|Herb Alpert wasn't very happy with these records. Details below......|
Today, we look at the soft white underbelly of the record business of the '50s to the '70s, the world of the $1.98 record of the drug store and supermarket record racks. The campy, crazy, cheesy and just plain ??? world of the budget record label.
A concept that hasn't gone away either.
The budget record has been around since the early days of gramophone records. At that time, there were two major players in America. The Victor Talking Machine Company and The Columbia Graphophone Company. They held patents to important technologies such as the lateral cut disc groove, the shellac material they were made of and even the size of the spindle hole on which the records were played. Thus eliminating most other potential American competitors for decades.
This however didn't keep upstarts out of the business entirely. The rules had some ambiguity. A company could make a lateral cut, shellac based record, but the spindle hole would have to be a different size.
|The Standard Record Company (Hardly) had a half inch spindle hole and could only be played on phonographs made for it. There were no adapters made for it as that would be a violation of the patents Victor and Columbia had.....|
|The most extreme example was the Aretino record with a whopping 3 inch spindle hole. The company offered adapters for these records to play on standard gramophones, but soon ran afoul of Victor and Columbia's patents and eventually went bankrupt...|
In fact the very pioneer of recording, Thomas Edison was making records on both cylinders and disc records. While the cylinder record was passe by 1912, his disc machine got around the patents by being vertical cut and played with a diamond stylus instead of a steel needle. They were also twice as thick and heavy as your typical shellac 78 RPM record.
Or you could make the record out of something other than shellac and there wasn't many other substances that survive the weight of a heavy gramophone tone arm of that time.
|The Nicole Record was a cardboard based celluloid record from the early 1900s that wore out only after a few plays. It also warped and disintegrated over time. Very few survive. All of them barely audible.|
All of these records sold for far less than the Victor or Columbia records. They didn't have the major stars of that period and they were just cheap curiosities.
By 1919, the patents that Victor and Columbia had a stranglehold on began to expire and soon, other record companies joined into the act unfettered. Labels like Gennett, Sonora, Vocalion and Brunswick were signing up the new artists of the jazz age of The Roaring '20s and did quite well.
But in 1929 the stock market crashed and virtually all of them either went bankrupt or were bought out by the majors. Record and phonograph sales slumped (thanks in part also to radio, which also took it's toll on record sales.)
There were new innovations to try and recapture the record collecting public. In 1930, the cardboard record had another go as Hit Of the Week records was launched. These one sided records were made of a far better material than the Nicole records and were released weekly and were sold at newspaper stands for 15¢.
But record sales were still tanking until the Big Band age of the late '30s and '40s. Thanks in part to Decca records, which offered their records at 35¢, compared to Victor (by this time known as RCA Victor) and Columbia's standard price of 75¢. Decca also had signed some of the biggest hit stars of that time like Louis Armstrong, The Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby. With Decca's big stars and 35¢ price, it was a gimmick gone wonderfully right and started an empire known today as the Universal Music Group.
What REALLY kicked the record business back into overdrive was the invention of the Columbia Long Playing 33 1/3 RPM record in 1948.
|And this is it. The very FIRST LP record ever released in 1948. Note the 4001 catalog number....|
And in the '50s and '60s, records were BIG business. The startup costs of a record label were very low then and people with dreams of stardom wanted to make records.
Some of these upstart labels tried to cash in on whatever trend in pop music was available, but didn't have anyone famous (or at least not yet) in their rosters. And so most record stores would not carry their product (they were already swamped with products from the old major labels as well as new ones such as Capitol, United Artists and Liberty records and shelf space was at a premium.)
And since these cheap non-majors were all fake knockoffs of the real thing anyway, these upstarts took a new route - drug stores, discount retailers and supermarkets.
In those days, anything with grooves sold well. And everybody wanted in on that trend. The discount and drug store and supermarket racks were soon filled with product from these labels
|Spin-O-Rama was a budget label that I think was linked to SPC, as much of their material also ended up on Spin-O-Rama...|
These super cheap records had unknown acts, sound-alike (and even that was a lie) or acts well past their prime (The Ink Spots, "Members Of Glenn Miller's Orchestra", etc.)
....and then there was the granddaddy of them all, Pickwick Records.
What made the Pickwick label different from all the others and it's own subsidiaries was it actually ASKED the major labels for licensing rights to use their material for a cut of the profits. Which Capitol and Dot Records agreed to do. After all, it was easier and cheaper to lease back catalog material to a third party than start up an extra pressing plant and hire additional personnel and staff to run the subsidiary. Or so they thought.
The Pickwick records were made of surprisingly decent vinyl (can't say the same for most of their subsidiaries) and sold for the same $1.98 price as the other budget label records and even contained a few actual hits. But were mostly filler from lesser albums from any given artists catalog.
It turned out to be very profitable for Pickwick and soon, the major labels began targeting the casual, less informed record buyer with their own watered down back catalog/second string product. RCA with their Camden (older back catalog), Victrola (classical) and Pure Gold (more recent back catalog) lines.
|RCA Pure Gold - No mention of "Pure Gold" on the gold label|
Columbia Records had Harmony Records for it's budget offerings
Harmony became Columbia Limited Edition by the '70s
Capitol's budget label was called Star Line
Decca's was called Vocalion
When Decca folded into MCA Records in 1973, the Vocalion label was changed to MCA Coral.
Liberty with their Sunset label
But one person in particular had no love whatsoever for the cheapest budget, non-major labels and that was Herb Alpert, a record label owner himself (A&M). He saw how these cheap, knockoff independent labels aped whatever trend in pop music (namely his own in the '60s) and the confusion in the marketplace.
In Alpert's case, he had a lot of reasons. His albums were by the Tijuana Brass. But on the knockoffs, there was "The Mexicali Brass" on Crown, "The Mexican Brass, "The Lonely Bulls" (after one of his songs!) You couldn't blame him for being so pissed off. And he was far from the only one.
|Wyncote not only aped The Beatles, but The Chipmunks too!|
|The Surfsiders was a Beach Boys knockoff "band" that Lou Reed sang lead for while he was working at Design Records. Check out this hilarious barbershop quartet rendition of "Little Deuce Coupe"|
Eventually the copyright and music publishing laws were changed in 1972 as a reaction to this bamboozlement to give singers/songwriters more control over their own music. And the cheapest labels went under or went into other lines such as children's records.
However Pickwick stayed in business due to it's long time cooperation with the major labels and in fact, did very well. In 1974, RCA turned over it's Camden line to Pickwick (including several packaged Elvis compilations.)
However, when Elvis died in 1977, so did this arrangement. And it was back to stuff like this for Pickwick
By this time, the music buying public had all but rejected the budget labels completely. And not even Pickwick could survive. They shut down permanently in 1979. Their assets, including De-Lite Records, whos featured artists, Kool & The Gang were sold to PolyGram Records. Kool & The Gang also found new legitimacy and their biggest hits under PolyGram.
But that wasn't the end.....
The CD age brought a new crop of dime store imitators. With names like LaserLight and Madacy Entertainment. And like their forebearers, were also sold in discount stores and supermarkets. These CDs were mostly of instrumental music or alternate takes/later or live versions of pop oldies. Much of LaserLight's older material from the '40s and '50s are recordings that have actually fallen into public domain.
Madacy Entertainment sells much of their product in Walmart stores. So beware of those super cheap CD "gift" sets packaged in tins. And read the fine print. Especially for '80s to current music sets. You'll notice they're fake knockoffs of the original recordings - just like the cheap label records of the '60s were!
|Hits from Katy Perry, Kevin Rudolf, Outkast, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Lil' Wayne and Pink "As Performed by The Starlite Singers"|
How could this happen today? It's simple: Money. In the American Idol age, artists today aren't as concerned with the artistic nature of their work as they used to be. Offering their material to be re-recorded by unknown acts for these fake compilations is just another royalty income stream to them. They know what's going on, but they're not in the least bit fazed by it.