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History of Music in the Recording History - Frere Pathé Salon Paris 1900 flyer


Pt 1 – How it all began

History of music in the recording industry is not the history of music. Music begins before history begins. It was one of the first methods of organized communication, just after cries and instinctive gestures, well before any formalized language. Therefore well before any written memories.

History of music in the recording industry begins in 1877, with Edison’s phonograph.

There have already been some attempts at recording sound, but now we have a device capable of reproducing it too. A sociocultural revolution, because suddenly sound could be heard at a distance of space and time from its emission, repeatedly.

Thomas Edison knew a lot about mass communication. He developed phonograph on the sidelines of his efforts to speed up the reproduction of telegraph and telephone messages. The official announcement came on Scientific American magazine, 22nd of December, 1877.

But an even earlier announcement of Edison working on a “talking machine” came in the Chicago Daily Tribune of May 9, 1877, complete with yesteryear irony.

Brief history of recording industry - Edison's talking machine Chicago Tribune 1877

Edison’s talking machine as pre-announced on Chicago Tribune 1877

• Further developments and success

  The initial results were poor, the material used to record was too perishable. A thin sheet of tin foil wrapped around a hand-cranked grooved metal cylinder.

Alexander Graham Bell made several improvements through the 1880s. He first introduced wax as the recording medium. Bell developed then graphophone, thus Edison drew new impetus and improved his production. The following developments were very fast.

As early as 1889, San Francisco had the first ever “Phonographic parlor“, the forerunner of record shops. A row of coin-operated machines, each equipped with a different wax cylinder. The client inserted a nickel and listened through stethoscope-like devices.

Proto jukebox and proto-headphones, in short.

The success of phonographic salons reached its apex in Paris, around 1900, full Belle Époque. In the luxurious Pathé salon, customers sat in comfortable padded armchairs and chose from the many hundreds of cylinders available.

Salon du Phonographie Pathé Paris 1900 Source : Collection Julien Anton – Phonorama.fr et Gallica.

• First musical recordings

Initially it was all about experimental or demonstration recordings. Spoken word. Edison considered the phonograph an instrument that would replace mail, a forerunner of contemporary voice messages. For this purpose he advertised it through his own men. So in 1888 two “perfected phonograph” models arrived in London, entrusted to George Gouraud. His task was to host so-called Phonograph Parties. These were dinners where to introduce the new instrument to those who could help its commercial development. To this end, on June 29, 1888, Gouraud made the oldest known live music recording, an excerpt from a performance of Israel in Egypt by Händel in London. The next recording was better quality, The Lost Chord, one of Arthur Sullivan‘s most famous songs, recorded at a London party with a duo of unknown musicians.

This is Sullivan’s own comment as sent to Edison recorded via phonograph:

Dear Mr. Edison,
[…] For myself, I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening’s experiment – astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever. But all the same, I think it is the most wonderful thing that I have ever experienced, and I congratulate you with all my heart on this wonderful discovery.

A clear testimony of the fact that music criticism came even before the music records…

• First commercial recordings

First Book of Phonograph Records - source Thomas Edison National Historical Park

First Book of Phonograph Records – source Thomas Edison National Historical Park

It didn’t take much to understand that the medium was functional to music. In May 1889 the production of cylinder recordings for commercial purposes began, first of all military marches and classical music, and the dance music in between, such as quadrilles, waltzes and polkas. Because yes, believe it or not, first association you have with music, when it turns to being popular, is dance.

Notable resident band at the Edison Laboratory was the Issler’s Orchestra, first example of musicians whose purpose was to record rather than play live.

Edison Records was born. Edison and his cylinders accompanied the lives of many families for almost half a century, but a competitor was ready to give the situation a further twist.

The first ever known shellac disc dates 11 November 1889.


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