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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Budget Record Labels

Herb Alpert wasn't very happy with these records. Details below......
You find these in every thrift shop in America. Various sound-alike and knockoff records of pop music fads from the '50s to the '70s. But HOW did they sell so many? And who were these strange, cheap record companies with names like Pickwick, Spin-O-Rama, Crown, and Diplomat? And WHO bought these records?

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...
If they wanted a standard spindle hole for their record, then the record would have to be vertically cut (which would render it unplayable on most gramophones.) 

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 soon, the 78 RPM speed was becoming abandoned in favor of the LP and 45 RPM single. However, that left a lot of hand me down 78 RPM players. So many children's records were still pressed at that speed until the early 1960s.

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

Etta James, along with B.B. King and John Lee Hooker were the only stars that Crown Records ever had signed to their label - and they weren't even famous then. At that time, it was very hard to get major record labels to take blues singers and musicians seriously. Crown accepted their material, but also exploited them. Like all artists on these cheap labels, they got paid very little for their recordings and no royalties. And Crown was one of the worst. The long standing rumour was Crown "stretched" their vinyl stock by adding SAND into it, which it's been claimed accounted for the high surface noise on their records. But that would destroy diamond needles instantly. What's more likely is they simply melted down and recycled the vinyl of records that didn't sell - labels and all and the ash from the labels was what caused the actual surface noise. Crown records had no inner sleeves and the jackets were two pieces of cardboard slapped together with a cover slick. And even these were recycled. I've seen Crown record jackets with as many as THREE slicks pasted over them! 

Design Records was a subsidiary of Pickwick Records. They too paid paid their artists  flat rates with no royalties. The only stars Design had were a then unknown Lou Reed and friends who would later form The Velvet Underground. More on this and a sample below...

Diplomat was a label of a company called Synthetic Plastics Corp. No stars here, but SPC products were released on a variety of "labels", which in reality were pretty much the same product under different names and imprints. SPC is best known for their Peter Pan Records line of children's records, which became Power Records in the '70s and '80s and had records from He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe and various action comic book characters targeted towards boys.

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 Camden

RCA Victrola

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"
Can you imagine the embarrassment of a 16 year old in the '60s at their birthday party when he/she opens their birthday present from their musically clueless parents and instead of a REAL Beatles or Beach Boys record, THIS appears? Happened quite a bit as you might imagine. "Well go on dear, play your new record for your friends!" And suddenly their friends realize they have to really have to do their homework.....NOW.

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"
The oldies sets are mostly live versions or lame re-recordings. Very few have the original studio recordings of any song.

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.



  1. This article summarizes the history of budget records perfectly! Keep up the great work.

    1. Thank you. I've been an avid record collector and researcher virtually all of my life. Since I was a child, the artwork of the record labels fascinated me as much as the music they contained. I have a special post of the RCA Colour Subsidiary Labels of the '70s from around the world coming shortly (they used nearly every colour for every purpose and international genre imaginable.)

  2. One minor goof here; Capitol's Star Line was not so much a budget label as an oldies label, both on 45's and LPS. Capitol did have a budget label for a few years in the 60's; it was called Tower. Other budget lines included Mercury Records' Wing and Dot's Hamilton label. MGM had a budget label and a kiddie label; one was called Lion and the other was Leo and I never can keep those two straight... Cameo/Parkway's budget line was Wyncote; Scepter had one too for a while but darned if I remember its name. Spin-O-Rama was definitely part of Synthetic Plastics; the label you showed came from an LP with a cover photo of Jayne Mansfield that had nothing to do with the contents... That was another gimmick of the low-price labels; photos of Jayne, Julie Newmar, Irish McCalla, Bettie Page (on an opera disc of CARMEN!) and a young Mary Tyler Moore among others "dolled up" their covers.

  3. Thanks. The "cheesecake" covers will be an upcoming topic......

  4. I have a couple of the "Pipe Organ Plus" lp's from Dave Miller's AudioSpectrum label. Buddy Cole's theatre organ arrangements were some of his best ever and were done on his own Wurlitzer theatre organ at his home in LA. I understand that these were purchased by Madecy and one has been released on CD under the name of "The 101 Strings Orchestra". These are really good albums and it's too bad the rest of the series hasn't been released on CD.

  5. I would like to see an article on "101 Strings." When Sound of Music came out, my dad bought the 101 Strings version at the supermarket. Boy was I disappointed!

    1. I too am a life-long collector of records and am fortunate enough to live in an urban area with a thrift shop 'on every corner'. I understand your disappointment in this recording. I make it second nature to avoid '101 Strings' recordings when I find them...and they are in every thrift store I have visited since I started collecting old records as a kid. I recently came across an LP by the '1000 Strings'...no doubt a variation of the same lame garbage!

  6. Thank you, I have a draft on Easy Listening music I'm writing as I speak and I do cover 101 Strings as well as others in it. Look for it next month. Cheers!

  7. I found another budget label that has a short list of titles > Curio Records. Mfg. by Synthetic Plastics Co., Newark, N. J. Curio 1 through Curio 12. I have curio 12 "Hawaiian Favorites-Passport to Romance" Nice Cheesecake cover. Track listing on label. No credits on label or cover. Pedal steel guitar with acoustic rhythm guitar. No idea when this was released.

    1. Curio was one of the many sub-labels of Synthetic Plastics Co. There was also Pirouette, Ambassador and a few others I can't immediately think of. Diplomat was their main label. And often what you got with anonymous acts on SPC label product is the same album (give or take a few tracks) that appears on another anonymous SPC record on one of their other labels.

      Newark is just a subway ride from the many music colleges in the NYC area, so a marathon recording session of amateur studio musicians for a flat fee was probably how many of them could afford to eat. From what I hear on SPC albums, it sounds to me like they would, for example, do an anonymous all Hawaiian music session, get something like 20 tracks down Then mix them all up on as many as three albums. Slap different cheesecake covers on them and sell them off as three different albums to the unknowing music fan.

      Imagine being the person who unknowingly bought two of these records at the same time, expecting two different albums with completely different versions of songs - and many did! And because there wasn't anything physically defective with them, money was rarely refunded. Or hypothetically, inside a Curio jacket with a Diplomat label record - and not the one on the jacket. They were quite the scoundrels at SPC.

  8. Alpert would eventually succumb to the sounds of folding green $$ in the A&M coffers from Pickwick.While I don't think any TJB product ever made it,Sergio Mendes,the Baja Marimba Band and probably a few more abridged versions of original LPs came to market(Mendes had a twofer added to the pile).Also,Capitol used Pickwick quite frequently and may have had a monetary stake in it.Tower Reocrds was not always a "budget" Capitol thowaway.Freddie & the Dreamers,biker soundtracks and Nilsson originally came out on Tower.
    Mention should be made of Mercury's Wing as virtually all the labels had some kind of outlet to repackage material.
    The knock on Laserlight is kinda harsh.Hidden in their catalog were rare radio transcriptions of Nat Cole that kept to the pared down sound of Nat's trio and with great sound.Some "dirct-to disc" LPs found their way to CD via Delta/Laserlight.They might have been short timed LPs to begin with,but still had some interesting material.Jewel cases and decent pressings for under five bucks.Christmas goodies included a great Joe Pass outing.
    Also in the CD era,don't forget Naxos,primarily a classical label that used European orchestras but had(has?)a deep catalog.Really deep.Like embarrasing the majors deep.More than a few nice reviews from foks with blind ears.

  9. How about Coronet? I have a Frank Sinatra on Coronet CXS 186 and was surprised to find it has an identical line-up and liner notes as Spin-O-Rama S-150. Is Coronet one you've heard of and was it owned by SPC?

  10. Synthetic Plastics Company's biggest success was their kiddie record line, Peter Pan Records. They eventually changed their name to Peter Pan Industries.

    A good deal of Laserlight's easy-listening/jazz/lounge music product was licensed from Rod McKuen's Stanyan Records, and carried McKuen's name as producer/editor/compiler.

    OK, I'm going to get specific about something very trivial here. In the late 50's/early 60's, there were several LPS on budget labels of "old time-gay 90's" era songs that all contained a version of "Rings On My Fingers." On some versions it was a vocal, on others an instrumental that was very obviously just a backing track with the vocal missing.

    On the vocal version, the uncredited singer sounds exactly like Mae Questel (the voice of Betty Boop.) Anybody recognize this record and knows whether or not that's her voice?

  11. It's amazing - and annoying - that you can still get bamboozled by these budget releases now as you could back in the 1970's.

    I remember a PickWick in the 1970's that was current "hits" - but with no artist names mentioned on the album jacket. You wouldn't know until you opened and played it that they were all "soundalike" recordings. The "sorta - but not really" fake Loretta Lynn doing I Never Promised You a Rose Garden wasn't too bad, the rest of the album escapes memory.

    Now? A couple years back I bought a CD titled "Etta James Greatest Hits". Well yeah - and no. It was Etta James - but not the original recordings. It was full of the drunk and drugged up Etta James after her career tanked due to substance abuse problems, sounding like performances recorded in a Holiday Inn Golden Tiki lounge. Zero disclosure on the CD as to the source of the material. I don't know which was worse: The condition of her voice - including slurring - or the "quality" of the recordings. The CD was so bad I discarded it.

    Now as then: Caveat Emptor...

  12. I would like to know some of the blues label recordings. I love the blues and have a large collection I am surprised at the quality of the recordings considering the time and attitude of people back then. Yet a lot of my old blues Lps are pure I think rock got the worst of sound recording overall even the best labels.

    1. You can find Crown and their parent label's discographies here:


      As far as recording techniques, it was much simpler to record the blues. Rock and pop gradually got more studio processed to nearly all studio processed today.

      What pisses me off is the fucking Loudness Wars on CDs and MP3s since 1996. Even the best preserved masters sound just awful. I played recently remastered CD of Freddie King's "Burglar" album directly from my DVD player through my Sony GX-69 ES and it just sent every light on my Teac EQA-10 graphic equalizer into the red. I can only play modern media from a Linux desktop tower I have patched into my TV.

  13. I can't remember the number of cassette tapes I used to see back in the '80s of famous hits "Performed by the Countdown Singers." I can't remember the label(s), however.


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