Fans or Scholars?

In his memoirs, Eric Hobsbawm recounts how his cousin Denis introduced him to ‘hot jazz’ records in London in 1933. The boys discussed the music of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Bessie Smith ‘with the intensity of teenage passion over cups of heavily sugared condensed milk’.1 Many people have written how their life changed after hearing the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Beniamino Gigli, Bob Dylan, the Beatles or other famous performing artists. Hobsbawm, affected by a type of music that had electrified him in his youth, became a jazz critic, writing under the name Francis Newton. As an active participant in the local jazz scene, Hobsbawm had excellent contacts and inside information about the record business. His cousin Denis Preston (Prechner) became a successful jazz record producer. In his 1959 book The Jazz Scene2, Hobsbawm would make interesting observations about the role of recordings in jazz.

And yet, this is not why most of us know Hobsbawm. Although he would have been in an excellent position to study the history of the recording industry, he chose to focus on political history. Due to studies such as The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848,3 he became one of the best-known British historians of the twentieth century, whose love for jazz played little to no role in his scholarly work. In 1962, recorded music was perhaps too contemporary or ephemeral to interest a professional historian. This was just before the Beatles, when the record business started to grow and popular music began to interest academics.

My own trajectory as a music lover and historian has been a different one. I have read much that has been written on the history of the recording industry, and indeed contributed to these histories as a scholar. In what follows, I will attempt to condense these years of reading and researching into an essay which I hope will open the door for other researchers to study the history of the recording industry. This essay does not aim to provide an exhaustive overview of existing work on the recording industry, nor does it set out a particular research agenda. It does, however, shine a light on some approaches that have become conventional and what I consider to be interesting departures from them. It also tries to formulate some suggestions regarding the field’s potential development in the future.

Although this is a relatively new field, and although ‘serious’ historians (like Hobsbawm) until recently did not consider its topics, the main subject of recording history is neither ephemeral nor socially or culturally insignificant. Sound recording was one of the great inventions of the nineteenth century. Records became one of the new media, like film, radio and television, which have had a huge influence on the culture of the twentieth century. But for some reason, the study of the history of sound recording seems to have fallen into the cracks between history, media studies and musicology. This problem even extends to access to primary sources. Most countries in the world awoke late to the need to systematically document national record production. Libraries often do not bother to preserve such ephemera as catalogues and advertising material published by record companies. Also, the archives of many historically important record companies have been lost. Professional historians, who are used to well-organized archives, do not hunt for data in private collections around the world.

The ‘problem’ with the history of the record industry and recorded music is therefore that most of it has been written by enthusiasts rather than professional historians. Many books written by fans are excellent, and a passionate interest in a subject can make a person devote endless hours to it. Taken as a whole, however, these books are one-sided in that they present the story of the great artists that changed the author’s life. This is important in some respects, but it leaves important areas of recording history unresearched or undocumented.

In what follows, I offer some thoughts on the ways in which both ‘professionals’ as well as ‘enthusiasts’ (the line between both categories cannot always be drawn strictly) have engaged with the history of the record industry. Two important characteristics of the field is that it is heavily dominated by Anglophone collections and research, and that recordings of jazz and classical music occupy a central role. I will offer some explanations for this state of affairs, but also point to new and different avenues of research that brings other contexts and other genres to the fore.

A Growing Field

Recently, there has been a surge of new literature (some of which is discussed below), online catalogues and possibilities for online listening, all of which have contributed to interest in recording history.4 There are several reasons for this surge. Firstly, many countries now have national sound archives, often as part of the national library, and online catalogues make their collections more accessible. Secondly, the rise of new academic disciplines such as popular music studies and sound studies has moved recorded sound as a (historical) source from the periphery to the centre. Thirdly, the development of new digital analytical tools has opened up ways to study music in much greater detail than before. Interest in the history of the recording industry has always been strongest in the English-speaking world. This is reflected in the availability of databases and journals, which can give a broad overview of the field, but is also obvious in the quality and influence of the work of individual authors, of whom I have selected some particularly interesting ones to consider below.

The Discography of American Historical Recordings has become a model for creating a national database of historical recordings.5 It combines data from many sources and also gives the user the opportunity to listen to recordings. The journal of the US-based Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) has become the leading publication in its field. A quick scan of recent volumes of the ARSC Journal and its bibliography section gives a good idea of the current state of research in the entire English-speaking world.6

One particularly important contributor to the field in the USA, whose work provides an excellent summary of the history of the American record industry before World War II, is Allen Sutton. Sutton modestly notes that his work is ‘not intended as an encyclopaedic reference or a formal academic study’,7 but it easily fulfils these criteria. His studies show how recorded music had already before World War I become an important medium of home entertainment, and how the industry’s goal to sell ‘a phonograph to every home’ was largely realized (in this context, ‘phonograph’ is the American equivalent of the gramophone, or record player).8

Sutton discusses the evolution and structure of the industry, the role of patents and technical innovations such as electrical recording, and the repertoire. Sutton’s third volume, Race Records and the American Recording Industry, 1919–1945, is devoted entirely to a sector of the industry which is well known to fans of jazz and blues, but perhaps less known outside that circle. ‘Race records’ were records especially marketed to the African-American population in the USA. They were important to the development of jazz, blues and gospel music, but also included a good proportion of comedy records. ‘Race records’, as they were called in the industry, were mostly produced by specialized departments within major record companies, although there were also a few companies owned by black people.9

As we noted, recording history is largely dependent on the writing of ‘enthusiasts’ and works focusing on great artists and ‘heroes’ of the industry. This has resulted in a ‘canon’ of knowledge about the industry that often lacks proper scholarly support, and is indeed occasionally false. As one of the rare ‘professionals’ in the field, who relies on systematic archival work, Sutton is especially fond of breaking myths which have circulated in popular literature10, ‘for example, that the radio and record industries were dire foes … that million- and multi-million sellers were common during this period; and that the Wall Street crash spelled the immediate demise of the recording industry’.11 Despite claims to the contrary,12 very few individual records sold a million copies in the USA before World War II. Instead, the industry made money by producing a large number of titles for different consumer groups, and by selling them the hardware necessary to play the records. Based on surviving documents from the archives of record companies, Sutton offers sales figures which show that ‘best sellers’ normally sold a few hundred thousand copies. But strangely he makes no reference to official industrial statistics,13 which offer interesting data on record production at the aggregate level (and support Sutton’s conclusions on average sales).

It is not possible to condense forty years of American recording industry into less than a thousand pages. Some developments are inevitably left out or receive less attention. Sutton hardly mentions the international role of the American record industry, the existence of European partners and branches in South America and Asia.14 He also bypasses the large-scale production of ‘foreign-language’ (an industry term) or ‘ethnic’ recordings for various immigrant groups in the USA, although it was probably economically more important than ‘race records’, as Richard Spottswood has shown.15

Britain has also a long tradition of serious discourse on recorded music, ever since the founding of The Gramophone magazine in 1923. In no country have there been so many collector’s magazines and discographies compiled by enthusiasts. But as an academic subject, recorded music had to wait long before it was taken seriously. Moreover, the distinction between writing for ‘collectors’ and for academic audiences cannot be drawn very sharply. One of the early representatives of scholarly interest in the British record industry is Peter Martland. In 1991, he wrote his doctoral dissertation in economic history on the first two decades of the Gramophone Company, the predecessor of EMI (Electrical & Musical Industries Ltd). When the company celebrated its hundredth anniversary six years later, in 1997, they commissioned Martland to write a history of EMI.

Martland’s two books illustrate the differences between the journalistic and academic approaches. EMI. The first 100 years16 is a beautifully illustrated and entertaining account of the growth of one of largest multinational record companies whose artists have included everyone from Caruso to the Beatles. The story is told mainly through personalities, both artists and businessmen. All the facts are correct (which is not always the case in works of this type), and for a newcomer it is an excellent introduction, but many areas of the company’s history are passed over quickly. From today’s perspective, the title is ironic. There will not be another hundred years of EMI, as the company closed its doors in 2012.

In comparison to EMI. The first 100 years, Martland’s other book Recording History17 must appear boring to some readers. It offers page after page of production figures, patents, long since defunct companies and artists whose names mean little to most of us today. But for the interested reader with some background knowledge of the field, Martland draws a detailed picture of the growth of the recording industry in Britain. It covers such fascinating topics as the battle of disc records vs. cylinders (one of the major technological fights in media history, like VHS vs Beta, or Windows vs. Mac), record sales in the 1920s, and many other subjects.

One of the interesting details in the book is the discussion of the sales of recordings of Enrico Caruso. A hundred years ago, Caruso was the best-known opera singer in the world, and he was probably also the best paid recording artist of the period. His records did not sell millions of copies, as is sometimes claimed. In 1911, the Gramophone Company sold 61,696 Caruso records, for which the artist earned a royalty of $31,655. Records by dance bands and comedians sold more copies, but they were not paid royalties, just a flat fee for the sessions. Caruso presented the ‘high end’ of the record market, and his records cost many times more than ordinary dance records. True to the scholarly aims of the book, Martland documents the story with copious primary sources such as contemporary trade journals and company archives.

Recording History comes close to being the definitive history of the British record industry until 1931. I only regret that Martland did not continue at the same speed until World War II, which was in many ways a turning point for the industry. Of course, the book has its shortcomings, too, and a reader like myself who would like to know everything is advised to turn to the author’s doctoral dissertation from 1991, which covers a shorter period of time (only up to 1918) but has more information on the Gramophone Company’s international contacts and its business activities outside Britain.18

Works like that of Sutton, Martland and their American and British colleagues show to what extent a scholarly approach to the history of recording and the recording industry can open up new vistas in economic, social and cultural history. They chronicle the history of a technology and an industry, but also its relation to the wider social world. Technological developments and the growth of a market for records teach us a great deal about race relations in the USA, about the stratification of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture in the UK and about significant changes in the shape of domesticity and leisure across the (Western) world. Their academic work has served as an inspiration, but has largely sparked academic interest in researchers working in the English-speaking world.

Thinking Beyond American and British History

In many countries, academic research on the history of the record industry still does not exist. Yet we know a great deal on the subject, thanks to the work of the collectors and enthusiasts. Despite my somewhat critical comments on research by ‘fans’, their contributions are often invaluable. No scholar could collect all this material alone. We just need to do more work to verify the data and to put it in a larger context.

A good example of the continuing importance of research by enthusiasts is the recent history and discography of Latvian recordings by Atis Gunivaldis Bērtiņš.19 The author has a private gramophone museum on a farmhouse near Kuldīga, and the books are a lifetime’s work. The two-volume Latviešu skaņuplašu vesture (‘History of Latvian recordings’) is a discography of Latvian 78 rpm and vinyl records, with a brief history and additional essays on individual recording artists and industry personalities. It covers the years from 1903, the publication of the first Latvian recordings, to the end of vinyl in the early 1990s, which also corresponds with the breakdown of the Soviet Union.

It would be easy to find fault with the book. It has no index, which makes especially the second volume difficult to use. In the first volume, records are listed in numerical order by record company and catalogue number, which forms a logical chronological structure, but in the absence of an index, finding specific artists and titles is still very difficult. The Soviet record industry also used a standardized numerical system, but recordings from all Soviet republics were mixed in a way which has not yet been properly explained. Instead of relying on the numerical series, Bērtiņš decided to list Latvian vinyl records in the second volume thematically by various criteria: composers, performers, folk songs, songs from song competitions, recordings by émigré artists, and so on. All this is intermingled with small essays such as artist biographies, producers and record censorship in the USSR. To get a chronological view of Latvian record production, or even just find a specific record, the reader has to put all the pieces together himself and compare the listings against other sources, such as the website Katalog sovetskih plastinok.20

It is worth the trouble, however, as the book contains many new insights. Latvia was the most industrialized part of the Baltic region, and in 1903, the Gramophone Company opened a record pressing plant in Riga to serve the huge Russian market. It also served as a base for local production. Before World War I, many well-known artists in the region had already made recordings, some of them can be heard online in the digital audio archive of the Latvian National Library.21

Latvia became independent in 1918, and by the mid-1920s, Latvian music was again recorded regularly. At first, recordings were usually issued by local representatives of international companies, but the 1930s saw the founding of Bellaccord, an independent local record company. Riga became a recording centre for the Baltic area, and it also produced recordings for the Estonian and Finnish markets. Bellaccord survived World War II by adapting to the times: the company recorded songs both for Stalin and the German-sponsored Latvian Legions.

For me, the most interesting part of the book covers the Soviet era. The Soviet Union was one of the biggest record producers in the world, and the former Bellaccord plant developed into one of the four factories which pressed all records in the USSR (the other three were in Moscow, Leningrad and Tashkent). So far little has been written on the subject. Together with a recent Estonian book which covers a shorter period of time (and has an introduction in English), we now have an overview of record production in the smaller Soviet republics.

The most striking change in record production after the introduction of Soviet power in the Baltic States was the dramatic decline in the number of new issues. In the 1930s, hundreds of new Latvian records were issued annually. In the 1950s, only about a dozen appeared each year. Stalinist cultural policy favoured folk songs and romantic pieces such as ‘Serenade’ and ‘Waltz for Moscow’. By the 1960s, production started to grow and became more varied. Art music by Latvian composers is recorded fairly extensively, and we can follow the growth of new genres of popular music. By the 1980s, rock groups also appear, and in 1988–1990, when Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union, the state record company Melodiya issued a series of nationalist and anti-Soviet songs. Bērtiņš’s book offers a unique opportunity to study the changing cultural policy of the Soviet Union in practice, and shows how a discography can become an important source for many types of research.

Thinking Beyond Jazz and Opera

As noted, both journalistic and academic approaches to the history of the record industry largely rely on collections established either by the industry itself or by private collectors. As a result, existing databases were (until very recently) heavily shaped by their interests, and these are often guided by taste in music. Another way of looking at the history of the recording industry therefore is by documenting recordings of specific musical genres.

While archive catalogues and databases normally list only recordings in their collections, discographies are essential if we want to have a comprehensive view of the total record production within specific genres and periods. The first discographies published in the 1930s were focused on jazz and opera, genres which then attracted the largest number of collectors. The first jazz records were then twenty years old, and the first opera records had been made around the turn of the century, when famous singers of the ‘golden era’ such as Melba and Patti were still performing. There were no public sound archives yet, and collectors were trying to find out what had been done before their time. The logical conclusion was to compile discographies, complete listings of existing recordings within specific genres. Discographies remain important for research, as public record collections are usually too young to contain the first half century of recorded sound. That is not only the case for research on jazz and opera (well-established research field that continue to be studied), but also for other musical genres.

As we will see, practices established by the early jazz discographers can be applied to other fields. As far as possible, they list all known recordings within their specific musical genres, including recordings held in private collections or known only from contemporary advertisements. They also contain much more information than the standard library catalogue. A good discography can grow into a history of the genre, as is amply illustrated by two recent works on, respectively, ‘biguine’ and ‘Judaica’.

The creole music of the French West Indies, sometimes known as ‘biguine’, is mainly known in the Francophone world, but its development has interesting parallels with the history of jazz. It was brought to Paris in the 1920s by African-American migrants from Martinique and Guadeloupe. The best-known bands attracted an audience beyond the West Indian community, and over the years hundreds of recordings were made. The early West Indian bands sounded a lot like New Orleans jazz bands of the era, and later on Franco-Caribbean musicians often played with jazz musicians. The discography by Alan Boulanger, John Cowley and Marc Monneraye is exemplary. It covers the field in great detail and, with the extensive introduction by John Cowley, is actually a history of the subject. The cut-off date of 1959 may seem arbitrary, as the production of Franco-Caribbean music continues today under new genre names such as ‘zouk’, but it roughly reflects the transition from 78 rpm records to vinyl.22

Rainer E. Lotz and Axel Weggen have tackled a much more complex subject in their discography of ‘Judaica’.23 It is part of Lotz’s extensive (but now apparently discontinued) series of German discographies. There was an extensive production of ‘Jewish’ recording in Europe before the Holocaust. Michael Aylward has estimated it as comprising at least 14,000 titles. It included many kinds of music, but two important types were Hebrew liturgical songs by cantors and songs in Yiddish from the Jewish stage. Lerski’s discography of the Polish Syrena company shows that in the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of Yiddish songs were recorded in Poland alone24.

The scope of Lotz and Weggen’s work is limited to Germany and Austria, which already raises questions. What were Germany and Austria in 1905, or 1935? The Jewish population in Germany mainly spoke German and was well integrated into German culture. What was distinctly ‘Jewish’ was mostly liturgical music in Hebrew, and it was indeed recorded by well-known cantors such as Josef Rosenblatt, Sawel Kwartin and Salomo Pinkasowicz (although many of them had started their careers outside Germany). There were also numerous other Jewish actors and singers who made recordings, but their recordings are only included if they have specific Jewish content. For instance, the Austrian comedian Max Brod (1880–1959) made recordings for Zonophon, Grammophon and Odeon, but only one of them is included in the discography: Der Theaterausrufer (1930), which parodies the attempts of Viennese theatres to attract Jewish customers.

On the other hand, the authors extend their definition of Judaica to include recorded anti-Jewish propaganda, which gives the book a completely new character. Most readers will be familiar with the existence of anti-Jewish propaganda in Germany before and during the Nazi era, but it came as a surprise to me that it existed so widely in audio form. Lotz and Weggen also include unpublished recordings made for the use of radio stations. Nazi propagandists such as Alfred Rosenberg and Julies Streicher made recordings on ‘the Jewish question’. As late as in January 1945, the German propaganda machine was still turning out speeches on ‘The Jew’s economic dominance of the world’ in Latvian and Ukrainian, although these countries had already been lost. The interpretation of these recordings will be left to future researchers.

Students of the history of the recording industry will inevitably choose different approaches. But it is good to see that the amount of research is reaching a ‘critical mass’, which makes it possible to ask new questions and raise the research to a new level. Philip Yampolsky’s Music and Media in the Dutch East Indies25 is a good example. Yampolsky has compiled a discography of all recordings made in the former Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) up to 1942. On the basis of this documentation, he is able to follow the stylistic development of Indonesian music in great detail. Sound recordings have become primary sources for the history of music.

The Way Ahead

I have focused in this essay on what I see as the most important developments in the study of recorded sound. Academic researchers have always been able to assume that practically all printed works have been collected and documented somewhere. When I first became interested in the study of the recording industry some fifty years ago, very few countries had national sound archives. No one had any idea of the total output of the international recording industry since its birth in the late nineteenth century, and recorded music was not considered a subject of academic study. In my review of studies on this field, I have focused on what I consider as core tasks: the documentation of the history of the recording industry and its output. Although there are still many blank spots on the map, the basic task has been done. Now that the sources are available, it is possible to move on to new questions. In ‘traditional’ musicology there is a growing interest in the study of musical performance, as represented for instance by the establishment of the AHRC Research Centre for the history and analysis of recorded music in the UK; the CHARM project (2004–2009) in the UK; or individual academic endeavours such as Rebecca Plack’s26 and Roger Freitas’s27 work. Some of the results of this research are documented in Daniel Leech-Wilkinson’s book The Changing Sound of Music28 and the recent Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music29.

The focus of this essay has been on sound recordings, more specifically on what is commonly known as ‘the record industry’. In the course of the twentieth century, this industry developed into a global medium which has had a dominant role in the production and mediation of music, and to a lesser degree other types of audio recordings. We should remember that there are also other media of equal importance. Today we are used to seeing radio as a wireless jukebox which mostly lives on the products of the record industry, but there have been long periods in history when radio was an independent sound medium which created most of its own content, including music, radio plays, documentaries and news. Of the books discussed above, only one deals with the role of radio in relation to recordings.30 But much of this content has been lost, and what has been preserved is often difficult to access. Christina L. Baade’s Victory through harmony, a recent study of the BBC and popular music in World War II, demonstrates forcefully how the role of radio has at times been much larger than that of recordings.31 But again, the study of the history of radio programmes suggests a parallel with the record industry: there will be little research of actual content as long as the sources are difficult to access.