78 Revolutions per Minute, Pt. 1: The Rise of the Disc Record

Developmental progress and interruptions in technological status quo of any time period in the music industry are two fundamental features which allow the musical mass market to grow and change by bringing fresh products and musical styles to consumers who then purchase them for the sake of entertainment purposes. Throughout all of the history of commercial pop music, technological change has introduced various media in which people are exposed to new music including radio, television and the Internet. Regarding consumer availability of hard copy music, various forms of disc products have enjoyed the greatest longevity, spanning nearly a century of continued popularity. These include 78s, 45s, vinyl albums, CDs and the current upsurge in new music available via vinyl albums, and with few notable exceptions like cassette tapes or mp3 digital files, discs have been the standard choice for consumers and record companies alike. But for a format like the disc to enjoy success, it must first grow in popularity and during the early twentieth century, this undertaking would require the gargantuan task of overtaking the other popular format of the time, the wax cylinder, a format which consumers associated with the leading brand names Thomas A. Edison and his Phonograph.

In the decade between 1903 and 1913, the disc record and the machines that play them grew in popularity to outpace the wax cylinder and Phonograph machines in sales. There are a number of ways in which the disc could have proven more popular with consumers, including a unified method of playback, expanded consumer choices for titles of smaller record companies, and more aesthetically pleasing machines. Although technologically stagnated once the disc had been standardized, talking machines had become more appealing for domestic use, including the feature that the flat disc was convenient for storage in the home. Standard 10-inch records could hold longer songs, discs contained a song per side after all, and had a potential total of eight minutes worth of music per record, compared to Edison cylinders, which held only a single song at around two minutes. But this was the extent of the technological development of disc machines and the two larger firms dealing in discs, Victor and Columbia, actively curbed development of smaller disc machine companies through the use of patent litigation. Despite the technological plateau of the disc format, one machine, the hornless Victor Victrola released by a company exclusively producing disc, would capture the consumers’ attention and consequently the market for 78rpm disc records blossomed to overtake the popularity of wax cylinder records. The rise in the disc market and consumer embrace of the Victrola had much to do with the consumer change in preferences from cylinder Phonograph to disc record.

By 1904, the status of recorded music as a form of home entertainment was still in its infancy; although sales in talking machines and records were increasing during this time, domestic sales were still relatively small. Edison’s Phonograph, a machine which produced sound from a wax cylinder, had been in the public consciousness as a mass-produced form of musical entertainment for nearly fifteen years, but the Gramophone record was still relatively new to the market, with Victor established in 1901 and Columbia’s release of the disc Graphophone that same year.[1] Emile Berliner, inventor of the first disc player, the Gramophone, envisioned a machine for purely entertaining purposes only, not for business in ways that Edison thought the Phonograph would be useful, and so the invention of the disc itself was intended for mass consumer purchase for entertainment.[2] Victor’s Gramophone had won tremendous critical success even from the company’s infancy, including notable prizes in both the 1901 World’s Fair in Buffalo and the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis.[3] As well, during the first few years of the 1900s, talking machine companies were advertising in magazines and catalogues of departments stores in order to put a machine in every household, including releasing low-cost basic machines and inexpensive molded discs and cylinders. During the early twentieth century, Columbia and Victor cross-licensed their machine components in and made the disc talking machine business more efficient by standardizing playback speed, unifying styli and repeater functions and using the lateral cut process[4] for producing records, bucking the monopolistic and litigious business climate that had preoccupied the talking machine market during the 1890s. But most of the music sales during this era were still in cylinders[5] and flat disc record only made up a quarter of record sales.[6] While a decade later the disc would become a dominant force in the music industry, in 1904, it was only a burgeoning sector of the entertainment market which had been dominated for a long time by the wax cylinder.

In 1903, the major disc companies would begin to experiment with new product lines for records for costumers. With the speed of the disc standardized with a lateral recording and playback method, records became interchangeable between machines.[7] For example, a Victor Record could be played on a Columbia Graphophone and vice versa. This would lead to an ambivalence in the disc market; since consumers could purchase one machine, but then purchase another company’s records, sales of which supplemented machine companies’ profits. Record companies instead began to entice consumers with new, longer play records, including discs which contained songs on both sides in an era when records typically had been one-sided. Victor was the first to introduce its 14-inch “Deluxe Special” record in 1903 and a more expensive “Red Seal” line of classical recordings, along with exclusive recording contract with famous opera tenor Enrico Caruso, who became a megastar with Victor.[8] Larger Victor Records could hold around five minutes of music per side compared to three minutes of the standard 10-inch record or the two-minute wax cylinders issued by Columbia or Edison.[9] Such records did not require the purchase of a new machine for updated technology, which was a common occurrence of Edison machines when new cylinder technology changed.[10] Columbia reacted by issuing their own “Classical Opera” line of “serious music” records and its own larger discs. While the Red Seal and Classical Opera brands were successful in selling discs and machines for companies, the longer 14-inch records proved too fragile and both Victor and Columbia discontinued them the same year, eventually issuing 12-inch discs instead.[11] This small addition of differing length records, even if the longest records proved troublesome with fragility, would begin a decade of change in disc machines and consumers’ growing acceptance of them.

While Victor and Columbia were industry leaders in both disc machines and recordings, more change would come not with the technological aspect of the industry, but rather in the expanding consumer choice in the disc market. With a standardized playback method, new and smaller record companies began recording and molding their own records, including label brands like Sun, Imperial, Grey Gull, Clear Tone, Oxford and International Records, among many other regional record labels which joined Victor and Columbia in the disc market.[12] Likewise, smaller machine companies came into existence, some of which used licensed Victor or Columbia components in their machines. The Standard Talking Machine Company of Chicago and Duplex Phonograph Company, for example, used Columbia parts in their machines direct from the manufacturer.[13] However, the 78rpm format that had become an industry standard lead to some difficulty with companies that wanted consumers to exclusively purchase their companies’ records and machines. The only conceivable way for record companies to monopolize consumer loyalty was to vary the spindle size of the machine and pair it uniquely with the hole in the record. For example, Aretino Records had a three-inch diameter hole in their records for play on exclusively Chicago Talking Machine’s line of Aretino Machines.[14] But enterprising consumers could purchase or fashion their own lugs to fit the various spindle sizes of such machines and consequently fit odd-sized records to standard machines.[15] Such a growing diversity in the disc talking machine shows that there was opportunity for smaller firms to start up businesses in the relative newness of the disc format.

But for Victor and Columbia, such intrusion into the disc machine market was unwanted to say the least and their solution to curb the growing diversity in disc format from other companies included litigation in court over their patents and suing smaller firms out of existence, leading to contraction of the disc market by 1910. Patent lawsuits were common during the 1890s and helped to create the first three big three record companies of the era. But in the 1900s, such lawsuits between disc firms were used to not only protect the patents of Victor and Columbia, but also to continue their dominance in the music market. Ohio Talking Machine, producer of the Leeds Talkophone, were sued over patent infringement by Victor for its mechanical feed apparatus in 1909. While some companies like Standard Talking Machine took the safe route by purchasing their components directly from Victor and Columbia, other firms were not as diligent. The manufacturing parts firm Hawthorne and Shelbe of Chicago, which supplied parts for many smaller companies such as Busy Bee, Harmony and Aretino, were sued out of existence by Columbia in 1909, consequently the smaller firms either selected parts from Columbia, Victor or simply went out of business. Even though Duplex Phonograph outsourced mechanical parts from Columbia, Victor successfully sued in 1909 and Duplex ceased production in 1910.[16] Although disc expansion was happening by the number of smaller firms, the two larger firms used litigation to maintain the status quo of market domination and consequently stopped the growth of smaller companies and advancement of the technology of the disc player.

Even though many smaller firms came into existence and the market for machines was growing, there was remarkably little change in the technology of the disc record and the machines which played it. Besides the development of the twelve-inch and double-sided records, technology in sound production had stagnated by 1906, there were no new technological developments. But talking machine companies by 1906 were taking a different approach in machine marketing, by addressing the aesthetics of the machines and how they fit within the domestic surroundings of their potential customers. Growing numbers of consumers were looking for machines which were more pleasing to the eye and an aesthetic movement in talking machines followed. Earlier in the decade, cases had become less utilitarian and talking machines and companies began to issue more decorative cases, the more expensive of which had intricate carved detailing and solid mahogany housings.[17] A marked feature of aesthetic change, not only in disc machines, but in all talking machines, was the development of the iconic large, curved Morning Glory-shaped horn, which replaced an older-style straight sided, brass horn common in the early twentieth century. Such horns were made decorative with hand painted decorations which were “the handsomest and most ornamental horns ever made for talking machines” according to one advertisement.[18] Consumers also needed storage space and companies consequently began producing albums and decorative cabinets to hold growing collection of records. Flat discs had an advantage over cylinders in storage, since records could be stored in book-form which fit neatly on shelves, while cylinders required drawers for storage. All of these features, none of which had to do much with musical play rather than the ways in which the product fit within people’s domestic lives, helped to progress the advantages of the disc format, despite the technological stagnation which had become part of the talking machines business in the mid-1900s.

One machine however, the Victor Victrola, a disc-playing cabinet machine which lacked a horn, would not only combine all of a consumers needs for aesthetic tastes and storage, but also bring fresh technology and become a popular culture phenomenon by 1913. Introduced in 1906, the Victrola was initially a high-end machine that looked like nothing else on the market. It was a large cabinet whose horn was folded into the body of the all-wood machine and featured large amounts of storage space for up to ten albums.[19] The sound came out of an internal horn rather that the decorative Morning Glory horns which had gained popularity that year. When closed, the Victrola looked like any other wood piece of utilitarian furniture, but when opened, it featured a hidden space from which sound escaped. While the immediate impact was quite small, after all, when it debuted, the Victrola had the price of $200 in 1906;[20] eventually, consumers had become enchanted with the idea of a machine which did not have a horn and the Victrola brand become popular. After all, a large decorative horn required regular dusting and its removal after the machine’s use could result in damage or even misplacement. When famous ballroom dancers Vernon and Irene Castle signed with Victor to advertise the Victrola by dancing in front of one in a promotional film,[21] talking machine companies consequently hurried to produce new, hornless machines including Columbia’s Grafanola and Edison’s Amberola.[22] Consumers had been delighted and confused about hornless machines and the Victrola brand, equating the brand named with any other machine companies’ products. Some consumers had inquired about the Victrola by contacting Edison, who had grown continually irritated with the confusion.[23] The Victrola line of products became the highest selling machines in the 1910s, and thereafter, sales in disc records consequently dramatically increased.[24]

But there was one big problem with the Victrola and other hornless formats, and generally among other disc format machines; they reproduced music quite poorly compared with the cylinder format. And yet, the hornless machines had consumer appeal, attention and enjoyed sales growth. Consumers of disc products were essentially purchasing products which had inferior reproduction of sound comparatively speaking. There are a number of interpretations and opinions about the reasons for the popularity of the Victrola, despite the poorer sound quality. Greg Milner argues that a bank crisis in 1907 and 1908 depressed the talking machine market across all formats alike and that the public chose the fashionable Victrola, models of which had come down in price after the crisis had passed.[25] David Morton argues that the disc format, not accurately at reproducing sound and inexpensive machine and media was suited for popular music rather than “serious music” since popular music was “not artistic in nature and therefore not necessarily as demanding of technical excellence.”[26] But for whatever reason, consumer sentiment was with the disc and the machines which played them, even if this meant that customers were not getting the most authentic musical experience from their machines and records.

Even though there was market constriction and technological stagnation during the 1900s, the disc format enjoyed growing success with machines like the Victrola even though offered much to be desired in the actual reproduction of sound and music. But by 1920, the disc format had taken over the music market. Columbia had abandoned its wax cylinder Graphophone in 1912, and Edison Phonograph, which was still marketing cylinders to rural consumers, had thrown all of their production and marketing resources into their own new disc format, the Edison Diamond Disc as late as 1915. But other companies were coming into prominence as well including Brunswick and Okeh records, both of which had come to challenge the market hegemony of Victor and Columbia in the later 1910s. Disc format continued success and growth during the 1920s, in fact the first million selling record, Vernon Dalhart’s “The Prisoner’s Song” from 1924, was recorded on Victor Records.[27] Other companies came about, throughout the 1920s, all of which preferred discs, leaving Edison as, not a leviathan monopoly in cylinders, but completely alone in changing times by 1920.[28]

References

Aldridge, B.L. The Victor Talking Machine Company. Camden, NJ: RCA Sales Corporation. 1964. The David Sarnoff Library. http://www.davidsarnoff.org/vtm.html.

Fabrizio, Timothy C and George F. Paul. The Talking Machine: An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929. Atglen, PA. 1997.

Klinger, Bill. “Cylinder Records: Significance, Production and Survival.” Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Library of Congress. 08 March 2007. http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/pdf/klinger.pdf.

Milner, Greg. Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc. 2009.

Morton, David. Off the Record: the Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Morton Jr, David L. Sound Recording: The Story of a Technology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2004.

Reiss, Eric L. The Compleat Talking Machine: A Collector’s Guide to Antique Phonographs. Chandler, AZ: Sonoran Publishing. 2007.

Stross, Randall. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishing Group. 2007.

Taintor, Callie. “The Way the Music Died, Chronology: Technology and the Music Industry.” PBS, Frontline. Posted 27 May 2004, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/music/inside/cron.html.

1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue No 117: A Treasured Replica from the Archives of History. Ed. Joseph J. Schroeder Jr. Northfield, IL: DBI Books, 1971.

 

[1] B.L. Aldridge, The Victor Talking Machine Company, (Camden, NJ: RCA Sales Corporation, 1964), The David Sarnoff Library, http://www.davidsarnoff.org/vtm-chapter5.html.

[2] David Morton, Off the Record: the Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 19.

[3] David Morton, Sound Recording: The Story of a Technology, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004),39.

[4] Lateral cut refers to the direction of the needle during recording and playback, which was from side to side. This differs from Edison’s vertical cut method, which imprinted sound on a cylinder using a hill and dale form of musical production.

[5] Morton, Off the Record, 80.

[6] Bill Klinger, “Cylinder Records: Significance, Production and Survival,” Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Library of Congress, 08 March 2007, http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/pdf/klinger.pdf (accessed 7 May 2014).

[7] Randall Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2007), 220.

[8] Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, (New York: Faber and Faber, 2009), 37.

[9] ibid.

[10] Timothy C. Fabrizio and George F. Paul, The Talking Machine: An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929, (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Co, 1997), 150.

[11] Ibid, 81-82.

[12] Fabrizio and Paul, 125

[13] Ibid, 126

[14] Eric L. Reiss, The Compleat Talking Machine: A Collector’s Guide to Antique Phonographs, (Chandler, AZ: Sonoran Publishing, 2007), 188.

[15] Fabrizio and Paul, 133.

[16] For a more detailed overview of the disc talking machine series of patent infringement lawsuits, see Fabrizio and Paul, 126.

[17] B.L. Aldridge, The Victor Talking Machine Company, (Camden, NJ: RCA Sales Corporation, 1964), The David Sarnoff Library, http://www.davidsarnoff.org/vtm-chapter6.html.

[18] 1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue No 117: A Treasured Replica from the Archives of History, ed. Joseph J. Schroeder Jr, (Northfield, IL: DBI Books, 1971), 201.

[19] Fabrizio and Paul, 162.

[20] Ibid, 156.

[21] Stross, 226.

[22] Fabrizio and Paul, 176

[23] Stross, 225.

[24] Callie Taintor, “The Way the Music Died, Chronology: Technology and the Music Industry,” found on PBS, Frontline, posted 27 May 2004, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/music/inside/cron.html (accessed 7 May 2014).

[25] Milner, 38.

[26] Morton, Off the Record, 23-24.

[27] Stross, 223.

[28] Morton, Off the Record, 23.

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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

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