What Was the First Record Label?

December 22, 2023

By: Troy Brown

What Was the First Record Label

Columbia Records was established on January 15, 1889, and is credited to be the first record label. Columbia was known as Columbia Phonograph Company, which obtained a license for the patent of Thomas Edison’s invention of the cylindrical phonograph. The first record label to produce records as we know them today was also established in 1889.

Emile Berliner started the Berliner Gramophone Company to produce, manufacture, and market early recordings that could be played on his Gramophone player, which he had patented in 1888. These records were made of hard rubber and were generally considered a superior product to reproduce volumes of the company’s early recordings.

The Gramophone was considered superior to Edison’s cylindrical invention called the phonograph. Shellac records replaced the hard rubber discs played on the Gramophone within ten years of Berliner's invention. Shellac produced a much higher quality playback sound than rubber. Shellac remained the material of choice until vinyl was introduced in the late 1940s.

The Berliner Gramophone Company recorded classical music, pop songs of the time, operas, and voice recordings. The company added folk and jazz music to its catalog as the industry evolved. Eventually, the company expanded its voice and musical production operations into Canada, the U.K., and Berliner’s native Germany.

 An Iconic Logo is Born

It was under the control of Gramophone Company’s U.K. division that arguably the most iconic logo in record label history was unveiled featuring “Nipper,” the Terrier, listening to a Gramophone. The logo depicting Nipper was Francis Barraud's artist rendition of his brother, Mark Barraud's Terrier, named Nipper. The painting was aptly named "His Master's Voice." Barraud shopped his picture to various phonograph companies, including Edison-Bell, with Gramophone becoming the buyer of the painting.

An Early Merger in The Record Industry

Eldridge R. Johnson was an entrepreneur who took an interest in the recording industry’s infancy. He was particularly interested in Edison's invention of the phonograph and proceeded to improve it with a spring motor to rotate the machine's cylinder. However, he needed a license from Edison, who held the patent, to manufacture the improvement to the phonograph. After securing the right in 1900, the Consolidated Talking Machine Company was established.

However, Johnson realized that the Gramophone had a superior advantage over the phonograph with its ability to play flat discs with a higher-quality sound that resonated from Berliner's invention. Johnson sought out Berliner, and in 1901, the Berliner Gramophone Company merged with the Consolidated Talking Machine Company to form the Victor Talking Machine Company. The name Victor was chosen to convey the image of power and victory. Not coincidentally, it was also the name of Johnson’s infant son, Victor Hugo Johnson.

Although never selling his stake in Victor, Berliner stepped away from the operations at Victor to continue his life of invention. Johnson went on to run the business. Emile Berliner passed away in 1929 at the age of 78.

The First Recording Industry Giant

Eldridge R. Johnson can be argued to be the first recording industry giant. After the Berliner-Consolidated merger, Johnson became the President of the Victor Talking Machine Company. He used his spring designs, once incorporated into Edison's phonograph, to improve the Gramophone, along with designing gramophones into a piece of furniture with an internal horn that improved the sound quality of the records. These improvements were introduced in the unveiling of the Victrola in 1906.

Johnson remained the President of Victor Talking Machine until his death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945 at 76.

An Acquisition Creates a Major Label

In 1929, Victor was purchased by Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to form RCA Victor. At the time of the purchase, RCA was led by David Sarnoff, who recognized the importance of recorded music in growing RCA. Integrating Victor was a logical step for the media company. With the purchase, pop musician Eddie Cantor, blues legend Bessie Smith, and Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra were holdover Victor artists that recorded on the RCA Victor label.

Over time, RCA Victor distributed many artists, the most famous being Elvis Presley, after moving from Sun Records. In 1986, RCA Victor was sold to BMG, and when Sony and BMG merged in 2004, RCA Victor was entirely under the Sony label, where it remains today.

As for the "His Master's Voice" logo, somewhere lost in time, RCA developed its own logo using Nipper, which we all are accustomed to. To this date, the original "His Master's Voice" brand and logo exists, and its last known owner was Hilco Capital.

Why blog posts about the history of record labels?

As mentioned on Big Timber Entertainment's website, my mom had a collection of 45 RPM records when I was a small boy. Some of my first memories are of Roy Orbison, the Union Gap, Marty Robbins, and The Beatles playing on her small record player. I couldn’t even talk yet, but I remember watching those 45s spinning on the turntable, the coolest tunes of the day coming out of the speakers, and the intrigue of the different labels on each seven-inch vinyl that was spinning under that needle.

Each label had its art. Bobby Vinton was on Epic Records with the yellow background highlighting the black lettering, and the black triangles spinning at the edge of the label could hypnotize a two or three-year-old boy for a solid three minutes. The Everly Brothers were on Cadence Records with their maroon and silver art. Of course, Elvis Presley was on RCA Victor (more on Sun Records in future posts), with Nipper the Terrier listening to the iconic Gramophone player. What fanatical tiny music lover like me could resist a dog listening to music like I did?

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