WHAT PRICE RECORDS?
THE U.S. RECORD INDUSTRY AND THE RETAIL PRICE OF POPULAR RECORDS, 1925-50
by Steven Lasker
This study began as a survey of the price points of major label popular records during the second quarter of the 20th Century, but when it became clear that the marketing strategies could not be fully appreciated without a basic understanding of what companies controlled which labels and when, some background about the companies and labels involved was added and the chronologically-organized survey which follows grew from there into a semblance of a narrative. (Caveat: The succession of corporate entities which controlled Columbia between 1925 and July 1934 aren’t delineated here. For information on this topic the reader is advised to consult the standard reference works.)
In 1925, Vocalion became the first budget label produced by a major American record company in this golden era of recorded sound. The Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company had purchased Vocalion from the Aeolian Company per an agreement dated November 29, 1924. A Vocalion popular record was then priced at 75 cents per 10-inch disc, as were popular records on Victor, Brunswick, Columbia and OKeh. (Some 10-inch classical and specialty records were priced higher as were 12-inch discs.) Variety (December 10, 1924, page 38) noted: "It is not Brunswick’s idea to discontinue the Vocalion label completely, for the present at least. The Brunswick recording staff will continue marketing the Aeolian-Vocalion brand of record under their supervision, although in time, it is understood, the label will be totally eliminated." By the end of 1924, Vocalion’s New York recording activity had been consolidated with Brunswick’s at 799 Seventh Avenue, where Brunswick had since the spring of 1924 kept two recording rooms.
Variety (March 11, 1925, page 44) reported that Brunswick’s management had on consideration decided to retain the Vocalion label after all:
"The Vocalion red record, since being taken over by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. has been selling rather well. According to Vocalion dealers, the record is well liked, and indications are that the label will be retained so as to be distinct from the Brunswick. The outlook at first was that the Vocalion title would be eliminated or merged into the Brunswick.
"Recordings on both brands are being kept distinct and apart. Although the same technical laboratory staff is supervising the recordings for both, different bands or vocalists ‘can’ the same selection for each label.
"Another exceptionally decent thing, and so acknowledged by the recording artists, is that Brunswick if it does use the same ‘master’ for both brands, will pay the recording artists the full amount for each, albeit the services are performed only once."
On April 7, 1925, Brunswick made its first "light-ray electrical" recordings in a brand new recording "Room #3." The last acoustical Brunswick master recorded outside Los Angeles was waxed on May 19, 1925 (Brunswick/Vocalion continued to record acoustical masters in Los Angeles until May 1927). While Brunswick’s recordings were electric from the spring of 1925, Vocalion’s were kept acoustic until the following autumn, but the price was reduced.
Vocalion’s price reduction became effective May 25, 1925. According to The Phonograph & Talking Machine Weekly (May 27, 1925, page 1):
"At the headquarters of the Vocalion record division of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. in New York on Monday, General Sales Manager Edward R. Strauss announced a revision in the list price of all former 75-cent [Vocalion] Red Records to fifty cents, effective as of that day. [...] Vocalion records formerly listing at $1.00 and $2.00 are now priced at 75 cents.")
Years ago, I encountered a Vocalion 78 from 1925 which bore the price "50 cents (55 cents west of the Rockies)" printed on its label.
Variety (June 17, 1925, page 40) reported that Vocalion’s "50-cent price does not prohibit a good recording. It’s only a question of using less shellac and making the other ingredients less lasting. Where the Victor, Brunswick et al. pride themselves on lasting qualities of their records, much of this is really extraneous because no popular song is played after a month or two, which is the reason why the pop priced disks are popular. When they start wearing is just about the time they are ready for discard because of their antiquity."
Note that Harmony, introduced in 1925 as the acoustically-recorded subsidiary label of Columbia, was budget-priced at 50 cents (55 cents west of the Rockies) in direct competition to Vocalion. According to Variety (September 9, 1925, page 37):
"The Harmony, the Columbia Phonograph Company’s new 50-cent disk, makes its appearance on the market Sept. 15. It will not compete or conflict with Columbia’s 75-cent brand, being merely a by-product similar to the Vocalion and its relation to the Brunswick.
"Nor will the same recording orchestras on the higher priced record be employed for the Harmony unless under a nom-de-disk to preserve the identities of the artists for the Columbia label exclusively.
"The Columbia will have the advantage of catering to a popular-priced public which seems to be a vast marketing source, and get to them through the already organized outlets handling Columbia’s other product."
Harmony was surprisingly well-received. Variety (October 7, 1925, page 47) reported:
Old Fashioned Disk Out-Sells Modern
"The popularity of the new Columbia Phonograph Company’s product, the Harmony disk retailing at 50 cents as against the regular 75-cent Columbia record, raises the question as to the merits of the old-fashioned horn recording as against the new electrical process.
"The Harmony is ‘canned’ in the old style; the Columbia electrically. That the Harmony is outselling the same numbers done on the higher priced record is explained chiefly not so much through the difference in price but that the horn process permits for a punchy rhythmic version while the electrical process is better musically but lacking something the old style system still retains. (EDITOR’s note: One reason for the continued popularity of Harmony Records is that vast numbers of record buyers did not own electrical phonographs for quite some time, rendering the improved sound pointless.)
"Columbia dealers in the south have requested the Columbia not to put any price on the Harmony disks as they can get 75 cents for them retail because of their popularity and preference to the original brand."
Harmony’s releases stayed entirely acoustic until mid-1928; the final acoustical recording for Harmony was waxed by the Golden Gate Orchestra on May 23, 1930. (The label was suspended in 1932.)
The first electrical Vocalion master was cut on October 22, 1925. The last acoustical Vocalion master recorded outside Los Angeles was waxed the following day.
According to The Phonograph & Talking Machine Weekly (November 4, 1925, page 1), "The list price of Vocalion records, made by the Brunswick company, will be increased to seventy-five cents, effective November 15."
Thus, from November 15, 1925, most 10-inch Brunswick and Vocalion records were priced at 75 cents each. (Some 10-inch Brunswick classical records were priced higher.)
The Columbia Phonograph Corporation purchased the General Phonograph Corporation and its OKeh and Odeon labels effective November 1, 1926.
Eldridge R. Johnson, the founder of the Victor Talking Machine Co., sold a controlling interest in the company to a group of New York bankers, Seligman & Speyer, on December 7, 1926. According to The Phonograph & Talking Machine Weekly (December 29, 1926, page 12), the total consideration was $40,0000,000. When Victor later merged with RCA—the transaction was approved by the board of directors of both companies on January 4, 1929—The Phonograph & Talking Machine Weekly (January 9, 1929, page 1) calculated the value of the Victor Talking Machine Co. in excess of $160,000,000.
On April 9, 1930, the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company sold its Brunswick and Vocalion trademarks, patents, master recordings, inventory of unsold records, recording studio leases, radio/phonograph manufacturing plants and record pressing plants to Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., which named its new division the "Brunswick Radio Corporation." The price was $10,000,000.
According to ‘Hollywood Be Thy Name, The Warner Brothers Story’ (by Cass Warner Sperling and Cork Millner with Jack Warner Jr., Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA, 1994, page 147), Warner Bros. Pictures "bought the radio, record and phonograph divisions of Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company for the company’s patents, its record factory, and its stillborn 16mm home talkie projector. In particular, Harry wanted the company for its record presses needed to make Vitaphone discs. Harry had the presses, giant affairs weighing tons each, moved across the country to the Sunset studio.
[...] "The record presses were soon scrapped when sound-on-film became the favored sound projection method. Harry later said, ‘When I make a mistake, I make big ones!’
"Although Harry lost $8 million on the Brunswick deal, it didn’t slow him down."
Melotone, a subsidiary label of the Brunswick Radio Corporation, was introduced late in 1930. Variety (December 17, 1930, page 57) reported: "Chicago, Dec. 16. Brunswick is the first of the big-three disc companies to go into the market shortly with a double-faced disc to sell at 25 cents. Plate is called the Melotone. First list includes 17 discs, all popular hit tunes and all by name bands. Policy of Melotone will be the biggest song, to be delivered as cheaply as possible. No literature or advertising campaigns; cheap nut, quantity is the goal."
Victor’s first budget label was Timely Tunes. Brian Rust (Storyville 16; also "The American Record Label Book") reports the label lasted 41 issues released between April 6, 1931 and July 1, 1931 at a price of 35 cents each.
1931proved calamitous for the record industry. Warners wanted to withdraw from the record business, but economic conditions had deteriorated to the point where no buyer would offer anything close to the $10,000,000 they’d paid for Brunswick just the year before. Unwilling to take a huge loss, Warners opted to punt so to speak: On December 3, 1931, an agreement was entered into whereby the record company’s artist contracts and staff employment contracts were transferred, and the Brunswick, Vocalion and Melotone trademarks and catalog of master recordings were loaned, to the "Brunswick Record Corporation," a newly-formed holding company controlled by the American Record Corporation (ARC).
ARC had been formed in July 1929 by the merger of the Regal Record Company (owned by the Crystalate Gramophone Record Mfg. Co., Ltd., London), the Cameo Record Corporation and a pressing plant in Pennsylvania, the Scranton Button Company. By December 1931, many of ARC’s labels had been discontinued—among them Cameo, Lincoln, Variety, Domino and Path`E9—but seven were still active, all budget-priced at or near 25 cents per disc: Banner, Conqueror, Jewel, Oriole, Perfect, Regal and Romeo. Brunswick would become ARC’s premium label.
While Warners was to be paid a fee on sales of records pressed from Brunswick, Vocalion and Melotone masters recorded prior to December 3, 1931 (the date of the agreement), ARC was permitted to release its own master recordings on the Brunswick, Vocalion and Melotone labels free of charge from Warners. (Editor’s note: Not surprisingly, ARC ruthlessly pruned the pre-1931 catalog and transferred virtually every title that remained remotely popular on to the budget labels). The agreement effectively fixed the minimum retail price of a 10-inch Brunswick record at 75 cents, but allowed ARC free rein to set prices for Vocalion and Melotone. (The price of Melotone nonetheless stayed at 25 cents until the label’s April 1938 demise.) In the event that fewer than 250,000 Brunswick records were pressed and sold in the U.S. and Canada during any one-year period, the agreement provided that control of the trademarks and catalog of Brunswick, Vocalion and Melotone masters recorded through December 2, 1931 would revert back to Warners.
A gem of misinformation: The date of this transition, December 3, 1931, has erroneously been shown as November 17, 1931 in some recent publications (e.g., Allan Sutton’s "American Record Labels and Companies," page 32; also VJM #134, page 13). Having personally examined a true copy of the December 3, 1931 agreement, I can authoritatively state that December 3, 1931 is the actual date of the transition. How the November 17 date gained any currency in this context has me completely stumped.
RCA Victor introduced three budget-priced subsidiary labels in 1932 and 1933, Electradisk, Sunrise and Bluebird. Of these, only Bluebird caught on. The first 10-inch Bluebird "B" series discs appeared in the spring of 1933 at a price at 35 cents each or three for a dollar.
Editor’s Note: On December 5, 1933 an event occurred that would have a profound effect on all aspects of the record industry—particularly the race and country catalogs. The 21st Amendment to the U.S Constitution was ratified, repealing Prohibition. Within weeks speakeasies turned into taverns, and more taverns opened in the abandoned shops that lined every US city. The chief form of entertainment in these establishments was the Jukebox.
My father, who was a jukebox distributor in Philadelphia noted that the 35-cent Vocalions were jobbed to jukebox operators for 19 cents each. The popularity of the jukebox also prompted a new record venture, Decca, that competed aggressively against Vocalion – going as low as 10 cents (Bluebirds jobbed at 25 cents) during periodic price wars, he said. Vocalion responded by pressing records on very porous shellac which caused them to wear much more quickly.
"If a record was really popular, it’d wear out in two-three days and we’d have to keep replacing it—the bastards.!" He recalled Blind Boy Fuller’s Rattlesnakin’ Daddy that went through dozens of copies in some bars before its popularity waned. Another he remembered was Andy Kirk’s Until the Real Thing Comes Along, though Decca’s tended to last a bit longer, he told me.
Vocalion, a 75-cent label between November 15, 1925 and at least December 3, 1931- text in the agreement of that date establishes that Vocalion records were then priced at 75 cents each - was reduced in price to 35 cents each, or three for a dollar, by March 1934 (these prices being listed in Vocalion’s March 1934 supplement, the only one I’ve seen from the period 1932-34; grateful thanks to Seth Winner of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive at Lincoln Center who located and sent me a photocopy of their rare original). Vocalion’s price stayed at 35 cents for the remainder of the decade.
OKeh was reduced in price from 75 to 35 cents each, or three for a dollar, in March 1934. According to an ad on the cover of that month’s Radio and Electrical Appliance Journal (and courtesy of John Newton): "The entire OKeh catalog with its thousands and thousands of records is thrown open to the public at this new price. There are records by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Casa Loma Orchestra, and many others of that calibre. There are a number of different foreign language records. There are complete Race and Hill Billy Catalogs—all for 35c. This is the most sensational announcement that the record business has ever known."
Brunswick, Columbia and Victor continued as 75-cent labels.
Herbert J. Yates was, in an oblique way, largely responsible for the creation of American Decca. Yates was the head of Consolidated Film Industries, a film processing lab which had acquired a substantial interest in ARC circa October 1930. When in 1934 Yates promised Edward R. Lewis, the head of Decca Records Ltd. of London since its 1929 founding, that ARC and Decca could jointly buy the financially distressed Columbia Phonograph Company, Lewis crossed the Atlantic to ink the deal. (The deal was for American Columbia, which marketed Columbia in the U.S., its territories and Canada; a separate company, E.M.I., controlled Columbia everywhere else and was not part of the sale.) On his arrival in New York in July 1934, Lewis was shocked to learn that Yates had reneged on his promise. While he’d been at sea, ARC had bought Columbia for a price reported at $75,500, a pittance considering that the sale included the catalogs of two active labels, American Columbia and OKeh, plus a number of discontinued ones including Harmony, Diva, Velvetone, Clarion, American Odeon and American Parlophone, also the company’s trademark rights, patents and a non-union pressing plant at Bridgeport, Connecticut that was especially attractive to the union-loathing Yates. Decca had been left out of the deal, but Lewis soon found a way to even the score with Yates and ARC.
Because Decca Records Ltd. of London also managed British Brunswick under authority of Warner Bros. Pictures, Lewis was acquainted with Jack Kapp, Milton Rackmil and E.F. Stevens, three of U.S. Brunswick’s top managers, as well as Hermann Starr of Warners. Negotiations soon began with the goal of starting a U.S. Decca label in competition to ARC and its labels. Showing great prescience, Kapp had placed an escape clause in the contracts of many of Brunswick’s recording artists whereby the contracts could be ended if he ever left the company. Thus, when Kapp quit Brunswick for Decca Records Inc., as the new company was called, he was able to bring with him some of Brunswick’s best-selling artists, including Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo, the Mills Brothers and the Casa Loma Orchestra.
While the key founders of Decca Records Inc. are generally cited as Lewis, Kapp, Rackmil and Stevens, the contributions of Warner Bros. Pictures were no less essential. As Lewis later recalled in his autobiography ("No C.I.C.," Universal Royalties Ltd., London, 1956, page 55): "Negotiations took place with Hermann Starr, head of the Brunswick Radio Corporation, Warner’s subsidiary and now in charge of their extensive music publishing interests. Within a few days we had entered into an agreement under which the plant and recording equipment were purchased, and leases were entered into for both the factory and the offices at 619 West 54th Street and the offices and recording studios at 799 Seventh Avenue. The consideration for the purchase was 5,000 out of 25,000 Common Shares of $1 each in the new company to be formed as Decca Records Inc., and $60,000 in a series of promissory notes. The plant at that time would not have fetched more than $20,000 or so in a sale, yet for our purposes it had a special value in that it made it possible for the business to start operations immediately; indeed without this factory plant and office space and equipment it is doubtful whether the company could have been started at all." Hermann Starr became a founding member of the board of directors of Decca Records Inc.
Recording activity for Decca Records Inc. commenced in August 1934. The first blue-label American Decca records were released the following month priced at 35 cents for a 10-inch disc or 55 cents for a 12-inch one. ARC aggressively counter-marketed by reissuing on its budget labels a number of masters that Crosby, Lombardo and the Mills Brothers had recorded for Brunswick in 1932-34. (It’s conceivable that Warners and Yates had a falling out that spilled over to Hollywood: In late 1935, Consolidated Film Industries foreclosed on four small motion picture studios—Liberty, Mascot, Mayfair and Monogram—whose assets were combined to create a new studio, Republic Pictures, in competition to Warner Bros. Pictures, Yates’ former client and sponsor.)
In December 1938, ARC was purchased by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) for a reported $750,000. Orchestra World (January 1939, page 3) noted: "CBS is principally interested in getting a home field for its concert artists. It does not plan to drop the dance labels, but possibly will concentrate on the Vocalion (35-cent) disc and may drop the Brunswick (75-cent) label. Actually, CBS was mainly interested in securing the Columbia label, and will develop that label in future. [...] Columbia has had its eyes on the American Record Corp. for quite some time. Negotiations have been going on, have been dropped, then continued again. A few months ago the deal was considered cold because of the necessity to deal with individual companies that composed the parent company. These matters have been ironed out—and CBS, once owned by the record company, now is the sole owner of the waxing plant."
The American Record Corporation was renamed the Columbia Recording Corporation (CRC) on May 19, 1939. On September 8, 1939, the CRC introduced its 50-cent red-label Columbia pop record and quickly shifted the most popular and prestigious Brunswick artists to the new label. The 75-cent Brunswick label was gradually phased out over the seven months that followed, the final issue under Columbia’s aegis being Brunswick 8520, released in April 1940. As sales of Brunswick records declined and it became evident that the minimum sales threshold required to retain the Brunswick, Vocalion and Melotone trademarks would go unmet, Columbia was obliged to discontinue Vocalion. The final Vocalion issued under Columbia’s aegis, number 5621, was released July 5, 1940. It was priced at 35 cents, as was the next record in the series, OKeh 05622. This marked a revival for OKeh, which had been discontinued early in 1935 in favor of Vocalion.
RCA Victor, in its September 1940 catalog supplement, announced a reduction in the price of its 10-inch black label pop records from 75 cents to 50 cents each, and of its 12-inch black label pop records from one dollar to 75 cents each. (The price of Red Seal records were also reduced, to 75 cents for 10-inch discs and one dollar for 12-inch ones.)
When a January 1941 audit found that not more than 150,000 Brunswick records had sold during the period from December 1, 1939 through December 31, 1940, control of the loaned trademarks and catalog of master recordings made prior to December 3, 1931 reverted back to Warner Bros. Pictures which on May 2, 1941 sold the properties to Decca Records Inc. for $350,000. Some years ago, the late Milt Gabler, who was hired by Decca in December 1941, told me that Jack Kapp wanted the old Brunswick catalog because he anticipated the AFofM record ban that finally came on August 1, 1942 and calculated that having a stockpile of classic recordings to reissue from, as did Columbia and RCA Victor, would strengthen Decca’s ability to weather the strike. Decca revived Brunswick in the spring of 1943 at the premium price of 75 cents per 10-inch disc.
Also in 1943, Warner Bros. Pictures sold its stake in Decca. Edward R. Lewis ("No C.I.C.," page 55) wrote: "It is interesting to note that those 5,000 shares, together with the notes, the outstanding balance of which amounting in 1937 to $37,500, being then converted into shares, were sold in 1943, together with further shares allotted in lieu of dividend, for around $1,850,000. Hermann Starr certainly did a fine deal for Warners." (Warners would return to the record business in 1958.)
A note of explanation: The reader will find that the balance of this survey is less detailed than what has come before. While I’ve done a fair amount of research on the history of the record industry in the years 1923-43, I’m not as familiar with the post-war years but between catalogs, reference works and Richard Spottswood’s capacious memory was able to locate enough data to draw the broad outlines that follow.
Decca changed the prices of its 10-inch pop records in an almost stealthy manner during the course of the 1940s, perhaps to circumvent price ceilings instituted in 1942 and enforced by the Federal Office and Price Administration (O.P.A.). Between 1941 and 1944, Decca’s main 35-cent blue-label pop series (which had begun in 1934 with number 100) was gradually phased out (the last number being 4455) in favor of two other series at higher price points. The 50-cent red (and later black) label Decca 18000 Repertoire" (later called "Specialty") series had been introduced about October 1939, but was used almost exclusively for album sets until about September 1941 when pop singles began appearing in the series with increasing frequency. The series lasted into 1946 and number 18923. The 75-cent red (and later black) label 23000 "personality series" began in the spring of 1936. Decca vastly increased its output of 23000 series issues beginning in November 1943. The 23000 series was Decca’s main pop series from 1946. (Decca’s catalogs from the late 1940s show prices for album sets, but not for singles. Decca’s 1954 catalog prices most 10-inch 78s and 7-inch 45s at 85 cents each; some specialty series were higher.)
RCA Victor’s 1943 catalog shows Victor singles at 50 cents each, Bluebirds at 35 cents each. RCA Victor’s 1948 catalog (which lists releases through September 1947) omits prices.
Columbia catalogs for the years 1944, 1945, 1946 and 1947 list the price of red label 10-inch singles at 50 cents each; the catalogs of 1948 and 1949 omit price. Harmony was revived in 1949 at a price not known to me.
Price ceilings finally expired circa early 1947, which allowed the companies to raise prices. According to Columbia’s June 1949 Disc Digest, 60 cents bought either a 10-inch 78 rpm disc or a seven-inch 33 rpm one.
RCA Victor’s September 1950 catalog (with prices effective August 1950) shows black-label 10-inch 78s and 7-inch 45s were priced at 75 cents each, 12-inch black-label 78s at one dollar (red seal was higher); Bluebird 78s and 45s were priced at 46 cents each.
Decca revived Vocalion in 1949 with a series of 10-inch 78s numbered from 55000 to 55075; labels bear "Vocalion" in tall block letters printed in silver on a blue field. These, the last Vocalion 78s issued in the U.S., sold at a price unknown to me. Decca introduced the Coral label in 1949. Coral’s 1951 catalog (with releases through the end of 1950) omits prices for singles, but the 10-inch 78 rpm album sets were priced at 50 cents per disc plus 75 cents for the album.
Acknowledgments: I was able to examine the various legal contracts that relate to Brunswick, Vocalion and Melotone, also the surviving recording ledgers from 1923-31, thanks to Andy McKaie of the Universal Music Group. The story of ARC’s purchase of Columbia and the subsequent formation of U.S. Decca was found in the autobiographies of Edward R. Lewis and John Hammond. (One can only wonder how Yates’ account, if he left one, might differ from those of Lewis and Hammond.) Much data was obtained from record company catalogs and supplements found in my own collection, and those of Miles Kreuger, John Newton and (assisted by Seth Winner) the Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive at Lincoln Center. James Parten and Richard Spottswood shared learned counsel over the course of several conversations.
COPYRIGHT 2006, STEVEN LASKER.