Recording Industry, History of

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Recording and playback of sound was first achieved by Thomas Edison in 1877. His first recording was the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb." (If Edison believed it was going to work, he might have said something more momentous.) Edison patented his "talking machine," or phonograph, in 1878. Nearly deaf, he noticed that each sound had a distinct vibration, and by etching or indenting those vibrations in a physical material, they could be retraced and replayed. The first phonograph combined previously existing technologies to record and play sound by mechanical means. He used a trumpet to gather sound and concentrate it, causing a taut membrane at its smaller end to vibrate like a drumhead (i.e., a diaphragm). A stylus attached to the diaphragm indented a hill-and-dale pattern (created by the sound vibrations) on a moving surface (initially a cylinder) of a malleable substance (originally tin foil or wax), which was turned by a wheel that was attached to a feed screw. This resulted in a spiral-shaped groove that could then be retraced with a lighter stylus, causing the same vibration in the diaphragm, sending sound back up the trumpet to be heard.

Edison believed the device would be most valuable as an office machine, a dictation device. He also listed talking books for the blind and the teaching of elocution ahead of reproduction of music on his initial list of potential uses. Last on his list was "connection to the telephone." Genius that he was, Edison envisioned the answering machine before the turn of the century. Early competitors with the phonograph were the grapho-phone, a remarkably similar device patented in 1885 and marketed by Alexander Graham Bell and his associates beginning in 1887, and Emile Berliner's gramophone that played flat, round discs rather than cylinders and was brought to market in 1891. The Berliner Gramophone Company was based in Philadelphia, and its first disc-pressing plant was located in Hanover, Germany. The similarities between the phonograph and graphophone prompted Edison to sue for patent infringement, but sufficient improvements were found in the graphophone that both were permitted in the marketplace. The gramophone was a playback-only device, geared to the home entertainment market from the outset, necessitating the development of the record business to spark and maintain the interest of the consumers.

There were substantial differences in the commercial production of cylinder and disc recordings. Cylinders depended on the technique of multiple simultaneous recording. Numerous "horns" (large trumpets) were arranged to capture the live sound and direct it to numerous phonographs and/or graphophones. In essence, each cylinder was an original recording. Phonograph discs were produced from a metal (zinc) master disc from the very beginning. Also, they used a lateral groove, rather than the hill-and-dale formation. The first consumer discs were made of vulcanite, a mixture of rubber and sulfur that hardened when heated. Unfortunately, this material did not provide quality or durability that was consistent enough for a commercial product. The successful substance, durinoid (so named because it was a product of the Durinoid Company of Newark, New Jersey), was a plastic used in the manufacture of buttons. A combination of shellac, clay, cotton fibers, and lampblack, durinoid became the industry standard until the introduction of vinyl in the 1940s. The gramo-phone also introduced motors into the playback function, using a hand-cranked, spring-wound device with a governor, assuring constant turntable speed. These motors were manufactured by Eldridge Johnson, an engineer who had previously manufactured motors for sewing machines. Johnson also developed a wax mastering process for discs, which greatly improved their sound. Eventually, he became head of the Victor Talking Machine Company and the Victor Record Company. In 1906, the Victor Talking Machine Company introduced the "Victrola," which was designed to look more like furniture than a machine and won mainstream acceptance and massive sales. Edison continued to promote cylinders until 1913, when he finally began marketing discs and players under his name. His discs used a diamond-tipped stylus, had hill-and-dale grooves, and sounded great, but he never seriously threatened the dominance of Victor Records in the marketplace.

With methods of production stabilized, the business turned its attention to matters of content. Fred W. Gaisberg, working with Berliner, was sent to Europe in 1902 to record operatic arias. There he found tenor Enrico Caruso, who would become the first million-selling recording artist. Caruso was recorded in a Milan hotel suite, using Johnson's wax mastering process. The ten selections that Caruso recorded were released on the Red Seal label of Victor Records. Despite the success of these recordings, and the dedication of several early labels to classical music, the biggest sales came from more popular genres. Brass bands, such as John Phillip Sousa's, did well—in part because their sounds reproduced clearly through the early processes. Songs made popular through Broadway and vaudeville shows found ready buyers, as did novelties such as gifted whistlers and players of saws and other offbeat instruments. The music business was still dominated by sheet music, sales of which peaked in 1910, driven by the Tin Pan Alley songwriters and publishers that were based in New York City.

Increasing sales of recordings in the 1910s and 1920s, with a peak of $121 million in sales in 1921, shifted the balance of power in the industry toward the recording companies. The explosion of in-home radio receivers in the 1920s brought recorded music to a new, and larger, audience. The first jazz hit was "Livery Stable Blues," recorded by the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917. Most of the bands that were featured live on radio programs were white. It was not until the 1920s that black musicians came to be recorded with market success, initially by smaller labels. Ralph Sylvester Peer, with Okeh Records, was instrumental in the first recordings of another indigenous American music, the blues. He recorded Mamie Smith singing Perry Bradford's "Crazy Blues," which became a hit. Throughout that decade, female artists such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace, and others found success with what came to be called the vaudeville blues, crossing this music over to an appreciative white audience. Peer coined a name for all the music recorded by blacks, "race music," which became a marketing category.

Peer also pioneered commercial recording of rural white musicians, performing what he called "hillbilly music," later known as country. In 1923, he recorded Fiddlin' John Carson in Atlanta, Georgia. The first hillbilly hit was "The Prisoner's Song," by Vernon Dalhart in 1924. Dalhart, himself anything but a hillbilly, was a formally trained operatic singer. Radio "barn dance" programs on Chicago's WLS, and later, Nashville's WSM, helped raise the national profile of the music. A set of 1927 recording sessions by Peer in Bristol, Tennessee, also advanced the music commercially, bringing The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers ("The Singing Brakeman") to national prominence. In the 1930s, singing cowboys in the movies, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, advanced the popularity of country and western music even further.

The stock market crash of 1929 and America's Great Depression were devastating to the recording industry. Radio became the dominant entertainment medium and fewer people bought recordings for private use. "Big band" music was the most popular music on the radio, playing complex jazz arrangements popularly known as "swing" music. Clarinetist Benny Goodman led a popular band on radio, earning him the nickname "King of Swing." Other bands, including those led by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and Woody Herman, enjoyed success on radio. Black bandleaders, such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway, succeeded mainly through club dates and tours. A new distribution channel for popular music came along in the 1930s that almost single-handedly pulled the industry out of the Great Depression: the jukebox. By the end of the decade, nearly 250,000 of the coin-in-the-slot record machines were in place around America, and fully 60 percent of the record industry's output in 1939 was purchased by jukebox operators.

Recorded music in the 1940s faced a new set of challenges, mainly brought on by World War II. In addition to wartime rationing of products such as rubber, gasoline, butter, sugar, and flour, there were shortages of industrial raw materials. Shellac, a key ingredient in records, was imported, mainly from India, and quickly came into short supply. By April 1942, the government had limited the recording industry's consumption of shellac to 30 percent of prewar levels, and production thus ground to a halt. There was also a musician's strike by the American Federation of Musicians that made arranging commercial sessions difficult. Recording artists, however, began donating their services for inclusion in V-Discs ("V" for "Vic-tory"), made by the War Department for distribution to Armed Forces Radio and servicemen worldwide. Many of the popular artists during the period, such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and the big bands, made their only war-era recordings as part of the V-Disc effort.

The war years also helped lead to the death of the big bands. With many of the best players in the service and tires and gasoline rationed, it became uneconomical and somewhat unpatriotic to keep large performing units on the road. This gave rise to smaller combinations (or "combos") playing hard jazz (or "bebop") and "jump blues." The former, typified by the works of Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker, went largely unrecorded, and the latter, epitomized by Louis Jordan's Tympani Five, sparked new commercial trends. Electric blues, featuring electric guitar leads by Muddy Waters and the like, also surfaced at this time, but this category did not reach a mainstream audience. During the war, the Union Carbide Company developed vinylite, a petroleum-based substance that was suitable for making discs. Soundwise, they offered substantial improvements over shellac-based discs—including less surface noise, hissing, and popping. The 1940s also saw the introduction of replacements for the 78-rpm (revolutions per minute) records that had generally become the standard for the industry. Columbia Records introduced their 12-inch, 33 1/3-rpm, long-playing record, and RCA introduced their 7-in, 45-rpm record. The long-playing records offered up to twenty minutes of playing time per side, a boon to jazz and classical fans. As other classical labels adopted the long-playing format, even RCA was forced to go along. By 1950, the 78-rpm record was a thing of the past, but the 45-rpm record offered inexpensive consumer access to the most popular songs, a key to the teen-driven music market of the period.

The late 1940s saw more black music being played on the radio, notably by 50,000-watt, clear-channel WLAC-AM in Nashville, Tennessee, which crossed jazz and rhythm and blues (R&B) sounds over to a large white audience. However, the major labels resisted recording black artists, which created an opportunity for new, independent labels. As more radio stations began playing jump blues, electric blues, and rhythm and blues, the records began selling in larger quantities. In 1951, WJW-AM disc jockey Alan Freed called this music "rock and roll," to lessen its racial connotations to his white teen audience, paving the way for a new wave of success for the industry. The major labels resisted signing R&B and rock-n-roll artists, believing either that the music was just a fad and/or that it was too raw and crude for corporate association. This created opportunities for songwriters, publishers, and independent record labels to get in on the ground floor. One of the biggest success stories in this era was Atlantic Records, founded by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, with the early addition of Jerry Wexler. Recording artists such as Ray Charles and Ruth Brown rode the crest of the R&B wave into the rock-n-roll era to great success.

Elvis Presley was instrumental in making permanent the crossover of these types of music to white teenagers. He brought the style and substance of R&B to television in 1956 on the Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan shows, and his fusion of country, gospel elements, R&B music, and performance styles brought rock-n-roll closer to the American mainstream. Radio still did not play much music by black artists, which led to the regular creation of "cover versions," in which white vocalists and groups rendered faithful copies of songs that were successful on the R&B charts. Pat Boone enjoyed extensive chart success with songs that were originated by Fats Domino, Little Richard, and others. The beginning of the 1960s looked much like the decade that preceded it, but before it was half over, things had changed drastically. In 1964, the "British Invasion" began, with The Beatles. Appearing on Ed Sullivan' show in February of that year, their first U.S. long-playing record, Meet The Beatles, went on to sell 3.6 million copies, the first album to outsell its hit single. Their early records included covers of Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs, as well as original songs. Their sales momentum caused the major labels to take notice and opened the doors of the industry to many British pop groups, including The Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, and Peter and Gordon.

The success of this first wave led to a second British wave, of more blues-and R&B-influenced bands such as The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, and The Animals, who covered hits by Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and other American bluesmen. In effect, these developments brought these powerful American types of music to white teenagers for the first time and provided a new foundation for the evolution of popular music with a blues base. Also, in the mid-1960s, Bob Dylan electrified his music, bringing the social conscience, lyrical complexity, and social commentary of folk into the rock mainstream. This provided a base for introspective singer-songwriters to share their personal insights about life, love, politics, the environment, and the world with millions of fans and propel the industry into the 1970s. By the end of the 1960s, even the largest record companies were recording rock artists and/or moving to acquire and distribute companies that did.

The 1970s was the decade when rock music and the recording industry really became big business. Top artists such as The Eagles, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, and Peter Frampton could be counted on to sell more than ten million copies of each release. The more than seventy million "baby boomers" (born between 1946 and 1964) were a massive market, hungry for the musical input of their peers. Mid-decade, two types of music came in from the fringes to reenergize the complacent mainstream: disco and punk. Disco came out of the dance clubs, with fast beats, reintroducing the effect that rock-n-roll originally had of getting young people dancing. Punk took social commentary to a new extreme, criticizing many aspects of modern industrial society, even the companies that brought their sounds to the audience. For a time, both genres sold well and very expensive studios were built, including the first using digital recording technology. The 1980s saw the introduction of the "compact disc" (CD), the first digital playback format for consumers, and vinyl discs were quickly eclipsed at retail.

The massive cash flows generated by record companies in the 1970s made them attractive takeover targets, even with their countercultural cachet. The 1980s saw an accelerating concentration of ownership in the recording industry. By the end of the decade six major corporations, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), Radio Corporation Of America (RCA), Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (WEA), Britain's Electric and Musical Industries Ltd. (EMI), the Music Corporation of America (MCA), and Polygram, dominated the business. For a brief time these companies controlled more than 90 percent of the recorded music business worldwide. That percentage has since declined to somewhere in the mid to upper eighties, but even greater concentration has taken place. CBS was sold to Sony Corporation of Japan, RCA sold its labels to the Bertelsman Company of Germany, WEA became part of Time-Warner, EMI became part of the Thorn-EMI conglomerate, and MCA was sold three times—first to Matsushita of Japan and then to the Seagram Company Ltd. of Canada, which in turn bought out Polygram before being sold to the French environmental services and media giant Vivendi. These companies have tried to maintain their dominance in the marketplace by developing secure standards for the digital distribution of music over the Internet—yet another revolution in the distribution of music.

See also:Music, Popular; Radio Broadcasting;Radio Broadcasting, History of; Radio Broadcasting, Station Programming and; Recording Industry; Recording Industry, Careers in;Recording Industry, Production Process of; Recording Industry, Technology of.


Butterworth, W. E. (1977). Hi-Fi: From Edison's Phonograph to Quad Sound. New York: Four Winds Press.

Marco, Guy, ed. (1993). Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States. New York: Garland.

Read, Oliver, and Welch, Walter. (1959). From Tinfol to Stereo: Evolution of the Phonograph. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Paul D. Fischer