American Records Companies and Producers
An Encyclopedic History
By Allan Sutton
760 pages • 7″ x 10″
Library binding (full-cloth hardcover, Smyth-sewn)
Limited edition of 300 copies
Release date and price to be announced
From the Preface: Criteria for Inclusion
… To be included, a company or individual must have produced phonograph records (disc or cylinder) for entertainment purposes from 1888 through 1950, with the intent to distribute or sell those products to the general public, or a significant portion thereof. This includes companies that produced records exclusively for jukebox use, the contents of which ultimately were disseminated to the public; subscription operations, which although limited in sales goals, still dealt with the public at large; and transcription or custom studios that did not have their own labels but recorded masters for commercial producers.
“Entertainment,” of course, is largely in the eye of the beholder. Modern readers, for example, might not think of political speeches as entertainment, but many of our ancestors did, and so I have included operations like The Nation’s Forum.
The criteria have been relaxed mainly for the earliest cylinder producers (the North American Phonograph sub-companies), due to the nature of the early phonograph business. Cylinder records at that time were employed largely for use on coin-operated machines, in “phonographic concerts,” and as demonstration items in phonograph showrooms. We know from numerous newspaper accounts that many of the early phonograph companies made their own recordings, often employing a mixture of local and visiting talent. A tremendous number of cylinder recordings undoubtedly were made during the 1880s and 1890s that received public exposure but never were formally listed for sale or duplicated in any significant quantity. Because so few cylinders and catalogs have survived from this period, we cannot rule out the possibility that all of these companies made original recordings, at least for demonstration to the general public, if not for outright sale. Therefore, all have been included.
Custom and personal labels (which overlap at times) present a less clear-cut situation. Both were self-financed ventures, with limited distribution goals, but those are not automatically grounds for exclusion. The key to inclusion here is the presence of a business model, or at least the appearance of one, to the extent that it can be determined from the remaining evidence. Some custom products that were not advertised to the general public — such as certain Ku Klux Klan and religious labels — still had sufficient marketing and distribution to merit inclusion. In deciding which to include, I have factored in (to the extent possible, given the scarcity of data on many of these ventures) the nature and number of artists featured; where, how, and to whom the records were marketed; and whether surviving documentation and the general nature of the output suggests the venture was intended to be an ongoing, albeit limited, business.
Personal or “vanity” issues (self-financed records made purely for the edification of the artist and perhaps a few fans or family members) are not included. The intent usually appears to have been nothing more than to produce a personal souvenir and perhaps sell a few copies. There were a few notable exceptions, such as the Columbia Personal Records made for Roland Hayes, which became the basis for a very modest and short-lived mail-order business. However, the vast majority of personal issues one is likely to encounter were made for amateurs or semi-professionals who are long forgotten today, often for reasons that are painfully obvious to modern listeners. Some personal-record ventures undertaken by professional artists, like Roland Hayes and the Christian and Missionary Alliance Gospel Singers, more closely resemble custom-label operations. They have not been included mainly because of the slippery-slope factor; an examination of all known personal records would require a volume unto itself.
Labels intended for the ethnic markets present a similar challenge. Papers trails range from sparse to nonexistent for most early ethnic labels, and some appear to have been owned or operated by the artist they feature, which seemingly places them in the personal-record category. Further investigation, however, has revealed that many of these companies were indeed being operated as commercial entities, filing copyright and trademark applications, advertising in domestic foreign-language papers, and selling through small retail establishments in immigrant communities. Although it is likely that some I have chosen to include to do not fully meet the criteria established for this work, I prefer to err on the side of inclusiveness.
Not included are companies that produced only children’s, educational, or special-use recordings (air-checks, radio transcriptions, sound-effects records, parakeet-training records, etc.), unless they supplied masters to commercial labels; companies that did not make or commission original recordings (primarily those who produced only reissues or relied entirely on imported or other licensed recordings, unless those recordings were specially commissioned for their use); and, with several unusually interesting exceptions, pirating operations….
Includes: More than 1,100 Detailed Entries • Introductory Overview of the American Recording Industry (1888 – 1950) • User’s Guide • Company Genealogies and Timelines • Glossary • Selected References • Label Index • Subject Index