Saturday, January 17, 2009

The gramophone, the oldest record label in the world and codifying the unwritten

For the purposes of this introductory paragraph, the gramophone and the phonograph have been considered a single invention since the former evolved out of the latter to eventually replace it. Both were very inscribing, groove based systems.

The gramophone/ phonograph was the keystone innovation on which the record industry was invented.

The invention of the phonograph
A good place to begin an exploration of the technological development of the record and the industry it spawned is in the early 1860s. This was when a Frenchman named Leon Scott, working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Massachusetts), came up with a device called a phonautograph for tracing vocal patterns. A thin hog’s bristle quill was attached to the centre of a compliant diaphragm at the back of a tapered horn which concentrated the sound. The other end of the quill was a sharp fine point. A piece of smoked glass would travel past the point as a sound entered the horn causing a wavy line that corresponded to the sound vibrations to be scratched into the soot. A later version of the device positioned the stylus against a cylinder of heavy paper coated with soot. The cylinder was rotated by hand, and if someone shouted into the horn, an image of the vibrations were captured on the paper.

There was no provision to manufacture Leon Scott’s device as it was not a marketable product aside from its scientific applications, but it did point the way towards later invention. In 1877 a French inventor, Charles Cros, proposed the Phono-Graphos. He never had the money to build his idea, but it was much closer to what would become the gramophone. Cros described a method for recording on a round flat glass plate. He also suggested a means of playback. Like Scott, Cros failed to commercialise his idea because he could not see a wide market for the Phono-Graphos.

By the 1860s, telegraph and Morse code had become widely used. Two major problems were that the messages could not be stored and they could not be transmitted very far without requiring the weak signal to be listened to, copied and repeated by an operator. One of these young telegraph operators was Thomas Edison. In the late 1860s he figured out that you could take a magnetically actuated stylus and vibrate it up and down to emboss a waxed paper disc. To repeat the indented message the disc was flipped over so that the indented dots and dashes were now seen as a series of bumps of two different lengths. A “playback” stylus rode over the bumps, and, as it moved up and down, would make contact with a switch that repeated the original message. This was the first of a long line of commercially successful inventions by Edison whose inventiveness was only matched by his ability to develop his ideas into commercial products.

One day Edison heard his telegraph repeater operating at high speed and noted it sounded somewhat like music (Edison was not a particularly musical person). He took the same horn and membrane type “microphone” that Scott had invented and mounted it on a screw mechanism. This was made to travel across a revolving cylinder that had been wrapped in tin foil. When he cranked the cylinder and talked loudly into the horn a continuous groove was embossed which represented the sound. He then took the cylinder and played it back on a similar mechanism with a lighter and more compliant stylus and diaphragm. The first working model of the phonograph used an up and down motion called “hill and dale” recording and was patented in December 1877. Edison’s first recorded words to himself were “Mary had a little lamb”. The quick success of his invention had as much to do with his marketing genius as it did with its ability to record and playback sound.

Edison believed the phonograph would be used for archival purposes, not as a means of playing distributed duplicates. Edison wrote,

“We will be able to preserve and hear again, one year or one century later a memorable speech, a worthy tribute, a famous singer, etc... We could use it in a more private manner: to preserve religiously the last words of a dying man, the voice of one who has died, of a distant parent, a lover, a mistress.”

Within the scientific intellectual community, the phonograph was seen as a means of preserving truth and maintaining cultural stability. A prominent magazine of the time the Electrical Review (1888) speculated,

“Had Beethoven possessed a phonograph the musical world would not be left to the uncertainties of metronomic indications which we may interpret wrongly, and which at best we have but feeble suggestions; while Mozart, who had not even a metronome, might have saved his admirers many a squabble by giving the exact fashion in which he wished his symphonies to be played..”

In 1887 Edison licensed to Jesse Lippincott to franchise the phonograph as a dictating machine. He went about setting up 33 franchises across the U.S. All went bankrupt pursuing this misconception of application except for the District of Columbia franchise.

Incorporated on Jan. 1, 1889, by Edward Easton as the Washington D.C. franchise of the Jesse Lippincott’s North American Phonograph Company. It was one of 33 franchises set up to lease and service phonographs. All of them failed with the exception of the D.C. franchise. The D.C. operation quickly realized that the device was not suitable for dictating when, after renting a hundred units to Congress, got all of them back because they were evaluated as unsuitable for Hansard purposes. The only precursor of the record’s ultimate commercial success was the common practice to use the voice to demonstrate the quality of the recordings. Naturally a few demonstrations were sung, and of course some instrumental accompaniment was added. By and large however, the first companies involved in phonographs saw the device as a business machine.

It was seen as a tool for documentation, dictation and sound analysis for historical and scientific purposes and office, court, and hospital reporting. The phonograph was soon being used by researchers for anthropological and cultural field studies to document the oral histories and ceremonies of indigenous people. Some of the earliest phonograph recordings of indigenous people’s oral histories and ceremonies were done of the Torres Strait Islanders.

Many publications speculated on how it might have been if there had been a recording available of great events of the past and how in the future there would be such recordings. There were also descriptions of famous people making mistakes and these too became part of the record.

There was speculation that in decades to come, sound production would allow the removal of anything undesirable. Unfortunately the anticipated market had several problems with the device’s capabilities. The amount of time that could be recorded on each cylinder was very limited. The recording and playback machine, out of technological necessity, evolved into different machines to optimize performance thus eliminating the notion that one machine could do both. The machines were so bulky that portability was out of the question.

Other Edison licensees began commercializing cylinder phonographs in other applications more suitable to exploit the features of the phonograph, and the Washington D.C. franchise followed suit. A market grew in amusement arcades, carnivals, amusement parks, nickelodeons and in other public and semi-public establishments.

In a considerably less noble application the phonograph would find a market in whore houses. Recorded music became a common backdrop for amorous endeavor. Although there were probably many times when the privacy of a theater box provided a place for discrete interludes accompanied by music, and just as likely the hedonist might occasionally find a piano player in the salon of their favorite whore house, but a client needed to be a bit of an exhibitionist to perform while a live musician chorused him on. Records provided music without the musician thus eliminating a physical presence and a source of inhibition.

Columbia Records
Then the public began to buy phonographs. In general these playback applications required a ready supply of pre-recorded material and in 1890 the D.C. operation began to sell pre-recorded cylinders under the Columbia label (thus the oldest record label in the world came into existence).

The survival of this one company was due to its astute pursuit of alternate markets and because it began to sell recordings on the Columbia label (named after the District Of Columbia). By 1891 it had 200 titles in its catalogue and was the largest record company in the world. But a major obstacle in commercialising prerecorded material was the difficulty in duplicating a title. To produce a batch of 200 recordings of a march it had to be played 20 times in front of a battery of ten recording horns. For the phonograph to prosper as public entertainment, the production process and duplication had to be simplified and cost effective.

In 1900 it opened a London office and by then was selling both Edison cylinders and Berliner disks. Due to financial problems during WW I (1922) the U.S. operation was forced to sell its British subsidiary to the local manager Louis Sterling. A year later U.S. Columbia also failed and the British operation bought it from receivers to get access to the recently developed electric cutting system that was only available to U.S. companies.

The company was reorganised in 1925 and went international, operating under different names in different countries. In the U.S. it was known as the General Phonograph Company Inc. The company in the U.S. invested in broadcasting by taking over United Independent Broadcasters and renamed the U.S. operation the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting Co. During the depression in the 1930s, the company again had financial woes, and in particular, the performance of the U.S. record operation was poor (sales were 6% of 1927 levels). The broadcast network had potential but was equally unprofitable, so bad sales and the likelihood that it was in violation of antitrust laws due to this 50% interest in the Victor Talking Machine Company in the U.S. caused the company to divest its U.S. interest in Columbia.

Columbia U.K. was merged with HMV (the U.K. operation of the Victor Talking Machine Company) in 1931 and the company was renamed the Electrical and Music Industry (EMI). The U.S. radio network continued as the Columbia Broadcasting System and became profitable during the next decade. The U.S. Columbia Records was sold to Grigsby- Grunow, a manufacturer of refrigerators and radios. This company went bankrupt in 1934, and Columbia was sold to the Brunswick label.

The American Record Company had been formed in 1929 through the merger of three small labels, Oriole and Perfect, Romeo, and Banner. ARC acquired the Brunswick label (started in 1916) in 1931 and changed the name of the entire company to Brunswick Record Corporation which it was at the time of the Columbia acquisition. CBS bought Brunswick in 1938. CBS deactivated the Brunswick label and reactivated the Columbia label, later selling Brunswick to Decca in 1942. Outside the U.S. the Columbia label would remain EMI’s flagship pop label until the early 50s when CBS pulled out of its overseas arrangement with EMI. We’ll return to the EMI, HMV and Victor Talking Machine Company connections subsequently.

Beliner’s gramophone
A German inventor living in the U.S. solved the duplication problems associated with the cylindrical shape of the Edison phonograph. Emil Berliner would have been aware of Scott’s invention and it is widely accepted that he knew of Cros’s patent. Berliner’s approach used a round flat plate as a recording surface. This approach made duplication significantly easier whereby records could be pressed much like waffles and not very different from the way records were made until the CD came along (in fact CDs are also a pressed medium).

In 1895, Berliner formed the Berliner Gramophone Company and began to sell a hand driven player. An associate of Berliner’s, Eldridge Johnson, incorporated a wind-up spring motor and the modern gramophone was complete. The two of them started the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901 for the purposes of manufacturing gramophones and producing records.

Berliner’s foreign rights agent travelled to London in May 1898 in order to raise enough funds to establish a recording and pressing facility. To pay for an expensive patent war with Columbia, Berliner sold his patent rights in Britain and Europe to a group of English investors called the Gramophone Company. The initial catalogue of records was pressed by Berliner’s brothers in Hanover, Germany. During W.W. I the Hanover operation became Deutshe Grammophon which would evolve into Polygram.

In 1902 Columbia and Victor pooled their patents and put aside a legal case that was pending. This freed them both to put all their efforts into promoting their products. Between 1902 and 1906 The Victor Company, in order to stimulate record sales, gave away models of the Type P Premium Player when a customer purchased several records at once. Columbia began selling disks in the U.S. in 1901 but Victor quickly became the dominant label in America. In 1902 Gramophone manufactured the first 78RPM record and in 1907 a double sided disk was issued. In 1912 Edison introduced the diamond tipped stylus which further improved the reproduction quality. By 1917, both Columbia and Victor were emphasizing the ability of their machines to supplant a dance orchestra at the most elegant and stylish affairs.

In 1900 the Gramophone Company bought the rights to Francis Barraud’s painting of his dog Nipper sitting in front of a phonograph. The artist was paid £50 for the painting and £50 for the copyright providing he changed the phonograph to a gramophone. Barraud painted a gramophone right over the original. The name of the painting was “His Master’s Voice” which became a trade mark and label for the Gramophone Company. When Berliner visited London he asked to use the image as a trademark in the U.S. Berliner, Victor, then RCA have used Nipper. In Egypt, India and Moslem countries it was not used by HMV because dogs were considered unclean. In India a listening cobra was substituted for the dog on those records with Indian artists. In Italy it was never used because there, a bad singer is said to sound like a dog. Victor also used the logo for releases on its Japanese subsidiary which was sold to Japanese interests before W.W. II. JVC (Japanese Victor Corp.) continues to use the logo.

HMV and The Victor Talking Machine Company maintained an ownership in each other for 50 years. Johnson sold his interests to bankers Seligman and Sprayer in 1926. During the depression record sales dropped through the floor. The Camden New Jersey pressing plant was converted to making radios. Victor dropped most of its artists though many later appeared back on the label through the HMV connection. In 1929, the Radio Corporation of America bought Victor from the lawyers. RCA had no intention of continuing the record operation but wanted the company for the radio manufacturing facilities. When ASCAP began to claim that the radio industry should pay royalties for air play which eventuated in the first arrangement with the National Association of Broadcasters(1932), RCA realised that the Victor catalogue was a gold mine and decided to continue the label using the pressing plants that it had acquired along with the radio plant. The RCA-Victor label was begun.

Formalizing the blues
The exclusive patent rights that Edison, Columbia and Victor had, ended in 1917, but they continued to dominate the record industry though others were finding opportunities at the fringes. The growth of independent production accelerated with the introduction of the vacuum tube to the process which made recording easier and more portable.

By the beginning of the 1920s, regional, ethnic and culturally different music was beginning to be recorded by traveling field recordists who carried their equipment in the backs of their cars. They would set up in hotel rooms, bars, and music halls and record the best local performers. The artist was paid a small fee and the recordist/ producer would press records and attempt to sell the recording to the big city record companies. Initially, these recordings had little impact on the music industry but would have a significant influence on future generations of musical artists.

Music that had never before been written down, documented or copyrighted was now being codified for future generations. Did the recording of ethnic and regional blues, hillbilly, or folk music change this music? Of course it did. The recording process forced a honing of these songs into a structure that was just long enough to fill a 10 inch, 78 rpm record. This restriction became a catalyst in formalising the structure of the ethnic song.

It also immortalised forever those emotions that previously were conveyed only in the presence of the blues, hillbilly, or folk singers' performance. These recordings captured the music of the people, in particular black music, as well as hillbilly (later called country and western) and folk. Music which only existed as oral histories was now quantifiable and directly comparable outside of a public performance. This music now had stable roots from which others would build. Once created, the records provided a means of musical recollection of the life and times of these popular performers.

Recordings also changed the standards of ethnic composition and performances. When this music was entirely by oral delivery, cliche and borrowed music wasn’t a problem for the performers since those who were listening would seldom have heard the original source, and if they had, it was unlikely they would have been able to make comparisons from memory. The commodification of the performance allowed aficionados of the music to quickly compare and know when they heard someone play a stolen classic.

Building on the roots
Throughout the 20th century, the records of blues, hillbilly and folk artists of earlier times have been available for all to hear, providing a starting point for later performers to build on in their times. While this ethnic and regional music continued to evolve as an oral tradition, it was no longer necessary to follow these singers from one gin joint, music hall, or saloon to another in order to hear what they had to say. Once the records existed, the music could be discovered by each new wave of performers. Through the lyrics and performances of these songs, the recordings captured an impression of the lives, times and places of these singer/songwriters.

Bessie Smith learned to sing the blues by going on the road with Ma Rainey, but Billie Holiday could listen to Bessie’s records, and Aretha could build her music on what she heard in the records of Billie and Bessie. Not only have late 20th century singers been able to look through the phonographic window to the past, so too have instrumentalists. Eric Clapton (and so many others) could sit with Robert Johnson and pick up classic licks, even though Clapton was born seven years after Johnson died. Few pop music artists are void of influences from artists of the past. Records have connected all the times since the turn of the 20th century into a continuum, but with all the times of the past available at the same time just by playing a record.

As Frith described it,

“Popular music came to describe a fixed performance, a recording with the right qualities of intimacy or personality, emotional intensity or ease. ‘Broad’ styles of singing taken from vaudeville or the music hall began to sound crude and quaint; ... [This change also coincided with a different type of music entrepreneur, the record producer, who, unlike the music hall operator, had little contact with the audience or any experience with trying to please the public on the spot.] For the record industry, the audience was essentially anonymous.... "

In Europe... in the beginning... Opera
In Europe, right after the turn of the century, armed with a portable recording system Gramophone’s talent scouting technician Fred Gaisberg travelled all over Europe and into Asia looking for and recording every form of folk music and pub entertainer. In the beginning “serious” opera stars were loath to involve themselves with such gadgetry, but just when phonograph records were in peril of becoming an exponent of all things rustic, exotic and vulgar, legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso was signed in 1902 by the Victor Company and recorded by Gaisberg. (Actually Caruso was signed to the Gramophone and Typewriter Co. Of Italy. He would later sign directly with Victor.) He would have over 40 top ten hits. This marked a turning point for the fledgling HMV/ Victor record label that now had the opportunity to market high culture into the home. It made ownership of a gramophone not only acceptable but essential by the best families. The record labels promoted operatic arias that were short enough to fit on a record and they soon became accepted as examples of popular music. Enrico Caruso was a famous opera singer long before making a record, but the recordings he made between 1913 till his death in 1921 made him an international figure and extremely wealthy. His voice became known to millions of people who had never been to an opera and almost everyone with a gramophone had a Caruso record. He was the first artist to have a successful recording career. The Gramophone and Victor owed their success and survival through their infancy to Caruso’s popularity.

Further development of the recording process and the medium of distribution, the record, became a matter of perfecting the original invention. The amplifier was invented and introduced to the process and new materials and techniques were introduced but there was little change to the original concept until magnetic recording came along in the 50s, and CD suplanted records in the 80s (though in the 21st century somne still prefer vynal).

The record player
The expiration of the Edison- Columbia- Victor gramophone and phonograph patents in 1917 meant that dozens of companies entered the market. Record players were built for every taste. Some had features that today make one wonder what the designers were thinking.

The Ko-Hi-Ola for instance, was a phonograph with a built-in grandfather clock, a storage area for records and a “special” secret compartment. As the ad for the unit described, “The Ko-Hi-Ola is more useful than the ordinary phonograph, more ornamental than the usual grandfather’s clock and has exclusive features not found in other machines”. There were many manufacturers of phonographs. Most machines had some unique sales feature that had little to do with the sound. Most were commercial failures as were the companies which made them.

Phonograph players remained mechanical devices for sometime after electric recording began in the early 20s, but in order to hear the extended response of the electric recordings, larger horns were needed. The need for better reproduction equipment to hear the improved record quality pushed the development of electric record players so that by the mid 30s the large playback horns were disappearing and replaced with speakers. This was made possible by the development not only of amplification but a low cost stylus and cartridge that generated an electrical signal that could be amplified. The stylus was now connected to a piezoelectric crystal that when twisted back and forth along the modulating grove would generate an easily amplified alternating current.

Beginning in the 1920s, the gramophone became a centre piece for an evening’s entertainment with friends. It was a more social instrument compared to the radio which was also becoming a part of the modern home. No one knew for sure what would be on the radio, and if they did they had no control over it. On the other hand the person running the gramophone party had control of the material played. There could be discussion about what was heard and how it differed from other recordings.

For three generations to come, such record parties would be social events, but the nature of the event would change. By the fifties, a party goer would be younger and come with a “thumb full” of 45s and the player would be set up in the garage where there was enough room to do and demonstrate all the latest dances. What made the party a good one was if the participants brought with them enough of the latest releases.

The idea of sitting and listening to a recording, then discussing it continued through the 60s and 70s, the hippie generation and the concept album.

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