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The Story of UK Independent Record Labels
By Alex Ogg
Cherry Red BooksCopyright © 2016 Alex Ogg
All rights reserved.
Edison ... And Light Bulbs
The Early History of Independent Record Labels
Thomas Edison's first recording of the human voice in 1877 is acknowledged to represent the baby steps of the modern music industry. Pioneered at his Menlo Park research facility, it was the inaugural laboratory of its kind geared to harnessing technological advances for industrial exploitation. It serves as an interesting footnote that the innovation, ascribed to him but the result of collaborative endeavour within that company, derived not from a flash of individual inspiration but as a direct result of profit-motivated industrial research. Nevertheless, the foundation of the music industry as we know it owes much to individuals deriving ways in which to make their creations heard. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was among the first to explore the possibilities of marketing his recordings for public consumption, in an effort to avoid indenture to the aristocracy and church. Though Mozart was always in receipt of a steady income through such patronage, his propensity for living beyond his means contributed to the series of 'begging letters' that survive him. Poverty has, seemingly, long held the hand of genius in the story of 'independent music'.
By 1894 Emile Berliner's US Gramophone Company were shipping dedicated musical units, which played a media of hard rubber records, while two years later Frank Seaman created the National Gramophone Company. By the last decade of the 19 century gramophone sales were rising, with the popularity of 'lateral discs' ultimately leading to Edison abandoning his cylinder disc technology in 1913 – the first of the music industry's 'format wars'.
Odeon Records was inaugurated in 1904 in Germany to sell double-sided discs that Zonophone had first produced in South America two years previously. It would later face an ignoble demise when entered into forced administration by the National Socialist Party (its factory was destroyed by the Red Army in Berlin in 1944, though it would survive to release the first Beatles singles in Germany). While HMV put an entire opera over 40 single discs in 1903, it was Odeon who released the first 'album', Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, on four double-sided discs in 1909. Meanwhile Columbia had introduced the more enduring 'Velvet-Tone' shellac disc to reduce surface noise. The first phonograph device to achieve mass popularity came from Victory. Their Victrola upright cabinet design was the subject of mass advertising and rapidly became the first desirable, and commonplace, amplification unit of its type.
As is readily apparent, the initial innovations of the 'inventor', the creative originator, gave way quickly to companies and institutions with the wherewithal to harness these advances. But the pioneers remained. Not least John Lomax, who in 1908 recorded a black saloon keeper singing 'Home On The Range' in San Antonio, thus providing the inspiration for the Library Of Congress Archive Of The American Folk Song, which would eventually catalogue 10,000 similar 'field' recordings. Irish tenor John McCormack, meanwhile, became the recipient of the first recording contract proper, with Victor Company. In recognition of these developments, ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) was founded to enforce America's 1909 Copyright Act.
The Original Dixieland Jass Band from New Orleans' 'Livery Stable Blues' (1917) is widely regarded as the first de facto jazz record. It also heralded the jazz and blues boom, spearheaded by performers such as Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith. The latter's 'Crazy Blues', from 1920, released on the Okeh imprint, is recognised as the first vocal blues recording. Okeh was founded by Otto K E Heinemann in 1916 after he purchased a recording studio and pressing plant in New York. After gravitating to the new lateral-cut phonograph discs, the company pressed in 10-inch and 12-inch denominations, retailing at between 75 cents and $1.25, Okeh enjoyed success with styles including vaudeville skits and popular dance songs, while also servicing Yiddish, Czech and German recordings to America's immigrant communities. But with the success of 'Crazy Blues', the company hired Clarence Williams as director of 'Race' recordings at its New York studios, and also purchased a studio facility in Chicago in order to document the city's vibrant jazz scene, including recordings by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. In October 1926 Columbia acquired Okeh, one of the first acquisitions of an independent, though it continued to release records using its own marque until 1935. It has been revived periodically ever since, and is currently in the ownership of Sony.
Prior to this, Okeh, alongside other small imprints including Aeolian-Vocalian and Canada's Compo, joined the Gennett Record Company of Indiana in defending a case brought by Victor. Gennett, which has strong claims to be the world's first independent label, was the cradle of much of the jazz boom of the 20s. It was the first clash between the independents and a 'major' label. At this juncture, we can imbue in an industrial heavyweight such as Victor many of the qualities we would later ascribe to a major label, and it was around this time that the term became common currency. Victor, alongside Columbia and Edison, consequently came to be considered the 'three majors' of their day.
Victor and Columbia had come to an agreement regarding the 'lateral' recording disc, whereby they could extract licence fees from others seeking to replicate the technology. Starr, Gennett's original holding company, were keen to produce lateral discs and were not minded to pay for the privilege. As jazz historian Duncan Shiedt wrote in 2001, "They were unwilling to go along with the licensing fees demanded by Victor, backed up by their supposed patent and powerful legal threats that had dissuaded previous attempts to avoid payments of fees by other small producers." But the quick settlement that Victor anticipated, after two previous court victories, was not forthcoming. The case fell apart largely due to complications over the validity of various copyrights, including the discovery of an earlier British patent. Starr, an established piano vendor with sound financial resources, had the muscle to withstand a protracted legal dispute. After months in court, it carried the day. In October 1922 the US Supreme Court found in favour of Gennett, holding that Eldridge Johnson's 1897 patent had no application, in the process putting the 'lateral cut recording technology' into the public domain. Victor appealed the decision but failed to have it reversed.
The significance of this is worth digesting. Had Victor won the case, the monopoly on distribution of recorded music – now overwhelmingly undertaken via lateral discs – would have been confirmed and the dominion of the 'major' labels over the next few years would have been absolute. Licence fees backed by a watchful legal team would have ensured that new entrants to the music business would have faced insurmountable hurdles. It would also have narrowed opportunities for dozens of artists, especially in niche markets, where the independents operated most effectively and where there was little or no interest from the majors.
It may have been a highly technical and complex case, but its repercussions were enormous. Shiedt: "[the decision] would not materially affect the well-being of Victor and its ally, Columbia, who were enjoying unparalleled success in an industry not yet threatened by the advent of radio. What it would do was to open up opportunities for a myriad of small companies to enter the recording field, bringing to market new types of product to new audiences. In the process prices were reduced in many different outlets, such as mail order, department stores, and the popular five-and-dime chains. Starr, and its Gennett family of labels, would naturally share in this all-too-brief boom in phonograph record sales ..." From a reported 14 record labels extant at the time of the ruling, soon there were hundreds. From 1920 onwards, Gennett had established its pressing plant to manufacture its own wares and those of other independents, with millions of records released each year covering a diverse array of compositions from symphonies to vaudeville, but also comedy, exercise records and sermons. Among the mainstays of the era were Gennett's King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke. Gennett would also specialise in hillbilly artists including Gene Autry.
Gennett was establishing a template for independent labels that sign-posted later developments in the industry. Records were tailored for a youth market, often allowing expression to acts who had been passed over by the majors. Its business operated on much tighter margins with limited promotional budgets. Significantly, artists were encouraged to record their own material rather than mimic versions of established hits, and the product line was responsive to regional developments and trends. The key men at the majors included Fred Gaisberg at Victor, and, later, John Hammond at Columbia. Gaisberg encouraged composers and opera stars such as Enrico Caruso and Elgar to make their first recordings. Hammond, one of the most influential men in American music, was a Yale dropout who nurtured the careers of artists from Count Basie to Bob Dylan. These were 'music men' in the classic sense, mavens in their fields with longstanding pedigrees. The staff at Gennett, conversely, would have to halt recording sessions when trains passed, and would record any artist – regardless of race – they felt would provide them with a hit. Elizabeth Surles is project co-ordinator of the Starr-Gennett Foundation. "I believe that Ruby Greenberg, aka Carl Fenton, served as the musical director in Gennett's New York studio at the end of the 1920s. I suspect that the company found talent in several ways: staff at Starr Piano showrooms recommending certain musicians to the recording division, company executives making requests for certain performers and/or styles, musicians requesting recording gigs, and recommendations of other musicians by musicians who recorded for the company. Based on the account provided in an oral history interview the Foundation conducted with a fiddle player who recorded for [subsidiary label] Champion in 1934, the band played an audition before being granted a recording session."
By the mid-20s, Gennett was pressing upwards of three million records annually. Yet the depression hit them hard, and in 1932 it was forced to close its doors (alongside others such as Grey Gull and Emerson) as Victor and Columbia both moved into recording hillbilly and 'race' music, previously Gennett's preserve, and radio's popularity took off. Times were sufficiently hard that even RCA Victor considered closing its record arm while a number of independents merged with the American Record Corporation, which subsequently acquired Brunswick and later Columbia. The first phase of independent record production ended with Gennett's demise.
In the UK the first independent record label of note was not only divorced from the commercial instincts of its early American counterparts, it was diametrically opposed to the tenets of capitalism full stop. Topic Records began life as an outgrowth of The Workers' Music Association, founded in 1936. Around 1939-40 the WMA established a recorded music wing, inaugurated with the Unity Theatre's Paddy Ryan (an alias adopted by the artist for professional reasons since he was a doctor) and his 'The Man Who Put The Water In The Workers' Beer'. It was to run parallel with its Keynote Series booklets such as Background of the Blues and The Singing Englishman – an Introduction to Folksong.
Only after World War II was Topic cut free from the WMA to lead a life as an independent entity. Ewan MacColl, Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger were prominent early artists, as was Michael Redgrave from the Unity Theatre (his daughter Vanessa later became a Topic recording artist). The catalogue was avowedly political with sundry versions of 'The Internationale', as well as Russian, Irish and English revolutionary material, songs of internationalism and solidarity. Some were perennials such as 'The Peatbog Soldiers'. Others were definitively of their time, such as 'The Soviet Airman's Song' and the Central Song and Music Ensemble of Hungary's Ironworkers' Union (gasp for breath) 'Song of the Tractor Drivers of Deszk'. It would later release work by Woody Guthrie. Topic continues today, as the oldest independent label still extant, with a roster of artists including Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, June Tabor and others. BBC radio stalwart John Peel purchased his first Topic release in 1955 and continued to support the label until his death. His protégé, Andy Kershaw, cites it as "the most important record label in Britain". Trevor Midgley, aka recording artist Beau of Peel's Dandelion Records, attests to the label's influence on the DJ. "The first time I went to his mews place just off the Marylebone Road – this would be some time in early '69 – I was nosing along his massive record racks and noticed the number of Topic releases. The reason they jumped out at me was because I was also into Topic (though not as heavily as John!). If I remember rightly, he had a McPeake Family album that was also in my collection and The Art Of William Kimber, the great Oxfordshire Morris concertina-man." Midgley doesn't believe Topic directly influenced Dandelion, "but I don't have to look too hard to see parallels between Folkways and Elektra in the States, and Topic and Dandelion in the UK. I think these are comparisons John could live with."
As Midgley intimates, in many ways an American counterpart to Topic, albeit with a less defined political agenda, Folkways was founded in New York by Moses 'Moe' Asch and Marian Distler in 1948, a successor to the Asch and Asch-Stinson labels. It too remains active today, under the revised appellation Smithsonian Folkways, which gives notice of its historical import to American song development. Folkways' founding principle was to document the entire strata of sound in all incarnations, ranging across ethnic and traditional music to the contemporary, as well as spoken history. It pioneered the concept of world music, as well as left field folk institutions Seeger, Guthrie and Leadbelly. The Smithsonian Institution Center's acquisition of the more than 2,000 recordings made at Asch's behest was completed on the understanding that it would keep all the releases in print for posterity, a commitment it honours to this day.
As demonstrated by the Starr-Gennett case, competition between major labels and smaller entities was a phenomenon that predated the arrival of rock 'n' roll. With the post-war introduction of the long-playing record in 1947, the 'war of the speeds' broke out between Columbia and RCA Victor, with Capitol the first of the majors to support releases in all three formats (78rpm, 45rpm, 33 1/3rpm). A pattern emerged in the business climate of the late 40s and early 50s in which large, monopolistic conglomerates sought to establish and further their dominion by putting the squeeze on smaller counterparts. With the exceptions noted above, the 30s and 40s had been dominated by Decca, RCA-Victor and Columbia. To those three could now be added the growing power of Capital (founded in 1942), Mercury and MGM (both 1946).
But the arrival of rhythm and blues brought with it a clutch of smaller, more responsive labels. They were quick to spot trends and fleet of foot – and sometimes unperturbed by conventional business wisdom – in satisfying demand. In the 30s Beacon, Keynote and Exclusive were founded. The latter, formed by black brothers Otis and Leon Rene in New Orleans, served as a means of distributing songs they had written, before they subsequently founded Class Records. Joe Davis's Beacon had a roster of influential early artists including Savannah Churchill and Una Mae Carlisle. But the real explosion took place from the early 40s onwards. The most notable of these were Herman Lubinsky's Savoy (1942), Ike and Bess Berman's Apollo (1943), Al Green's National (1944) and Ed and Leo Mesner's Aladdin (1945). They were followed in the immediate post-war period by Chess, King, Imperial, Dot, Vee-Jay, Specialty, Excello, Meteor, Red Robin and Sun Records. This growth market coincided with mass migration from southern states to the industrial bastions of the mid west and north east, and a flush of optimism following the end of war among a suddenly reinvigorated civilian nation, awash with demobbed youth. The new independents focused on grass roots forms such as the blues and hillbilly, as the melding of these musical forms began to assemble themselves as the foundation for the coming rock 'n' roll boom. Many of those involved, notably Lubinsky, were equally legendary for their failure to pay a dime in royalties to their artists.
Excerpted from Independence Days by Alex Ogg. Copyright © 2016 Alex Ogg. Excerpted by permission of Cherry Red Books.
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Table of Contents
List of Interviewees and Correspondents,
Edison ... And Light Bulbs,
The Early History of Independent Record Labels,
Chiswick and Ace Records,
So It Goes,
How About Me And You?,
Small Wonder, New Hormones, Step Forward and a Cast of Thousands,
Music Is A Better Noise,
Rough Trade Records,
Echoes In A Shallow Bay,
Beggars Banquet and 4AD Records,
Behind The Wheel,
Mute Records, Industrial, and the New Electronica,
The Graveyard & The Ballroom,
Rabid, Factory & Zoo,
The Sound Of Young Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales,
Fast, Postcard, Good Vibrations and Z Block,
Cherry Red Records,
Do They Owe Us A Living?,
Crass, Southern, The Anarcho Punk Labels and Punk in the 80s,
Get Rid Of These Things,
The Cartel, its labels, and the building of an independent infrastructure,
For How Much Longer?,
They Also Served,
Where Do We Go From Here?,
About The Author,