Columbia Corporate History: Personal Recording

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

In 1915, with some fanfare, a Personal Record Department was set up to solicit business from private individuals who wanted to make a record. Columbia had always been willing to provide this service for a fee, and “private recordings” have been located dating from pre-1910, but now the service was formalized with brochures, special labels, and a schedule of fees.

Correspondence has been located relating to the private recordings made by black tenor Roland Hayes, which give a fascinating insight into the specifics of personal recording at Columbia.48 Hayes was quoted a base price of $50 to make one 10” master, with three single-faced pressings provided. Piano accompaniment was included. However if he wished to record additional instruments or voices, such as a quartet, the price escalated: $60 for two or three instruments or voices, $75 for four to eight, and $100 for more than eight. Sound balancing for multiple artists was a difficult and time-consuming process. Prices to make a 12” master or to receive double-faced pressings were commensurately higher. Columbia had no objection if he sold these records commercially (which he did, by mail order), but the cost of additional pressings was high. Columbia charged $1 each for the first 50 copies of a 10”, single-faced disc, declining to about 60¢ each in quantities of 500. Ten” double-disc pressings cost about 92¢ each in quantity, and to all of these amounts had to be added the original cost of recording. With standard store-stock Columbias retailing at 75¢ in 1917, there was not much profit to be made by a small operator hoping to get into the record business this way. This was essentially a vanity business. Its chief customers were churches and other religious groups, along with an occasional lodge or corporation that wanted a recording for promotional purposes. 

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