who once worked for Lord Foot, the Governor of Jamaica. Together with Graham Goodall, they formed a small record company that would cater for the needs of the West Indian population — and with thoughts of the Caribbean named it Island. Meanwhile, the Oriole company who'd been manufacturing Woolworths' cheap Embassy line as well as issuing some interesting material on their own label — material that included sides by Stevie Wonder, Eddie Holland, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye and other acts licensed from Motown — sold out to CBS who'd broken with Philips and wanted to commence their own operation in this country — which they did in 1965. By coincidence, this happened at the same time that Tamla-Motown, through EMI, was being launched as a label proper in this country, Martha And The Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, The Miracles, The Supremes and Earl Van Dyke appearing on a British tour to provide the label launch with some added impetus.
For CBS it was Bob Dylan who made all the running, grabbing a top 10 spot with The Times They Are A Changin', which didn't even make the top 100 in the US, adding four other British hits in '65, and following this with four more the following year — not bad for a singer whose first album had left reps howling with laughter at a previous Philips sales-conference. 1967 brought the Monterey Festival, which influenced CBS exec Clive Davis so deeply that he began signing as many 'underground' or 'progressive' acts as he could lay his hands on. Moby Grape, Electric Flag, Laura Nyro, Big Brother And The Holding Company, Blood, Sweat And Tears, Chicago — by 1970 the label's tally of contemporary rock acts was probably as strong as all the other majors combined.
And in Britain, it was Island that was making all the running. The Betteridge-Blackwell baby had grown up and after licensing deals with Philips, which saw such Island acts as Millie and Spencer Davis making considerable impact, the one-time ska company branched into two separate fields, carrying contemporary rock on its main label and offering the best of soul and blues on Sue, an offshoot headed by Guy Stevens. And though Sue — considered to be the best R&B label ever to grace the British catalogue — had little real success, the Island label could do little wrong. Dave Betteridge was later to remark: 'The Sue label taught us one thing — how to work with other record companies — and our success with the Sue Story LP taught us another — just how to handle albums. After which, we became primarily an album company.'
But Island's first impact was made with singles such as Traffic's Paper Sun and Hole In My Shoe, followed by a fine debut album in Mr Fantasy. When CBS began promoting their 'underground' acts by means of a 1968 sampler titled Rock Machine, Island were able to reply with You Can All Join In, an equally bestselling taster that featured Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Spooky Tooth, Spencer Davis, John Martyn, Free and other excellent acts. From that time on, hardly a month passed without Island making some kind of impact in the album charts.
The British majors were impressed and decided to take up Island's offer. They would all join in. The gimmick, they felt, was merely to sign up as many of these weird bands as possible and place them on new and 'significant' labels. And so were born Dawn and Carnaby (Pye), Vertigo (Phonogram), Neon (RCA), Nova (Decca), Harvest (EMI) and Nepentha (Penny Farthing), most of them failing utterly because nobody had any understanding of the product they were handling; Harvest and Vertigo surviving because both labels, after initially losing their way, were eventually provided with label managers who had some sympathy for the music they handled.
The 70s have also seen the growth of another loser line — the label that's artist-owned.
The Moody Blues' Threshold, Mike Nesmith's Countryside, Grateful Dead's Round Records and ELP's Manticore all seem to have come and gone, while the Stones' Rolling Stones label and Led Zep's Swansong have done little else than provide their owners with an ego trip. And though Elton John was once considered the one artist who was keeping DJM afloat catalogue-wise, if not financially, he too would currently seem to be having more than his share of problems with Rocket, despite chart success with Kiki Dee and Blue.
Paradoxically it is A&M, a company formed in partnership by an artist (Herb Alpert), that has remained one of the strongest independents over the years, commencing its run in 1962 as a pure purveyor of classy MOR before gaining its share of the rock market in the wake of a campaign titled 'You Tried Our Meat, Now Try Our Potatoes' that reminded record-buyers that the label was not all Tijuana and latin licks but also Phil Ochs, The Flying Burritos, Sea Train, Dillard and Clark and similar worthies — a list that has become far more impressive with the passing of time.
But it's the mass of new wave record companies that has been the dominant feature of the late 70s scene, the leaders in this division being indisputably Stiff, the company formed by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson, and Radar, a sort of bastard-child of Stiff-UA parentage. Stiff have broken all the rules of the game, deleting singles while they were still in the charts ('We deleted Ian Dury's Sex and Drugs because we wanted to make it an instant collector's item'), releasing albums kitted out in evil-smelling sleeves, and breaking complete no-hopers such as Elvis Costello — a superman in reverse and the son of a Joe Loss dance band singer to boot! — Ian Dury — a cockney rocker who once pubbed around with the Kilburns, a band who sold next to no albums for Pye — and Nick Lowe — who spent years on UA with Brinsley Schwarz, a great band but one that recorded in various guises for various labels, working their way downhill from Carnegie Hall to that last-ditch pub circuit. Radar has taken up where Stiff left off, even picking up Lowe and Costello.
Illegal has stepped right out of nowhere to release the first live album by Spirit; Ensign have shown that they have wider horizons than most, handling not only material by the Boomtown Rats but also Memphis rock from Robert Johnson and manufactured disco from Danny Williams and Lipstique. Lightning, through a deal with Joe Gibbs' company in Jamaica have been able to release stunning reggae by Culture and JA shuffle-pop by Althea and Donna. They've also come with the most expensive single sleeve ever for a release by Snatch and have been responsible for distributing a fair proportion of the new wave one-off singles.
Keith Yershon, one of Lightning's mainmen remembers: '999 contacted us and did a deal whereby we distributed their first single I'm Alive. They sent us 10000 and because they were a hot band and got good reviews that quantity went very quickly. Late in '77 Wayne County and The Electric Chairs contacted us through Oyster Records and wanted us to distribute Fuck Off, which obviously none of the majors were keen on taking. We did a big campaign on that and sold 20000 or so. Then The Banned came to us with Little Girl, which had all cheaply made labels with the title just stamped or written on. We sold the first 1000 in the first week and wanted to sign the band for our own label — but they wanted to sign for a major.'
Chiswick, owned by Ted Carroll, ex-manager of Thin Lizzy and once a market-stall owner, has established a strong reputation by offering both new wave and old fashioned rock'n'roll; and Beserkley, the British branch of a company operated by a bunch of Californian loonies, would seem to represent the zany face of rock, having hits with Jonathan Richman's daft Egyptian Reggae sand-dance and his classic Roadrunner, a latest release sheet containing an album by Spitballs, a band featuring the massed might of the Rubinoos, the Greg Kihn Band, Tyla Gang and The Modern Lovers.
Up in Cambridge, Raw Records have been plugging away with releases by The Kiljoys, Gorillas, Creation, Matchbox, The Users and 60s leftovers The Downliners Sect — and just north of Euston Pacific Records, an offshoot of American's Gem import company, have also moved into operation making a single by the Pez Band available and threatening other shots by The Visitors and a score or two of hopefuls who have sent in demo tapes. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the list of new labels is totally mind-blowing and the state of play on the current British record scene would appear to be somewhat hectic but undoubtedly healthy. And so I look forward to the 80s, with its promise of video-discs (will the manufacturers blow this as they did quad-sound?) and the day that Donna Summer really gains an edge on Bruce Springsteen.
Meanwhile, I'll just nod off to sleep by counting the labels I haven't mentioned in this basic rundown on record history — Stax, Fantasy, Liberty, Transatlantic, Virgin, Logo, GTO, Anchor, Blue Horizon, Sonet, Casablanca, Roulette, Mooncrest, Bell,... aw, I haven't even scratched the surface. I mean, I didn't even mention RSO with their Bee Gees, Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta and Grease.
You've got to give me credit for something!
Feature by Fred Dellar
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!