As musicians we have all dreamed of fame and fortune. The ultimate goal was getting signed by a major record label. My dream began when I was ten years old standing in front of the mirror playing air guitar to Kiss and Rush.

As I grew I became more and more fascinated with the music business. In this edition of The History Of Gear we take a look at the ever changing face of the record industry. 

The Dawn Of The Recording Industry

The first recording device was the phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1887. Edison first demonstrated his device by saying, “Mary had a little lamb,” and then playing it back. I think it’s interesting to note that many were quite unsettled by this new technology that could “detach” a voice from its body. Many believed it to be witchcraft, or a satanic manifestation. 

During the 1890s the earliest commercial phonographs were priced well out of the range of the average consumer. Therefore, coin operated phonograph parlors began springing up in most major cities. Interstingly, this is where the “pop” song began. In order to appeal to the masses, early coin operated recordings were basic songs or commedies meant reach a wide audience. This early formula of songs containing a catchy chorus or “hook,” is still an industry standard today. 

The earliest record labels such as Columbia, Victor, and Edison didn’t sign artists to multi-album deals. That would come later. They originally traveled the country recording unknown artists and groups. Many of these artists found some fame as they became popular in the coin op parlors. This is much like the current state of the music industry where an unknown artist can suddenly go viral on YouTube. However, because of poor record keeping, many of the earliest artists never knew how popular their music had become and only recieved the small payment they were given for the initial recording.

Due to the phonograph evolving into the record player and their lowering prices, coin op parlors became a thing of the past. By the 1920s nearly every household owned a record player signifying the first big boom of the record industry. Record sales rose from 4 million per year in 1900, to a staggering 30 million by 1910. 

Record sales continued to rise rise throughout the 1920s reaching an apex of 100 million in 1927. However, as the old saying implies, what goes up must come down. As a result of the stock market crash of 1929, the resulting depression, and the rise in popularity of the radio, record sales plummeted.

The Rise Of The Radio

The radio nearly single handily destroyed the record industry by offering music, comedy, and serial plays for free. The record industry wasn’t even able to sell their wears to radio stations as most featured live performers because the sound quality was far superior to the record players of the time. Not to mention the fact that records of the early days wore out quickly eventually becoming unplayable. Only the very smallest radio stations that couldn‘t afford live musicians and actors were spinning records. 

By the early 1930s, the record industry was nearly extinct. They would eventually find new life with the advent of the Jukebox.

Between 1930 and 1935 sales of the Jukebox rose from 12,000 to a whopping 120,000 units in the U.S. Eventually, there was nary a restaurant or bar that didn’t have one.

The battle between radio and records continued for years. The record industry feared the mighty radios popularity, and the musicians employed by the radio stations feared that records would eventually replace them. 

As it turns out, the performers fears were realized. As the durability and sound quality of records improved, live radio began to die off. 

The record would eventually solve many of the problems that radio stations inherently faced during the live years. Such as the rising cost of hiring live performers. Also, the earliest syndications actually had to pay performers twice in order to broadcast a show that aired in two different time zones, namely the east and west coast. 

Actors and comedians who lost jobs due to radio stations transitioning to records would of course, find their place in the technological marvel, called the television.

So, what of the displaced musicians? Many of them actually continued to be employed by radio stations, as record spinners rather than musicians. This was a fate worse than death for many of them. Especially since they literally only spun records in the early days of the profession. There was very little or no interaction with the listening audience. In fact the job garnered little respect in the early days as they were derogatively referred to as “pancake turners.” These “pancake turners” would eventually gain more respect as their role in the industry grew and they were able to choose the playlists and introduce them to the audience. By 1940 they were colloquially promoted to “record turners,” and by 1941 they we’re finally called, ”Disc Jockeys.”

The record industry faught tooth and nail to find their niche. Surviving the rise of the mighty radio and the Great Depression were amazing victories. However, the best years still layed before them.

The Dawn Of The Golden Age

World War 2 was obviously a tragic time for the many countries involved. However, during such times there is often a tremendous effort made to advance the technology of weapons and systems used during war to gain an advantage over the enemy. 

As a result of these advancements, the years following the war saw technology grow by leaps and bounds. In fact precursors to the MP3, and the music video were both invented at this time. Jukeboxes were connected to phone lines where folks could request songs that were consequently played by a D.J. Also “Soundies,” or video Jukeboxes offered a video recording of the artist or band lip syncing to their music. Both mediums were short lived but have had a lasting effect on the industry as MP3s and music videos are the norm today.

The post war economic boom, and vast improvements to the quality of recordings and records caused sales to skyrocket. As a result, The Golden Age of the record industry was born.

In Closing

The Journey of the record industry is a fascinating tale. In part two we delve deeply into The Golden Age of the record Industry which is wrought with riches, and intrigue. Much about the industries inner workings have always been a mystery to the outsider. Stay tuned for part two as all will be revealed.

As always, thank you so much for your time, and know your gear.

Contributed by: M. Sawyer