The Early Record Industry in Australia – Part 4

The main competitors on the world record market, The Gramophone Company and the Columbia Graphophone Company, originally hesitated to enter the Australian market and it took several years before they etablished record pressing plants in Australia. Whereas the Columbia Graphophone also ran a recording studio from the beginning, the Gramophone Company could not bring itself to operate recording facilities in Australia in order to produce local acts. The Great Depression forced the rivals to amalgamate to EMI also in Australia in 1931.


Part 4: The Gramophone Co. and the Columbia Graphophone Co. in Australia

The Gramophone Company

The 1898 established British major record company, the Gramophone Company, sent an agent and 25,000 recordings as well as a large quantity of gramophones to Australia in February 1900 to establish a distribution branch under the direct control of the London parent company. Since the sales figures of the first two years in business did not meet the expectations, the retail business was closed down and sold with the remaining stock to the independent Sydney record retailer Hoffnung & Co. Ltd. in 1905.

After World War I, the Australian government enforced a protective economic policy including high tariffs barriers and trade restrictions. Thus, when the distribution agreement with Hoffnung & Co. Ltd. expired in 1925, the Gramophone Co. management decided to take the record business again in its own hands and established a gramophone and record plant in Sydney with a capacity of 150,000 records monthly. To cover the whole pacific market two companies were formed. An Australian firm with a production site in Sydney and a distribution branch for New Zealand held by the new Australian company.

In mid of 1925, a general manager of the new Australian and New Zealand branches, William Manson, was sent to Sydney and on January 18, 1926 he could ceremonially open the new factory, which immediately started to press the “His Master’s Voice’ records and the budget ‘Zonophone’ label recordings.

The firm’s internal correspondance reveils that business ran well. The orders could only be met by additional shifts and supplementary shippings from London. Due to a rapidly growing population the demand for recordings in Australia and New Zealand was far from saturated – in contrast to the stagnating European and U.S. markets. The general manager William Manson reported to the company’s headquarter in Hayes/London: “According to the figures given to me, the sales of His Master’s Voice and Zonophone records in Australia from July 1st, 1924 to June 30th, 1925 amounted to 1,321,403 records. During the same period, sales of His Master’s Voice records in New Zealand were 201,677, making a total for both countries of 1,523,080, or an average of 127,000 records per month (…). Taking everything into consideration, I feel we are safe in anticipating the receipt of orders at the rate of 2,000,000 records per annum, with a strong probabilty of an inrease to 2,400,000 within a year provided there are no manufacturing difficulties or big slumps in the general trade” (pp. 122-123).

But soon the general manager’s euphoria turned to a more down-to-earth assessment of the situation. The main competitors on the market – Brundwick and Columbia– successfully challenged the quasi-monopoly of the Gramophone Company and Columbia succeeded in establishing a recording studio in Sydney. Despite the pressure of the London headquarter, general manager Manson resisted to set up a recording studio too and argued: “The expense of installation and upkeep would probably be very heavy, in addition to which a large recording allotment would be necessary. The Recorder’s salary and expenses would also have to be taken into consideration. The instrumentalists and vocalists here do not compare favourably with the best English and foreign artists, and local jealousies would militate against sales. (…) Then again one has to consider the general policy of Australia, namely, to declaim loudly the necessity of buying everthing Australian but in their private life to buy imported articles and to ‘swank’ amongst their friends that these are the only ones good enough for them.” (p. 128). The correspondance with the London decision-makers also unveiled how the local music scene was assessed by a music industry’s professional. As he pointed out, he did not believe that the recording venture of the Columbia Company would pay them, since “(…) Australian ‘hits’ appear to have been very few and far between, and certainly there have been none of very great importance” (p. 128). And above all: “We, personally, do not think there is a great of talent in Australia – talent that would interest the public.” (p. 124). However, the citations might reflect an arrogant attitude of a British manager inAustralia, but it was without any doubt the predominant assessment on a peripheral music scene far away from the main markets for recorded music.

In 1927 plans were made for a second factory and a suitable location in Lidcombe was already found and purchased. But as the boom came to an end, the plans to erect a record plant were abandoned. Instead, the two main competitors on the world market for recordings – the Gramophone Company and the Columbia Phonograph – decided in 1931 to merge and to create the Electrical Music Industries (EMI) due to the ongoing and deep economic depression. This also affected the Australian branch of the Gramophone Company. The factory in Sydney was closed in July 1931 and the record production of ‘His Master’s Voice’ (HMV) and ‘Zonophone’ labels was transferred to the Columbia pressing plant in Homebush/Sydney. Another aspect of the amalgamation of the two companies was that the Gramophone Company got access to a recording studio in Australia, which resulted in some ‘HMV’ and ‘Zonophone’ recordings of the British comedian John Henry, and the two Australian pianists Isador Goodman and Molly De Gunst. Thus, it has taken more than 30 years until the most influential and traditional record company recorded local Australian artists for the first time. However, no further local recordings were released until the mid-1930s. ‘Zonophone’ was later merged with Columbia’s low-priced ‘Regal’ label to ‘Zonophone-Regal’ and ‘His Master’s Voice’ continued as an EMI label.


The Columbia Graphophone Company

According to Ross Laird there is little specific information about Columbia’s early activities in Australia, but from the main competitor’s internal correspondance it seemd to be very likely that Columbia was still active in Australia in the early 1900s.

However, the Columbia Phonograph Company General – the later parent company of the Australian branch – was established 1900 in London as a subsidiary of the U.S. Columbia Phonograph. In 1913 it was renamed Columbia Graphophone Co. and it became independent from the U.S. parent company in 1923 after managing director Louis Sterling acquired the shares of the British entity from the U.S. shareholders. When Sterling became aware that the electrical recording technology was licenced to the financially struggling U.S. Columbia Phonograph, he purchased the former parent company in March 1925 and formed the Columbia International Ltd. with its headquarter in London.

It must have been in this period when Columbia’s management decided to establish a record plant with recording facilities in Sydney. The local press, however, reported in October 1925 that the Columbia Co. purchased a property in Homebush/Sydney. It seemed to be that the erection of the factory rapidly progressed, because in late June 1926 the Columbia studios in Sydney produced the first two recordings: selections by Sydney Simpson and His Wentworth Café Orchestra and songs by the British baritone Walter Kingsle. Despite the fact that record production and recording had been under way for some time, the factory was officially opened by the Governour of New South Wales on October 14, 1926.

In contrast to Gramophone Company, the Columbia management believed that there was also considerable demand for music by local musicians and singers. Therefore, the recording studio in Homebush did not only produce famous acts on tour throughout Australia but also local artists if they seemed to be ‘hit’ compatible. Thus, ‘orginal cast’ recordings of music theatre productions such as from ‘Rose Marie’ by Rudolf Friml, ‘Madame Pompadour’ by Leo Fall and ‘The Student Prince’ by Carl von Millöcker were also made as well as few recordings by local dance orchestras, instrumentalists and comedians.

But with the arrival of ‘talking’ pictures in the late 1920s Columbia started to press discs of soundtracks of Hollywood movies rather than local music performances. However, as the author pointed out: “Australian recordings continued to be an important part of local sales, through comprising only a small proportion of the discs were released onto the market each month.” (p. 171). A special case was the first recording of an Australian symphony orchestra in February 1930. Since the ‘talkies’ put theatre orchestras out of work, most of the musicians could not find a job in the economic depression. Thus, the Columbia management decided to make two records by a group of unemployed orchestra musicians. The first record consisted of the ‘Hungarian March’ from Berlioz’s ‘Damnation of Faust’ and a waltz of Delibes’ ballet ‘Coppelia’. On the second disc Waldteufel’s waltz ‘Ever or Never’ and Williams’ ‘Guard’s patrol’ could be heard. However, this project was a pure promotion event for Columbia and veiled the fact that the company was doing good business pressing sound-on-disc records for imported films.

But despite of the success of soundtracks,Columbia suffered from the bad economic environment. Sales figures presented by Laird in the appendix (p. 320-321) highlight that Columbia had sold in August 1927 almost twice the number of records (158,219 units) than in in the same month in 1932 (89,559). Also the statement of royalties paid to Australia artists reveiled the deep economic crises. At the end of 1929 royalty payments (£ 1,258) had dropped nearly 60% compared to the end of 1928 (£ 3,066). Laird speculates that only the sales of the budget ‘Regal’ label enabled Columbia to survive on the Australian market. However, the economic depression forced Columbia to merge with its chief competitor The Gramophone Company to EMI in 1931.


In part 5 of the series on the early music industry in Australia the Tariff Board Inquiry of 1927 which led to prohibitively high import duties on records will be outlined in detail.


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May 2011



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