Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Recording History: The British Record Industry 1888-1931

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Recording History: The British Record Industry 1888-1931

Article excerpt

Recording History: The British Record Industry 1888-1931. By Peter Martland. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2013. 361pp. Photos. Index. Bibliographical references. ISBN 978-0-8108-8252-2

Peter Martland's doctoral dissertation, A Business History of the Gramophone Co. Ltd., 1897-1918 (Cambridge University, 1992) has long had a place of honor in my library. Although it has never been published commercially it is available as paper copy or microfiche from the Cambridge University Library. Based on original documents in the EMI archives, it is arguably the best academic research on the history of the recording industry and I have frequently used it as a source in my own work. Martland's more popularly-oriented illustrated history of EMI (Since Records Began. EMI. The First 100 Years Amadeus Press, 1997), which follows the development of Gramophone and Columbia up to the end of the 20th century, has also been quite useful.

The present book is in many ways an expansion of Martland's previous work. It covers the history of the British record industry up to 1931, but the main focus is still on the Gramophone Company and Columbia, and the reader gets the impression that the author has not been able to devote as much time and energy to the new areas as his original work, and the further we get from the Gramophone Company, the thinner the coverage becomes. Two tables illustrate the problem. On page 234, we read that British record sales ("UK use") in 1930 were 59,244,000 units. On page 295, we find that in the fiscal year 1930-1931 Columbia's sales were 15,484,000 and Gramophone's 8,189,000 units. The former market leader had now declined to second place. Although the figures do not cover exactly the same time period, they suggest that the total market share of the two companies was then only about 40 per cent (if we take the somewhat higher sales figures for 1929-1930 as a starting point, the share would have been about 50 per cent). Yet the part of the industry which accounted for the other half only gets about twenty pages in the book.

Having said this, I have to add that Recording History is still a very important book. The history of the British branch of Gramophone Company has been thoroughly covered, the part on Columbia is excellent, and the book can also be considered the definitive study of entire British sound recording industry up to 1918, as Martland's original dissertation also surveyed the industry's origins and Gramophone's competitors in great detail. German competition and the planned Gramophone-Lindstrom merger in 1911, which failed to materialize because of the opposition of the Victor Talking Machine Company are also covered in detail. Martland's original starting point was business history, and he gives a good account of the economic development of the industry. In addition to industry-level and company-level figures, there is a lot of unique information on the sales of individual recordings and the earnings of best-selling artists such as Caruso. There is also an important chapter on the "art of record-making" in the acoustic era.

After World War I, new companies entered the market. In addition to Pathe and Edison Bell, Gramophone now had to compete with Crystalate, Vocalion, Brunswick, and a number of smaller players. These companies are briefly discussed, and some data on their finances is presented, but I am sure that a more thorough survey of official sources (patents, trademarks, company registrations, court records), as well the general and trade press, would have yielded much more information. Under the leadership of Louis Sterling, Columbia had become independent of its American parent company and eventually developed into the market leader. German companies also came back, but their threat was largely eliminated when Columbia purchased the Lindstrom concern in 1925. This event, one of the turning points in the history of the industry, only merits one paragraph in the book. …

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