September 3, 1997

Since Records Began: EMI, The First 100 Years.  By Peter Martland.  Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1997.  359 pp.  ISBN: 1-57467-033-6.  $39.95.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

The British certainly know how to celebrate their history.  The 100th anniversary of recording conglomerate EMI has been marked with an elaborate traveling exhibition, an 11-CD boxed set of historic recordings, a BBC2 radio documentary, and a newly consolidated and refurbished Archive in London containing one hundred years of recorded treasures,  accessible to scholars.  In addition, we have this handsome book, a heavily illustrated chronicle not only of EMI and its predecessor companies, but of the phonograph itself.

EMI (the initials originally stood for Electric and Musical Industries Ltd.) was formed in 1931 by the merger of Britain’s Columbia Graphophone Company and the Gramophone Company (HMV).  Both had been founded in 1897, and it is from that date that EMI traces its history.  The book begins even earlier, however, with an initial chapter called “Inventing an Industry, 1881-1897.”  The dates are the first suggestion that this is not a particularly pro-Edison book–the invention of the phonograph is traditionally placed four years before that.  Edison is given his due, of course, but pride of place goes to someone else.  Chapter One opens by proudly asserting that “Emile Berliner invented the first commercial process of sound recording.”  The work of Charles Sumner Tainter is also celebrated (“Tainter’s crucial innovation was the invention of a means of making permanent sound records”).  Edison’s original tin-foil phonograph is dismissed as “little more than a crude laboratory instrument.”

Having established the credentials of company forebears Berliner and Tainter as the real inventors of recording technology–a matter of opinion, I suppose–the book goes on to describe in some detail the U.S. companies that evolved from their work, the Berliner Gramophone Company and the American Graphophone Company.  Unfortunately Martland garbles some of this history, as least as regards the latter.  Edward D. Easton was not the original president of the American Graphophone Co., and AGC did not “create” the Columbia Phonograph Co. in 1889.  Rather, Columbia was founded independently by Easton and several Washington, D.C. colleagues, as the local sales agency for the North American Phonograph Company (which controlled marketing rights to both the Graphophone and Edison’s phonograph).  Several years later the by-then thriving Columbia took over the faltering Graphophone Company, in order to secure its manufacturing patents.  Easton then became AGC President.  Martland also makes the misleading statement that Easton regarded the Graphophone as “a piece of office dictating equipment.”  He may have thought so on first encounter, but he quickly realized that its future lay in recorded entertainment, and he worked tirelessly in the 1890s to build his company into the leading recording company in the U.S.

All of this is significant in that it was a local entrepreneur (Easton), not the inventors or their associates, who realized where the future of the phonograph lay, and built the enterprise that demonstrated that potential to all.

Despite occasional slips, Martland gives us a good overview of the development of the industry, and the founding in 1897 of the British branches of both the Columbia (cylinder) and Berliner (disc) companies.  From there on he follows the roller-coaster ride of the two companies, as they thrived in boom times, and came close to collapse when economic recession and competition reared their ugly heads.  Americans sometimes forget that the U.S. recording industry developed within a sort of “patent cocoon” during the first twenty years of the 20th Century.  Once they pooled their patents in 1903, Victor and Columbia were able to shut down virtually all meaningful competition through legal action, giving themselves near monopoly status until their patents began to expire during the late 1910s.  In England, however, key patents expired around the turn of the century, and the British enterprises had to fend off competition from all comers–particularly the aggressive, price-cutting Germans.  As a result they became much more dependent on the international trade.  However with the advent of World War I, and the revolution in Russia, many of their overseas holdings were expropriated (the Gramophone Company never did get its important German affiliate back).  It was a turbulent journey, which makes for good reading.

Once he has covered the pre-1931 period for the two founding companies, the author divides the rest of his narrative into neatly balanced sections.  The years 1931-1961 are covered from the perspectives of corporate history (chapter 4), classical repertoire (chapter 5), and popular repertoire (chapter 6); then 1962-1997 is divided up the same way, corporate (chapter 7), classical music (chapter 8), popular music (chapter 9).  This is all very geometric, and will no doubt satisfy classical music lovers, who always seem to insist that their music comes first, although it is a little nonsensical to be reading at length about obscure classical artists of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s before getting to the most momentous story of all, EMI’s discovery of the biggest, and arguably most influential, artists in recording history–the Beatles.  Come, now.

A great deal of detail is presented throughout the narrative, which is certainly laudable, although it leads to occasional errors of fact in areas with which the author is evidently not familiar.  For example, moulded cylinders were introduced commercially in 1901, not 1902, and laboratory moulding had been going on before that (page 19); the historic U.S. Columbia Grand Opera recordings were made in late 1902/early 1903, not a year later (page 99); and numerous dates are wrong in the discussion of recording technology in the 1930s and 1940s (page 152).  Some quotes from Fred Gaisberg’s eminently readable, but not always accurate, 1942 memoirs also mar the text.  While these constitute only a small part of the whole, one might expect a little better fact-checking from an author who recently earned his Ph.D. with a study of Gramophone Company history, and who is currently Chairman of the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society!

Having said that, I would be remiss not to emphasize the book’s greatest strength–its extensive, and glorious, illustrations.  Sometimes in color, sometimes in black and white, they adorn practically every page, and many are fascinating.  Artists, executives, factory buildings, laboratories, recording sessions in progress (as far back as the 1890s), advertisements, a showman demonstrating an early cylinder machine from the back of a donkey in rural America in the early 1890s–they depict every conceivable aspect of recording history.  Many have never been seen before, at least not in the standard references.  Who could not be charmed by the crisp family photo of a stern William Barry Owen (founder of the Gramophone Co.) flanked by his two rambunctious young sons; the snapshot of a regal Luisa Tetrazzini serenading bored-looking workers on their lunch break at the Hayes factory during World War I; or mischievous young Fred Gaisberg and William Sinkler Darby horsing around with a couple of equally young Victorian ladies in the studio at the turn of the century.  Such photos are priceless, and alone worth the cost of the book.  They vividly remind us that the history of recording is a history of people, not dry dates and corporate maneuvers.

The physical production of the book is also exemplary–it is large (8 1/2″ x 11″), sturdy, and graphically well designed.  Even if you choose not to plow through the extensive text, it will make fascinating and rewarding browsing.  Biographies and snippets of history are presented in tinted sidebars which make it easy to “nibble” at this book.

EMI, The First 100 Years may not be the last word in scholarship on this historic company (sources, for example, are generally omitted), but it contains a great deal of new and interesting information, wonderful pictures, and is a great read.  The price is reasonable.  If you are at all interested in the subject, don’t miss this one.


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