Columbia Corporate History: Leased Masters

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

Columbia opened another line of business ca. 1903 that was much more successful, and which distinguished it sharply from its competition. This was the business of pressing “custom” labels for department stores and others, using Columbia masters. Easton’s management believed in marketing its products in any and every way possible. Victor and Edison, on the other band, did not allow their recordings to appear under any other name, so among the majors at least, Columbia had this field to itself.

Columbia generally disguised its artists’ names on these customized issues, but the matrix number—and often the issue number—usually matched Columbia’s. More research needs to be done in this area, but Columbia appears to have begun custom pressing around 1903 when it began manufacturing the Harvard label for Sears, Roebuck, in Chicago. This was a natural outgrowth of a long relationship with the mail order giant, which had been carrying Columbia products since the late 1890s. The President of Sears was even a member of the American Graphophone Co. Board during 1904-1905.21 In May 1905, Columbia proudly noted that it had received its largest single order ever, for nearly one million cylinders and discs, from Sears, Roebuck.22 The Harvard label lasted until 1907, and was succeeded by Oxford (1907-1916) and Silvertone (1916-1930). These labels sometimes used masters from smaller manufacturers as well. Columbia also continued to produce 7” and single-sided discs for Sears, long after Columbia itself abandoned those formats.

Additional custom-pressing contracts followed, including Peerless (1903) for the W. S. Simpson department store, Golden Crown Musicalphone (1905) and New Improved Silver Tongued (1906) for a Chicago mail order firm, Kalamazoo (1907) for the Duplex Phonograph Co. of that city, and Thomas (1907), D&R (1909), Manhattan (1909) and Cort (1910) for various stores. Columbia also produced records and phonographs for a group of related Chicago firms that offered the phonographs as “scheme goods,” inexpensive (or free) premiums to induce the customer to buy other products. The cheap phonographs were fitted with oversized center spindles, so that customers would then have to buy records with matching oversize spindle holes from the same firm. Huge quantities of these large-spindle records were sold, and they are frequently found today. The Chicago labels included Standard (1905), Diamond (1906), Harmony (1908), United (1909) and Aretino (1909), the latter sporting what is possibly the largest spindle hole in record history—three inches in diameter. By the late 1910s most of the Chicago companies had run their course, and they appear to have merged into a single company marketing the appropriately named Consolidated label (1916), which also used Columbia masters.23

The booming business resulted in Columbia’s most profitable year ever with earnings of $730,000 for the year ending September 1904.24 Business was growing rapidly in Europe as well, leading to severe strain on the company’s production capacity. Columbia had only one pressing plant, in Bridgeport, and although it was expanding rapidly it could not keep up with the demand. Recordings made in the various foreign recording laboratories were shipped to Bridgeport for processing, and pressings were then shipped back to the originating country for sale. A small factory had been set up in Paris in 1901 or 1902 to supply the continent with cylinders, but this proved wholly inadequate. To relieve the strain Columbia secured a 50,000 square foot factory complex outside of London in early 1905 and, under the supervision of Thomas Macdonald and European General Manager Frank Dorian, installed full manufacturing facilities which were operational by mid-1906. Initial capacity of the British plant was said to be 10,000 cylinders and 5,000 discs per day.25

A company magazine, the Columbia Record, was inaugurated in January 1904 containing news of the company, sales tips and new product information.26 Columbia also began regularizing its release patterns around this time. Previously discs had been released in irregular batches consisting of both new recordings and older masters made months or years before, typically spanning a very wide range of matrix numbers. The Columbia Record instituted a monthly list of new releases, and by mid-1904 this consisted primarily of recently made recordings.

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The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.