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History of Record Labels and the Music Industry
by Alex Cosper

Introduction 1900s 1910s 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s

The beginning of the recording industry is often thought of as Thomas Edison's patent on phonograph technology in the late 19th century. While rudimentary sound capturing experiments began in the early 1800s with tuning forks, these soundwaves were unable to be reproduced. The concept of recording advanced with the 1857 patent of the "phonautograph," which was awarded in France to Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, an inventor who was also a typesetter and bookseller.

Scott de Martinville had been inspired by how photographs preserved images, which he believed could be done with sound. But his experiments did not have a good solution yet for playback. In fact, it took many more decades for scientists to figure out how to make those early recordings audible to the human ear. Edison was clearly the first mass marketer of both phonographs and cylinders that stored audio. Although this device did not catch on, it became an early prototype for recording equipment. Clearly, Edison's phonograph three decades later had similar features to the phonautograph. A big difference was that his recordings were made on wax instead of paper.

The next major milestone that opened the door for actual mechanical reproduction of sound was a process called "photoengraving," which was an existing process that another French scientist named Charles Cros applied to sound reproduction. His ideas filled the missing link between recording and playback. This concept was designed to be an improvement of the phonautograph, pressing metal printing plates on metal discs and cylinders. Cros refined the idea later in the year and called it a "paleophone." Unfortunately, he was also a poor poet who did not have the means to invest in building this machine.

Both Scott de Martinville and Cros died before the 1890s, which was really the first decade that recordings became popular with the public. In November 1877, the same year that Cros envisioned and documented his sound reproduction ideas, Edison announced his invention of the phonograph, which was covered in Scientific American and several news publications. As early as May 9 that year the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Edison was experimenting with a "talking machine." Edison was awarded a US patent the following February.

Edison initially wanted to create an answering machine to record calls following the introduction of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Edison called it a "talking machine" while it was officially called the "phonograph." The machine was based on capturing soundwaves through a horn to a diaphragm that vibrated, moving a stylus (needle), which cut grooves into tin foil that rotated on a cylinder. Sound could be reproduced when the cylinder was played back on the same machine. Initially, listeners needed earphones to hear this sound.

Bell's team helped Edison improve the audio quality from cylinders by developing wax-covered cardboard cylinders in 1886. This team also came up with an improved recording stylus that moved vertically while carving grooves into the material, leading to a US patent of the "graphophone," awarded to Chichester Bell (Alexander's cousin) and Charles Sumner Tainter. They held their patents under the name Volta Laboratory Association. Bell and Tainter went on to launch the Volta Graphophone Company in 1886. This company was taken over by Edward Easton a few years later as the name changed to the American Graphophone Company, a subsidiary of the North American Phonograph Company until 1894.

A hybrid of the phonograph and graphophone was patented in 1887 by Emile Berliner, who developed a "disc record gramophone." Based in Washington DC, Berliner was an immigrant from Germany. Even though Edison had tested discs as an alternative to cylinders in his early experiments, he preferred cylinders while Berliner believed in discs and emerged as another one of Edison's first competitors. Edison eventually realized his tin foil cylinders were inferior, so by 1887 he shifted to wax cylinders.

In May 1889 the era of the "phonograph parlor" began in San Francisco. These listening centers created a new industry that allowed people to pay a nickel per selection for listening experiences. Within the next five years phonograph parlors spread across major American cities, ushering in the first era of the recording business. At the same time, most major cities had at least one phonograph company that made recordings.

The 1880s and 1890s were recession eras, so many people could not afford Edison's $150 machine. But in 1894 Columbia introduced a $40 spring-motored machine that started becoming popular in the home market. Soon the sale of recordings began to rival sheet music.

The very first phonograph company had been called the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878. In 1896 Edison changed the name to the National Phonograph Company. By this point Easton's company was called the Columbia Phonograph Company, named after its location in Washington DC. It started in 1888 as a marketer and licensee of Edison phonograps and cylinders. Meanwhile, Berliner established the American Gramophone Company in 1891 and the United States Gramophone Company in 1893. The American Graphophone Company was the first to go international by setting up offices in London and Paris in 1899.

Berliner was the first disc manufacturer to issue 7 inch 78 rpm records, which could hold two minutes of audio. By contrast, Edison's cylinders turned at 120 rpm, causing them to wear out faster. On the other hand, the faster they spun, the louder the sound, which was Edison's focus in the 1890s, as he worked on increasing the speed through the decade.

The battle between Berliner's discs and Edison's cylinders would be settled within the next decade as Berliner emerged the "victor." Coincidentally, after Berliner transferred his patents to associate Eldridge Johnson while maintaining a share of the company, the name was changed to the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901. Although Edison founded the huge conglomerate General Electric in 1892, he would prove to be unsuccessful at marketing music in the next century, as Edison Records collapsed in the Great Depression while Columbia and Victor survived as the biggest record labels.

Billboard Advertising was launched in 1894 as an entertainment trade magazine that reported on news about amusement parks, circuses, vaudeville and music business activity. Although the magazine did report on popular music, it did not develop weekly music charts until the next century. At that time, other trade magazines such as The Phonoscope and The Phonogram published monthly music songs lists, although they were not ranked by a scientific methodology. The book Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954 lists the first number one song in history as the marching band classic "Semper Fidelis" by U.S. Marine Band on August 2, 1890, issued on Columbia.

Introduction 1900s 1910s 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s



Album Network (defunct music trade publication, acquired by Clear Channel)

Radio & Records (defunct radio trade publication, acquired by Billboard)

Associated Press articles

Rolling Stone

Video: The Edison Effect - The Phonograh, A&E Television Networks/History Channel, AAE-40051, 1995

America On Record: A History of Recorded Sound by Andre Millard, Cambridge University Press, 1995

The A-Z Book of Record Labels by Brian Southall, Sanctuary Publishing Ltd, Sanctuary House, London, UK, 2000

Music Man: Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic Records, and the Triumph of Rock'n'roll by Dorothy Jade and Justine Picardie, WW Norton & Co, New York, 1990

Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music by Joel Whitburn, Record Research Inc, Menomonee Falls, WI, 1986.

Columbia Master Book, Volume I by Tim Brooks and Brian Rust, ABC-CLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, CA, 1999. Information found on UC Santa Barbara website ( in the section "DAHR: Discography of American Historical Recordings."

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