The Early Record Industry in Australia – Part 1

„Sound Beginnings. The early record industry in Australia by Ross Laird seems to be the first and only book on the early Australian music industry. Laird did not only tell the story of technological progress in phonographic industry, but highlights the history of the main players of the Australian music business in great detail from 1877 until 1935. “Sound Beginnings” is therefore a seminal work on this topic. In the following I would like to start a series of 6 blog contributions based on this book in order to retell the early history of the Australian music industry.


Part 1: The Australian music industry from the early beginnings until the end of Word War I

Thomas Alva Edison’s invention, the phonograph, was perceived in Australia soon after it was patented on Dec. 24th, 1877.  In February 1878 the Telegraphic Electrical Society Journal in Sydney appraised in an article the advantages of the new sound recording and replay device and wondered “(…) that he [Edison] himself can hardly say what its practical value is or will prove to be.” (p 2).

The first phonograph reached Australia as early as June 1879, when an agent of Edison’ company demonstrated the device to an amazed audience in the Collins Street Independent Church in Sydney. But after a few other demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne in 1879 and 1880 the public interest in the phonograph faded.

It was the merit of Professor Douglas Archibald, who reintroduced the phonograph in Australia, when he arrived in Sydney on May 28 1890 in order give a series of public lectures and demonstrations of Edison’s Perfected Phonograph, after he had lauched such a lecture series in Britain the year before. In an article for the London trade magazine Phonogram, Archibald wrote. “As I was bound for such an outlandish place as Australia, where a phonograph of this civilised and highly organised type had never been heard (…).” (p 5). During a period of 18 months Archibald appeared in almost every city of the then six British colonies in Australia and in New Zealand to demonstrate the use of the phonograph by recording the human voice and by playing cylinder records with some speeches by prominent persons such as the British prime minister William Gladstone as well as Thomas A. Edison, but also with popular vocals and instrumental performances. However, in this early stage, the phonograph was not seen as entertainment application but as a recording device for office use. The early Edison phonographs were heavy and clumsy apparatuses run by electric motors that required several primary batteries, which were not affordable for private persons.

Nevertheless, the Australian promoter of Prof. Archibald’s lecture tour approached Edison in late 1890 to purchase some coin-operated machines for music reproduction in order to install them at public places. Some other operators followed and in the mid-1890s the phonographs for music entertainment and even for home use became more widespread. The lack of music cylinders forced the phonograph distributors in Australia to produce recordings by their own. Thus, anonymous local singers and instrumentalists recorded the first time in Australia. And most of these records were produced on request, as the Allen & Co. company mentioned in an advertisement “[we] are able to supply records of any popular song at a few hours’ notice’.” (p 13). Since the Edison phonograph was sold until the early 1900s with recording heads, it could not only used as a playback device but also as a recording equipement and therefore also several recordings were made for private use.

In 1898 the first anthropological field recordings of Torres Strait Islanders were made by Alfred Haddon and Fanny Smith, a Tasmanian Aborigine, was recorded for the Royal Society of Tasmania in Hobart in 1899. But the most important field recordings of Aborigine people were made by Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer during his expeditions to Central Australia between 1901 and 1912.

The phonograph and record business in Australia was initially an Edison monopoly until the British patents expired in 1903. In the years before, the Edison Company required a 15% royalty payment on all cylinder recordings made in Australia and it was uneconomical to produce local records on a larger scale. Even the main competitor of Edison, the British Gramophone Company hesitated to enter the Australian market with its gramophones and disc records. The first advertisement for a spring motor gramophone appeared not until 1899.

The first attempt to set up a local record industry was undertaken by Edwin C. Henderson, who established the Federal Phonograph Record and Supply Co. in Sydney in 1903. The company initially sold cylinder records on the ‘Federal’ label of the Italian tenor Carlo Dani, who had visited Australia the year before. Repertoire of local concert singers was immediately added. However, the brown wax cylinder technology Henderson used was inferior to Edison’s imported moulded cylinders, which drove ‘Federal’ out of business soon. In October 1904, in the next attempt, Henderson set up the Australia Phono Record Company. However, due to disagreements between Henderson and his financier the company was liquidated in April 1905. But Henderson did not give up. By late 1906 he developed his own manufacturing process for moulded cylinders and in 1907 the first recordings made under der ‘Australia” label were offered to the public. The catalogue comprised of repertoiry of concert songs, marches played by the Naval Brigade Band or the Australia Military Band as well as of instrumental pieces by unnamed interpreters. But Henderson’s company was not able to follow the technological innovations in the recording industry and when a fire destroyed part of the production facility in Sydney, this was the end of Henderson’s efforts to establish an independent Australian music industry.

A similar attempt to establish a local phonograph and music cylinder production was made with the labels ‘Empire’ and ‘Entertainer’ in Melbourne in 1908. But little is known of this operation and it seemed to be that the production was ceased by 1910.

Therefore, the Australian record market was still controlled by the Edison Co. Nearly all distributors were depended on the imports from Britain and the U.S. However, the Australian record business considerably grew in the first decade of the 20th century. A local phonograph and record dealer in Melbourne reported in September 1907 that his shop has 1.000 phonographs and 50.000 records in stock. (p. 21). However, in the World War years (1914-1918), Australia became again dependent on the British U.S. imports.


In the next part of the series on the early Australian music industry the role of jazz for the music business will be highlighted as well as the Perberton Billing’s effort to establish a genuine Australian music industry will be retold.


Laird Ross, 1999, „Sound Beginnings. The early record industry in Australia, Strawberry Hills, NSW: Currency Press. ISBN: 9780868195797


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April 2011



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