Guest post by Daniel Matoušek
Until now, there has not been much literature on the recording industry in the former Czechoslovakia. Particularly the history after the 1950s is not mapped at all yet. However, there are two books about the early music industry in the Czech lands that stand out in scope and in depth of detail: “Fonogram I” and “Fonogram II” by Czech record collector and sound industry historian Gabriel Gössel. The following short series of four articles is thus a look into the history of early gramophone industry in the Czech lands as described in these two volumes.
This second part looks at the period of 1920s, when Czechoslovakia emerged as an independent state with a flourishing market economy, but became also a victim of the Great Depression at the end of the decade.
Just as in other countries, World War I ceased the recordings activities in the Czech lands and it took some time to resurrect it again. Some companies entered the country very soon after the end of the war, whereas others waited for almost ten years before starting business again. The first gramophone discs released in the newly established Czechoslovakia were recorded already around 1920 on the Odeon label. Pathé returned shortly after 1920 with a general representation by company Radio-Lucerna. The Gramohpone Company came back to Czechoslovakia in 1922. Karel Hasler, a famous Czech singer and bandleader, was the first director of the post-war years for the British company. Columbia restored itself to Czech lands only in 1925, in the same year when it opened a new subsidiary in Germany. Kalliope established its Czech branch through domestic company Triumphon only in 1929, even though it was already back on the German market in 1920.
While the record companies returned to the Czech lands, broadcasting emerged as well in Czechoslovakia in the early 1920s. The Czechoslovakian broadcasting history started in a military tent in Prague-Kbely in May 1923 as a private enterprise of a few enthusiastic businessmen (Jesutova 2003: 21). Its first program director Milos Ctrnacty was convinced that radio should not entertain but serve culture, art and education. Therefore, gramophone discs and ‘light’ music were not in favor at the beginning. Unlike German radio the Czech one played no discs at all in years from 1923 to 1924. Only after increased pressure from the listening audience some lighter saloon pieces were included in the program. The ‘chanson evenings’ were incorporated in autumn 1924. By the end of this year jazz was broadcast the first time and comic spoken scenes followed shortly after. In November 1926, gramophone discs were broadcast for the first time during the late night programs. In the next year the Wednesday and Saturday evenings were devoted to ‘fashionable azz ensembles’. Cabaret and funny evenings were also incorporated in the program and by 1930 they were a common part of the program scheme.
The Czechoslovakian radio station even used the one and only recording studio, which operated in Prague at the end of 1920s. It was still usual to travel abroad – to Berlin and the Vienna – for recording. Since travel expenses would have been too high for a whole band, the soloists went there and accompaniment was provided by studio orchestras of particular companies. Only in exceptional cases performers succeeded to bring some of best Czech orchestra directors with them for the recording sessions. Lochmann (1955: 246) mentiones the Dubbing Studio as another private recording studio, which started to operate in Prague in 1928. Dubbing Studio cut records on thin foils and was open for anyone who was willing to pay 25 Kc (Czechoslovakian crowns) for a ¾ minute record of her/his own voice.
In 1923 a new pressing plant for shellac discs was built by Homocord in Prague. However, it was closed down in 1930 due to technical underdevelopment. Besides, the two plants already mentioned were still in use. The plant in Usti nad Labem started production again in 1919 under the new ownership of the British Gramophone Company. Herman Maasen’s facility in Obergrund was in operation too and moreover underwent some interesting development. In 1924, the Obergrund plant started to press mostly for Herman Eisner’s Artiphon Records, which was at that time an extremely active label with myriads of small sub-labels such as Alfa, Omega, Stadion, Home, Special, Record, Titania, Mirofon and Rubin. Most of the output then consisted of cheap discs with a cardboard inside. Later, when demand for cheap paper-filled discs decreased with arrival of electric recording, the Obergrund plant switched to more modern and a quality repertory based on Artiphon matrices.
In the late 1920s, the Czechoslovakian recording industry was also influenced by the world-wide expansion of the film industry. The introduction of sound film in CSR can be dated back to 1929, when U.S. Western Electric company equipped the cinema Lucerna in Prague with a sound system. In 1929, about 20 sound films were sceened, all originating in foreign countries. In 1930, five out of hundred films distributed in CSR were Czech. By the end of 1930, about 40 sound cinemas were operated in CSR. The recordings industry quickly anticipated the movie boom and already produced popular songs from sound films on record already in 1929 – mostly recorded in Berlin. The very first two discs issued by Czech company Esta (more about it in part 3) contained songs from the Czech movie C. a K. polni marsalek and were released at same day when the movie premiered.
In the mid 1920s a new manufacturing site for gramophones was established by Josef Friml in Trebechovice pod Orebem, a smal city in Eastern Bohemia. Friml initially run a wholesale business for music instruments, which operated since 1922. This enterprise flourished and by mid-twenties Friml already offered more than 2,000 instruments and had supposedly the biggest range of strings and music accessories in the whole CSR. In 1925, as his business grew bigger, he expanded into the gramophone branch. Aside from machines he sold needles, sound boxes, springs, discs and later also amplifiers of different brands. In his manufactory in Trebechovice, which was called East-Bohemian Music Industry Josef Friml, he employed five permanent workers and operated a warehouse, which was also located in Trebechovice. Twenty basic types of gramophones were manufactured. The wooden parts were supplied by a local carpenter store. Metal parts and fine mechanics came from the Swiss companies Thorens and Paillard. Friml’s factory mainly produced on demand in order to fulfill particular customers’ wishes. Therefore, the prices varied a lot, from 200 Kc for a basic model up to 2,400 Kc for the most luxurious machines. Thanks to the savings of import duties, Friml’s gramophones were 20 to 40 per cent cheaper than imported machines. The production amounted to 160 to 200 units per month. The biggest profits wrre made by the more expensive models. The main reason for his economic success – besides his tailor-like approach – was that Friml supplied large and expensive coin operated gramophones to restaurants, beer halls and other public places for free. However, when he eventually came back later to change needles, he also collected the inserted coins (one 0.5 Kc coin per side). After gathering a particular amount of money which covered the actual price of gramophone, the machine passed into the ownership of its operator. This “leasing” business proved to be an excellent enterprise. His company survived the great depression as well as the German occupation and World War II and eventually was nationalized by the Communists in 1948. This story may not seem that revolutionary to those who are familiar with the U.S. juxebox industry in the 1930s. However, in Czechoslovakia, Friml’s concept was unique and jukeboxes as a viable part of the Czechoslovakian music industry appeared on the scene only in the early 1970s (Doruzka 1978: 131).
In the next part of the series, the history of the most important Czechoslovakian record companies – Esta and Ultraphon – is highlighted.
Doruzka, Lubomir (1978). Popularna hudba: Priemysl, obchod, umenie [Popular music: Industry, Business, Art]. Bratislava: Opus.
Gössel, Gabriel (2001). Fonogram I. Prague: Radioservis.
Gössel, Gabriel (2006). Fonogram II. Prague: Radioservis.
Gramofonovy prumysl. http://www.usti-nl.cz/dejiny/19stol/ul-5-31.htm (accessed Oct 20, 2011). Note: official webpage of Usti nad Labem, from archival sources of the city.
Jesutova, Eva (2003). Od mikrofonu k posluchacum: Z osmi desetileti Ceskeho rozhlasu [From microphone to listeners: Eight decades of Czech broadcasting]. Prague: Cesky Rozhlas.
Lochmann, Adolf (1955). Gramofnova deska [The Gramophone disc]. Praha: Prace.