The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Recording Industry

The telegraph was considered a miracle when it was introduced in the 1840s. Not just a scientific breakthrough or a clever invention, but a true act of God. Even its inventor, Samuel Morse, identified it as something “God hath wrought.” The telephone, arriving 40 years later, was also astonishing, but there was less talk then about miracles in 1887. And when Thomas Edison demonstrated his talking machine later the same year, the sense of wonder was giving way to a sense of practicality.

In the century that followed, Americans eagerly embraced the steady stream of new inventions, but rarely were they content to used them as originally intended. The phonograph is a good example.

Like television, the record player was meant for serious business. TV was intended to be an educational tool and the phonograph was invented to take dictation. In fact, it captured the human voice remarkably well. It was far less efficient for capturing music. But it was music the public wanted, not dictation. Entrepreneurs soon set up the first nickelodeons in major cities, where Americans could pay to hear recordings through stethoscope-like headphones. What they listened to most often was not speeches, or vaudeville routines, but music — square dances, hymns, banjo virtuousos, and brass bands.

Suddenly Edison had several competitors who were eager to satisfy America’s musical hunger. They recorded all types of music, and sold it for less than Edison. They even dropped the price of record players into a range that middle-income Americans could afford. Record sales kept climbing until 1921, when they reached an annual total of 100 million records.

Then came radio. To insiders in the recording industry, it looked like certain doom. Record sales were already dropping. Who, they reasoned, would be foolish enough to buy music when he could hear it for free? Yet, the end was not quite nigh. As the Post observed:

By the late 1920’s, when all else flourished, the phonograph industry was given up for dead. Actually, it continued to sell records in the millions, if fewer and fewer machines. The low mark, reached in 1933, was equal to what had seemed a booming business in 1907. [“Comeback,” Jan. 28, 1939]

By 1939, it continued, the record companies were surprisingly spry and cheerful for being dead.

Last year, about 35,000,000 records were sold, equal to 1912, and all makers were far behind their orders. The three best-selling Christmas gifts nationally in December were records, motion-picture cameras and projectors, and electric razors, in that order. The fourth quarter’s business more than doubled the fourth quarter of 1937. The sales curve rose from 1933 through 1938 identically with the rising curve 1907-12.

Part of the reason for the resurgence was the arrival of portable phonographs and combination radio-phonograph. Another reason, though, was the phonograph’s arch enemy.

On the one hand, the radio created a wider appreciation of the best music. On the other, it roused a rebellion with its overlong and blatant commercials.

The Post also observed that Americans had created an additional market within the recording industry.  Even as early as the 1930s, there was a booming business in record collecting. Not content to own a few records, collectors were hunting down and buying up obscure labels and forgotten artists. They were also sampling genres they’d never heard before — particularly classical music.

A primitive recording studio around the turn of the 20th century.
The negative of this very early and unidentified recording scene was found in the Edison laboratories. The long horn piped the sound to a wax-grooving machine on the balcony.

Neither Alexander Graham Bell nor Thomas A. Edison could foresee the fifty different kinds of record collectors who are the most picturesque proof of the way Americans have recently taken to the music that goes round and round on a platter. [“Meet the Platterbug,” May 27, 1939]

Any kind of collector is usually a mystery to the outsider, to whom the accumulation of stamps, ivory elephants, old dental tools or hourglasses necessarily pointless. The possessor of a fine lot of antique dueling pistols, for instance, can only purr over them — firing them off would be too risky. Although usually literate, the august bibliophile seldom reads his folio Shakespeare, and, unless books are to be read, what were they for? But the record collector does make a good deal of sense to the uninitiated because, with a few screwball exceptions, he actually plays as well as loves his crowds. Each playing wears an irreplaceable disk down a little father. But he puts it on the turntable anyway, because it isn’t he record as such that he wants; it’s the music on it.

It is more difficult to understand why record collecting should be largely a man’s activity. Women led in supporting music in America. Yet only three or four women are at all conspicuous in any department of the record mania. Perhaps that is because the collector’s favorite spot for his record racks is in clothes closets—and no woman could bring herself to spoil good closet space for any purpose whatever. In any case, this is undeniably a stag affair. High-hat record shops report that most of their sales are classical and, of classical disks sold, men buy 90 per cent.

From the business point of view, all this is just another symptom of the way records have boomed since the bottom of the depression. A hundred million discs were sold at the glorious high point in 1921, when popular radio was still little more than a gleam in the engineer’s eye. By 1933, after radio had gradually relegated the phonograph to cobweb gathering in the cellar, only 10,000,000 sold — a 90 per cent drop. Record and phonograph makers were bitterly asking themselves why they were staying in business. Now and again the sheriff raised the same question. But then the cure of record sales suddenly jerked skyward, doing 35,000,000 last year, well on the way to 55,000,000 this year. Still groggy with delight, the platter industry is going giddily to town, riding a huge wave of phonograph-consciousness of which collectors are the seething foam on top.

The paradoxical theory that radio produced this unexpected boom is pretty plausible. While smothering the phonograph with fresh, free entertainment, radio was also educating its public into listening to music, classical stuff as well as popular, and liking it more and more. A public that really like something presently begins to want what it wants when it wants it, and there the phonograph has the bulge.

Radio musical fare is necessarily table-d’hote, confining the listener to what program departments see fit to give him. To get his music a la carte, to hear Wagner or Bob Crosby or a ‘mother-o’-mine’ tenor when the mood is on him, the new music fan turned to records. Simultaneously, radio was encouraging him to do so by developing techniques that accomplished great improvements on both disks and phonographs— things like electrical recording and devices for playing records through the sensitive amplifying radio mechanism. Resulting combination radio-phonographs sold more than 200,000 last year at high prices, and those detachable turntables that make a phonograph out of any radio have swept the country.

Others trying to account for the record boom, point to the huge recent increase in nickel-in-the-slot phonographs in taverns and dog wagons, each steadily wearing out disks day and night, with the proprietor making a profit from the nickels and the record companies falling over themselves to supply up-to-the-minute replacements.

Others lay a lot of it to the swing-jitterbug craze… As new and frantic dances replaced the old bored attitude on the dance floor and reintroduced the vibrating chandelier to American life, the phonograph became the same necessity it was back in the days of the toddle and the camel walk. If you wanna cut a rug, you wanna cut a rug, and the radio gives out the appropriate swing only after midnight.

Radio, like the recording industry, has been slated for extinction several times, yet it, too, has missed every appointment. In the 1950s, television was going to kill radio, as well as motion pictures. The VCR, and then the DVD, was going to kill television. And now, the internet has come along, and it’s going to kill radio, television, newspapers, books, conversation, and all social life. It’s also going to finish off the recording industry. Again.

Download this article as a PDF Read “Meet the Platterbug”, originally published May 27, 1939.