The Early Record Industry in Australia – Part 2

Before Ross Laird further highlights the efforts to lay the ground for an Australian music industry, he outlines the general atmosphere, in which music was produced and distributed in the first half of the 1920s. On the basis of extended citations of newspaper articles and internal company’s reports the author highlights the negative attitude of public opinion leader’s and music critics on so-called ‘machine music’ in general and especially‘inferior jazz noise’ despite the fact that jazz records accounted for the vast majority of all sales.



Part 2: The failure to establish an independent Australian music industry in the Jazz era

Some inside into the music business in the 1920s Austalia gives an article in the Graphic of Australia from August 16, 1923 entitled “Present favourite jazz songs”, in which a manager of a record store in Melbourne war inteviewed. Asked what kind of music do Melbourne music fans buy, he answered: “What London sang yesterday. Look here (…): All these without exception were London’s favourites six months ago” (p. 40).

Especially in the 1920s the music business was highly unpredictable due to a serious break of the music industry’s structures, which was also observed by contempory commentators not at least in Australia. Walter B. Orton noted for the ‘Australian Musical News’ in October 1927: “There is no question of doubt that the sales of [sheet] music during the last two or three years have materially dropped off, and that the publishers are faced with a very serious position. What are the reasons for this shrinkage of business? There are many causes. The player-piano, gramophone and wireless broadcasting have made serious inroads into the vitals of the business. Fees paid for mechanical royalties and broadcasting rights have helped to a certain extent to balance the shrinkage to the publishers, which may have the effect of relieving the pressure as far as they are concerned, but what of the music seller who does not collect any royalties? Is that business doomed, and why should the sales of popular and standard music have fallen away so such large extent? Other factors must be at work. The pricture theatre, which provides cheap entertainment, and the jazz palais, which has almost entirely supplanted the private dance, are factors which account for the position of the music trade just as much as the mechanical change.” (p. 50).

However, it seemed that the music publishers in Australia suffered from the change within the music business logics whereas the record companies prospered – at least according to an article in the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ of January 12, 1927: “Although the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company has been manufacturing records for only three years [in Australia], and the remaining two companies, the Columbia Graphophone Company, Ltd., and the Gramophone Company, Ltd., opened their factories only last year, the three firms are now producing more than ten million records annually, a total that will be increased, an even doubles, very shortly, it is expected. Each of the companies has found such an amazing demand for their products that they have been working more than one shift, and the Brunswick Company claims that their machines never stop during the whole twenty-four hours” (p. 48).

This article already sheds light to the structure of the Australian recorded music industry in the 1920s. The market was dominated by an oligopoly of foreign major companies, which started manufacturing records in Australia not until 1924 respectively 1926.

But shortly before the European and U.S. record majors entered he Australian market there was another effort in establishing a genuine Australian record company. On October 5, 1923 the World Record (Australia) Pty. Ltd. was registered in Melbourne. The founder of World Record (Australia) was the British businessman and ex-politician Noel Pemberton Billing. He was one of the colourful characters of the early music industry with an exciting vita. At the age of 13 he stowed away from home and ended up in Durban (South Africa), where he joined the Natal Mounted Police, and was even involveld in the Boer War 1903 before returning toEngland. There he designed different prototypes of airoplanes as well as an early version of a flying boat which he called ‘supermarine’. In World War I, he joined the Royal Navak Air Squadron as a pilot. But in 1916, he was elected member of British Parliament and left the army. Suffering from serious health problems, he retired from the House of Commons in 1921.

A year before, his attention was caught by the latest developments in music industry. He invented the recording process with a constant linear speed. Instead of constant 80 revolutions per minute (rpm), the records were recorded as well as replayed with a constant speed of the needle by varying the rotation speed of the revolving table. The main advantage of this technology is that with a constant linear speed, it depends on the diameter of the record, how much music can be stored; instead of 4 minutes per side, up to 15 and even 30 minutes of music could be put on a record’s side. However, a controller device is needed to alter the speed of the revolving table.

In December 1922 the first constant linear speed records were produced for the British market, but did not sell well. Pemberton Billing then went to the United States to establish an American outlet but failed once again. In May 1923, he applied for another patent for a flexible and unbreakable disc record called ‘fetherflex’. Due to poor sales and production difficulties the venture failed almost from the start.

Pemberton Billing decided or, as also suggested he tried to escape his creditors to Australiafor a restart in the music business. With the help of a local distributor of World Record discs, he founded World Record (Australia) Pty. Ltd. in Melbourne. In 1924 the new company started an intensive advertising campaign to feature the ‘long duration records’. In November 1924 the record production at the factory in Melbournestarted with masters Pemberton Billing acquired in the U.S. in 1923 from Emerson Phonograph Company. But later, in 1925 the very first recordings in Australia were made with U.S.dance orchestras and musicians on tour in the country and even with local Australian singers – the Big Four Vocal Quartet, Fred Moore, and Dudley Glass. The recordings were released under the ‘Austral’, ‘Wafer’ and ‘World Record’ labels. In order to promote the records, Pemberton Billing acquired a full equipped radio studio – called 3PB (PB for Pemberton Billing), which was totally devoted to play World Record records between 8 and 10 pm. The approach to promote records by radio play was so revolutionary that the ‘Listener In’ music magazine sceptically asked in a headline on June 5, 1925: “Should radio be used for advertising?”.

It seemed to be that the time was not ripe for Pemberton Billing’s revolution. Despite intense promotion activities, the unbreakable, linear speed records did not sell, and it seemed that the labels ‘Austral’ and ‘Wafer’ have been discontinued around October 1925. Instead, conventional shellac pressings were released under the ‘Condor’ label. After all, also ‘Condor’ failed to attract a sufficient number of buyers, the World Record Co. ended its business and there were any further broadcasts by 3PB after January 1926. Pemberton Billing leftAustraliain early 1926 and tried to establish himself as a playwriter. The World Record factory in Melbourne was eventually sold in 1927 to a group of investors for use of a production facility by the newly-formed Unbreakable Disc Records.

The former technical expert of the Pemberton Billing record company, Frederick George Mitchell, attempted to develop the patents for an ‘unbreakable’ record into a more marketable business. In June 1927 the Unbreakable Disc Records Ltd. was incorporated in Melbourne using the World Record record plant and recording studios as production facilities. Despite highly exaggerated expectations and all odds, the company started record production in May 1928 and released two labels – ‘Aeroplane’ and ‘Golden Tongue’. However, the factory in Melbourne seemed to be in operation only one month, since after June 1928 no further records were released under the mentioned labels. Despite the company’s failure, Mitchell in conjunction with the former factory manager Thomas Rothwell lodged a patent application in May 1929 for improvements in the manufacture of disc sound records, which was extended in January 1930. Test pressings were made in February 1930 the records described as “bendable, dependable and light as a feather” (p. 226), were released in March 1930 under the ‘Bellbird’ label. But soon financial problems forced the new venture to cease production for few months. In September 1930 the company was renamed Flexible Records Co. Ltd., which released the ‘Bellbird’ label again in May 1931. The new company also produced sound-on-disc soundtracks for talking films, but the revived ‘Bellbird’ operation was also short-lived. The last release appeared in June 1931 and Flexible Records Co. Ltd. went into liquidation.

Although brilliant in conception, Pemberton Billing’s inventions did not survive the reality test. The reasons of failure are manifold: The linear speed records could not be played on a conventional phonograph and the controller device could only be used for the recordings of World Record Co. In addition, Pemberton Billing failed to adopt the ‘electrical recording’ technology with microphones, which was introduced in 1925. The cardbord base on which the ‘unbreakable records’ were produced turned out to be porous and tend to fall apart when played by a heavy reproducer and steel needles. Another factor of failure was the limited production capacity at the factory in Melbourne and generally the lack of capital. Thus, the many shortcomings of the venture miscredited the in principle innovative approach to extend the duration of record three- to fourfold and to cross-promote the recordings by broadcasting.


In part 3 the economic rise and fall of the Brundwick-Balke-Collender Company as well as the Vocalion Company in Australia will be highlighted.


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April 2011



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