The Early Record Industry in Australia – Part 3

Not only efforts to establish a genuine Australian music industry failed, but also foreign record companies were faced by severe financial problems after initial economic success. Especially “medium-majors” such as the Brunswick-Balke-Collender and Vocalion did not have sufficient financial resources to establish themselves on the Australian music market in the long run. They became also victims of the great depression like their Australian counterparts. Their story will be told in the following.


Part 3: The rise and fall of Brunswick Records and Vocalion Co. in Australia


The Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company

The first major company which established a record production site inAustraliawas the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company (B.B.C.). B.B.C. was founded in 1845 in Chicago as a manufacturer of furniture, carriages and bowling balls. In 1916, the company entered the music industry as the exclusive distributor of Pathé Frères Phonograph Co. in the U.S.A. At the same time Brunswick began to produce also their first records, which were originally sold only in Canada, but were marketed as well as in the U.S., when the exclusive agreement with Pathé expired in 1919.

In 1921, Brunswick started to distribute their products in Australia via the Sydney based music publisher D. Davis & Co. Ltd. The rising sales figures motivated the Brunswick management in Chicago to establish a record plant in July 1924. Since Brunswick met an unsaturated demand for popular music by releasing ‘hit’ records of U.S. Broadway star such as Al Jolson, Marion Harris and Nick Lucas the first time in Australia, the production figures were behind on orders. Thus, in 1925 the capacities were increased and the record imports intensified. However, beside ‘star repertoire’, Brunswick also released jazz recordings by then in Australia totally unknown jazz giants such as Red Nichols, King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, Clarence Williams and Johnny Dodds.

Although Brunswick had a good start in the Australian market, the production figures reveal (Appendix 2, p. 320) that 1926 was the peak year. In the first half of 1927 much less than half the units were produced than in the previous years.

In 1929 the founder of D. Davis & Co. Ltd. died and his sons Herbert and John Davis succeeded as general managers. In the year before the Davis brothers had established Clifford Industries Ltd. in Sydney with the aim to produce low-price records by US-and European masters in order to distribute them through department store such as Coles, Woolworth and Foy & Gibson. In 1929, when they joined the Brundwick board of directors, their engagement in Clifford Industries let to frictions with the Brunswick parent company. Maybe therefore and due to financial problems, the Davis brothers agreed in a friendly take over by Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company. On May 1, 1930 Brunswick(Australia) Ltd. was registered. Davis & Co. Ltd. received 10,000 ordinary shares and 30,000 nonvoting preference shares, which guaranteed both as to dividend and to return of capital by Brunswick-Balke-Collender for a period of two years. In return, B.B.C. received 20,000 ordinary shares and therefore it fully controlled the new company.

Shortly after the Chicago parent company sold its record division – including also the new Australian venture – to Warner Brothers Pictures. The Davis brothers were upset that they received nothing from the Warner buy and sued Warner Brother as well as the Brunswick subsidies for US$ 2,000,000.

The legal dispute was the beginning of the end. Althought Brunswick (Aust.) Ltd. released records on the just created labels ‘Panachord’ and ‘Embassy’ at the end of February 1931, the Equity Court in Sydney ordered to wind up Brunswick (Australia). Davis & Co. Ltd. had brought in an order for compulsory liquidation due to a high company’s loss at the end of June 1931. The Davis brothers feared that the new owners of Brunswick (Australia) used their voting power to carry on business in order to escape liability to pay the value of the preference shares in the event of liquidation. Since the court assessed that the economic prospects were hopeless and that a large part of the preference capital had practically disappeared, it supported the petitioners’ claims and ordered that Brunswick (Australia) should be wounded up before the company got into deeper troubles. At the end of 1931, the company was out of business.

At the same time Clifford Industries seemed to be also in serious financial difficulties. In August 1931 shareholders were informed that the company could not continue business because of its liabilities. Nevertheless the assets of the bancrupt venture was sold in October 1931 to the Klippel Record Co. Ltd. It is interesting that Klippel was also the legal surname of the passed away father of Herbert and Jack Davis and that one of the new appointed directors was the senior partner of the firm which was appointed liquidator of Clifford Industries. To sum it up, the previous of management of Clifford Industries simply continued operations in another guise. The Davis brothers used the same practice to escape their creditors as they blamed Warner Bros. to do so with Brunswick Records.

The aim of the Klippel Record was the same than that of Clifford Industries – to produce cheap records for chain stores by the use of outdated masters from abroad. But also under the new guise the business was not sustainable. By 1932 the record sales had declined to such a point that the operation was no longer profitable and was ceased.


The Vocalion Company

Vocalion was the top label of the Aeolian Company, which was established in Britain in 1920. Both, the Vocalion as well as the low-budget label Aco were soon exported to Australia. Vocalion early issued special releases for the Australian market and recorded an unusual large number of Australian performers in Britain in the first half of the 1920s.

In January 1925 the Vocalion Gramophone Co. was incorporated and acquired the Vocalian label. After the restructuring, the decision was made to set up a record plant as well as a recording studio in Australia. The new facilities were established in Richmond nearbyMelbourne and Charles Henry Gendle was appointed managing director for the company. At the end of July 1927 the first Vocalian records came off the presses. Soon other labels were introduced to the Australian market. The ‘Polydor’ label of Deutsche Grammophon as well as the ‘Gennett’ label of the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana (U.S.) were produced under licence forAustralia too.

In June 1928 the Vocalion Foreign Ltd. was registered, which acquired the Australian factory and its business facilities. The new company took over the world exclusive manufacturing and distribution rights, except in the United Kingdom, Ireland,Russia and North America. The ‘Vocalion’ and the ‘Aco’ labels were discontinued and were replaced the newly formed ‘Broadcast’ label. During 1929 the Vocalion Foreign Ltd. produced several new labels – ‘Broadcast De Luxe’, ‘Broadcast Twelve’, ‘Embassy’, ‘Arcadia’, and ‘Savoy’ – especially as tradmarks for special outlets such as the Coles Stores and Picot & Rosenthal’s  Stores.

By mid-1929 Vocalion was increasingly active with local recordings for the different labels. But the busy recording activity was soon overshadowed by serious financial problems. For1929 aconsiderable loss was reported and the British parent company grew more and more unwilling to continue funding a loss-making operation and started to look out for a buyer. Indeed, a consortium of Australian and New Zealand investors were found who purchased the whole business in May 1930. In mid-1930 the Vocalian Foreign Ltd. was superseded by Vocalion Australasia Ltd. in Sydney. It seemed to be that the new company had a good start. According to the local press the factory in Richmond worked with full staff on two shifts. Indeed, at the end of 1930 the Vocalion sales reached the high point. The recording studios successfully produced sound-on-disc material for a number of “talkies” and a new sychronizing technology for films was developed.

However, the sound-on-disc process had been rendered obsolete by the widespread use of optical soundtracks and Vocalion was once more in serious financial problems. By the end of August 1931 the company was sued for bancruptcy by one of its creditors. An article in the Australian Phonograph News analysed the background of the financial problems: “Twelve month ago when Vocalion records were booming without an opposition (…) several men connected with the phonograph business shook their heads and predicted that the Company would be bancrupt within six to ten months. The staggering cost of window displays in every large city and the system of selling records on consignment were leading to eventual disaster. (…) The debacle is complete and overwhelming.” (p. 209).

After bancruptcy the facilities were bought by the Moulded Products Australasia Pty. Ltd. – a manufacturer of radio parts and plastic household goods – in early 1932. The new owner reanimated record pressing in the Richmond factory and used masters of the British Decca Record Co. Ltd.[1], which had been searching for a production outlet in Australia. Most of the local productions of Decca/Moulded Products were enabled by composer and music publisher Jack O’Hagan from Melbourne. It seemed to be that O’Hagan was also financially involved in the new venture.

However, after a fire in early 1933 all work at the Richmond factory was ceased. Since the operation was not profitable enough for the company the facilities were sold to the Dunlop Rubber Company.


In part 4 the business activities in Australia of the main competitors on the world record market – The Garmophone Company and the Columbia Graphophone Company – will be highlighted before they amalgamated to EMI in 1931.

[1] The Australian Decca label had no connection with the American Decca which was formed in 1934, or the later Australian Decca which was launched by EMI in 1936.


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April 2011



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