Columbia Corporate History: Double-Discs

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


There was not a hint during the summer of 1908 as to what was coming. Executives at Victor were caught totally off-guard when, on September 10, they were hit with a blaze of publicity stating that Columbia was converting its entire catalog to “double-discs,” recorded on both sides. “Music on both sides, two records at a single price… no other record is worth considering” screamed the advertising.34 Moreover the price was practically the same as for the older single-faced discs, 65¢ for the 10” and $1 for the 12”. In a market, which for 15 years had known only single-faced discs (aside from a few double-faced novelties), this was revolutionary.35

The introduction was accompanied by a new “Note the Notes” logo (previously used in some print advertising), a new label design, and the biggest advertising blitz in the company’s history. Whatever was left in the treasury went totally into the “Double-Disc” campaign—this was do or die. Double-page spreads and back covers appeared in Good Housekeeping, Munsey’s, Everybody’s, McClure’s, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s, Collier’s Weekly and dozens of other national magazines, as well as major newspapers around the country. A single ad in The Saturday Evening Post was said to cost $6,000.36 Nor did the campaign let up after the introduction. By 1909 Columbia could tell its dealers that it was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on national advertising.37 Columbia, which had increased the operatic representation in its catalog through an arrangement with Fonotipia in Europe, even attacked Victor’s “Caruso card,” claiming that “Four of the Five Great Tenors of the World Sing for the Columbia.”38 The four tenors were Bonci, Anselmi, Zenatello and Bassi, all on Fonotipia discs distributed in the U.S. by Columbia. Whether or not these were in fact the “four greatest tenors” after Caruso is of course a matter of opinion.

Victor was furious, and said so in its counter-advertising, complaining that Columbia was disrupting the business and that consumers didn’t want these double-disc records.39 But of course they did, and sales over the holiday season were tremendous. Victor, stuck with huge stocks of single-faced discs, was forced to respond, rushing out its own list of 125 double-faced discs. This compared with Columbia’s initial 120-page catalog containing more than 700 domestic double-faced discs (followed shortly by hundreds of foreign-language couplings). Victor stubbornly kept issuing single-faced discs, along with double-discs, for the next few years but within months it was clear that the public wanted the new format. Unwilling to concede gracefully, Victor even attacked legally, buying a dubious 1904 patent for double-faced discs and suing Columbia over their manufacture. The case dragged on for more than a year; at one point, a frustrated Columbia attorney held up an offending double-disc and asked the Court, “If we are to be restricted to one side of the record, which shall it be?” Victor lost the suit.40

Victor sales declined during 1909 and only slowly recovered during 1910 and 1911; while Columbia sales are not known, the frequency with which Columbia’s early double-discs are found today suggests that the company regained considerable market share.

Simultaneously with the launch of double-discs a new numbering system was introduced, starting at A1 for 10” discs, and A5000 for 12”. Other prefixes were assigned to foreign-language issues, as shown in the following chart. Single-faced discs were re-introduced on a limited basis in 1910, for selected classical selections (which were also available on double-face), but for all intents and purposes it was now, for Columbia at least, a double-faced world.

Table 1:

Columbia Double-Disc Prefixes41

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Repertoire

[ ] = used by other labels pressed by Columbia.

PrefixSeries
A American
B, BO Brazilian; [B also Phoenix, U.K., 1910s*]
C Central and South American (Spanish)
D England (1907-1909; 1915-1930**); European territories
E General Foreign Language (U.S.)
F Columbia-Fonotipia (imports); England (12”, 1919-1922)
G [Regal, UK, 1914-1930]
H Symphonies (South America)
J Japan, Java, Malaya
K [Climax, 1909]
L Trinidad (1912-14); England (12”, 1915-on)
M Filipino (19105); U.K.
N Indian (1910s)
P Peruvian (1911)
R Canadian; Spanish (1920s, later RS)
S Spanish Concertos and Opera; School Series (1912); also Holland?
T Argentinean (1910s-20s)
X [Climax, 1909]; England (1915-on)
Y Hawaiian

* According to Frank Andrews, Phoenix (1913-1916) was a subsidiary of English Columbia which normally used a zero prefix. The “B” prefix was applied to deleted Regal and Columbia-Rena discs, which were later sold under the Phoenix name.

** The “D” prefix seems to mean pressed in England, with numerical blocks indicating the territory in which sold. Some U.S. masters turn up on these pressings.

 


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