It was announced earlier this week that the UK record industry exported nearly £520 million over the last year, second only to the USA in terms of music exports. It’s not altogether a happy story though, despite punching well above its weight as far as the recording industry is concerned, there were no British artists listed in the top 10 exports suggesting that although the technical base is strong, the musicians that feed the industry may be struggling in the UK (perhaps not too surprising after continuing cuts in funding both for musicians and music education).
This announcement happened to coincide with my own thoughts about the record industry. Lounging on a sunny day reading The mirror and the light, the last of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, while listening to some music that Thomas might have heard – John Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea, commissioned by Cromwell’s former master, Cardinal Wolsey, I thought how lucky I was to live in a period when we can hear almost whatever we like, whenever, wherever, and however we like.
It turns out that today, June 18th, is a pretty important date for the recording industry too.
Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877, this was closely followed by Emil Berliner‘s invention of the gramophone, which used, the more familiar to us, flat rather than cylindrical discs. There were some sound recordings prior to Edison’s invention, but these have generally only become playable recently thanks to the advent of new technology. Dating from 1860, you can read and hear more about these on the First Sounds website.
There were many improvements over the years culminating in the arrival of 78s. There were problems though. 78s were generally made of shellac and tended to be quite noisy. Even with improved production materials, there were still issues – recordings were limited in length, with around 15 minutes per side being the longest possible length. Although this caused fewer problems for popular music, as it tended to consist of shorter pieces, it was much more difficult for classical music. In the wider industry things were already sounding better. The advent of talking pictures had led to improvements in recording techniques for movies, and radio stations were also experimenting in finding better ways to present their shows to the public. Using some of these techniques RCA Victor produced a recording of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in 1931. Their vinyl based compound gave a much better sound, while at 15 minutes per side, it was much easier to listen without multiple disc changes. I can’t find a copy of the Stokowski recording, but this made shortly afterwards gives an idea of the quality which is surprisingly good. The New York Times was ecstatic “What we were not prepared for was the quality of reproduction….incomparably fuller.”
Columbia Records were also working hard. The Second World War caused a temporary hiatus in their work, but on June 18th (date sometimes given as June 21st), 1948, Columbia held a press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. They had created the format that would become industry standard for the next 40 years – the LP, the 33 1/3, the long playing record, with 23 glorious minutes (and growing) on each side.
Initially LPs were available in two formats, the one 10 inch format mirroring more closely their forerunners the 78s, and the 12 inch, which would soon become the standard. Despite the possibility of adding more music per side, some of the early LPs continued to be distinctly short, with sound quality being rather more important than quantity.
So, what was on those first LPs that came off the Columbia press?
The very first classical recording (Columbia ML 4001) was Nathan Milstein playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, conducted by Bruno Walter, with the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York, later to be known as the New York Philharmonic. This was actually a re-issue of the 1945 recording for Columbia which had been sold as a 78. You can hear the two versions here.
84 other classical works were also released at the same time, they included George Gershwin’s piano concerto with soloist, Oscar Levant, conducted by Efrem Kurtz with the New York Philharmonic, a selection of famous coloratura arias sung by Lily Pons, The Firebird suite conducted by Stravinsky, and Peter and the Wolf played by the All-American orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, and narrated by Basil Rathbone of Sherlock Holmes fame.
These, like the Milstein, were usually re-issues from earlier in the decade. There were also a couple of sets issued – the very beginning of the boxed set. All the classical works were released on the new 12 inch format, while popular music, some classical music, and music aimed at children – this included a set of nursery songs sung by Gene Kelly – were released in the 10 inch format. You can chart the early history of LPs through Columbia’s catalogue for 1949, which is freely available on the Internet Archive. Look out for press numbers ML 4001-4085 for the early classical LPs.
Fairly swiftly the LP format took off. RCA Victor meanwhile, were working on their own new format, and developed the 45. We tend to think of 45s now as being purely for single songs, but RCA Victor had plans to develop the format to encompass something more than this. At an early stage they were working on box sets to allow more extended works to appear on the new format. They also devised an extended play version which allowed more recording time on each side. However despite Victor’s best efforts, the 45 continued to become ever more important for singles, rapidly overtaking 78s for this use, while the LP started to dominate the market for when larger works needed to be recorded.
The first group of LPs which rolled off the Columbia production line had only included classical music in the, now familiar, 12 inch format. Popular music had appeared on the 10 inch LP format, and these first popular LPs (press numbers CL 6001 onwards) included several Frank Sinatra albums including one of Christmas music, selections of songs with military connections, tango and rhumba anthologies, and music from band leaders Harry James, Gene Krupa, and Eddy Duchin.
Popular music was slower to move to LPs, with single songs selling as 45s rapidly becoming fan favourites. By the early ’50s, 45s accounted for 30% of sales in the United States, with LPs taking just over 17% (though financially they accounted for about the same market size as 45s – i.e. fewer LPs were sold, but they cost more). 78s still took over 50% of the market. By the late ’50s however it was very different, the 45 had swept the single song market, formerly dominated by the 78, aside, and now accounted for nearly 75% of the market, the LP took 25% (though responsible for nearly 60% of dollar sales), while the once much loved 78 was now responsible for only 2% of sales. By 1960 the United States, the UK, and Canada had ceased production of 78s. Vinyl had won.
The increasing growth of music sales through vinyl ushered in the age of the album, as LPs started to gain ground in the popular market, and through the 60’s and 70’s concept albums became increasingly popular. The Beatles’ Rubber soul is often cited as the first concept album. The production of the LP had a strong influence in the history of popular music. It’s hard to see how prog rock especially could have developed without albums and the long play format.
Despite the increasing popularity of cassettes, vinyl remained dominant until the arrival of CDs. Marketed as impossible to damage, and with crystal clear sound, CDs swiftly overtook cassette sales, and then vinyl, with Sony ceasing vinyl production in 1989. Surprisingly though records had no intention of dying, there has been a steady resurgence almost from the date of their death. Many companies (including Sony) are now issuing releases on vinyl again, and in 2016 record sales were officially higher than streaming audio revenue. This may partly be due to problems around revenue for audio streaming which have been notoriously low, and the subject of numerous complaints from the music industry, but it does also indicate that the LP format is incredibly resilient. It will be interesting to see how it has fared over the last 2 years with streaming becoming ever more important. One thing is for sure, the LP has always had a steadfast fan base, and who knows where it may go next.
A very Happy Birthday to the LP.