Authors: Gareth Murphy
Emphasizing its ambitions, Victor moved its recording facility from Carnegie Hall to luxurious premises on Fifth Avenue. Here, Victor’s chief recording engineer, Raymond Sooy, witnessed how
, as recording studios were then called, became intense places. Huddled around a sound trumpet, the art of recording was a difficult craft. Not only did every musician have to stand at a particular distance from the trumpet, violinists played bizarre-looking Stroh violins fitted with horns. Because playback was limited during recording, after every take the sound engineer rapidly examined the master with a magnifying glass, visually examining volume levels and able, if necessary, to ascertain which instruments were causing distortion.
Not surprisingly, many established singers and entertainers were terrified by this peculiar science. Sooy looked on as one opera star got “so nervous after trying to make an attempt to make a record that he picked up his hat and coat, and ran out of the studio, leaving the orchestra sitting there.” It was also common for comedians or theater actors to get so frightened “they would start to tell the story backwards; in fact, they would forget their own names.”
As well as supplying alcohol, Sooy recorded jittery performers in their stage costumes. “Let them don an old hat and a pair of big spectacles or their accustomed make-up, and they would immediately feel in the proper atmosphere and continue the story without another falter. The make-up seems to help them although there is no visible audience,” observed Sooy. Because every artist had his own particular hangup, every session environment had to be adapted to each performer’s idea of comfort. “No two artists ever face the recording instrument quite alike. Some are nervous; some confident; some cannot make records with a spectator in the studio, while others must have someone standing by constantly.”
The world of classical music had its fair share of divas and eccentrics. One Victor star “accused someone in the studio of stealing his tobacco pouch. A hunt for same was taken up but it could not be found. One of the men in the studio offered the artist some tobacco from his pouch; the artist remarked, ‘he would try it, but he knew it would be a damn poor substitute.’” In the end, “the artist found his pouch in his own pocket.”
In another bizarre incident, a difficult artist was taken to the Victor Lunch Club. “This artist found a speck of something in the drinking water and immediately started to rave and accuse someone of trying to poison him, and as each course of the luncheon was served, declared it was the vilest food he had ever put in his mouth. After a few compliments were paid to this artist’s ability, he forgot about the food, and when the luncheon was finished, he arose from the table, kissed the colored waitress’ hand, complimented her, and told her how he had enjoyed the luncheon.”
Raymond Sooy contrasted all these examples with the man who, pocketing a tidy fee of $5,000 for an afternoon’s singing, changed Victor’s destiny. “Mr. Caruso was the easiest artist who came to the laboratory to record. Nothing seemed to make any difference to him, he almost always sang perfectly and with this confidence, he had nothing to fear.” With experience, Sooy came to understand that “a good recording man must be the same as a good musician. He must
his work in order to get the best results out of it, as this cannot be done mechanically and prove successful.”
As both export and import markets opened up, Victor’s recording staff was dispatched overseas to exotic destinations such as Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, and Peru to record local stars. The travel involved long journeys on steamships and trains, with their equipment packed into cases. Eldridge Johnson not only allowed them to take their wives, he actively fostered a family atmosphere, helping his key staff to buy their own houses.
The magic ingredient behind Victor’s rapid growth was the brilliant marketing of Leon Douglass, a streetwise eccentric who had worked his way up through the fledgling phonograph business. Nebraska bred, Douglass had received no schooling and provided for his family from the age of eleven onward. As a boy he had worked as a printer, telegraph messenger, and telephone-exchange manager. Fascinated by new technology, he worked for Lippincott’s Nebraskan distributor. Noticing that few people in the 1880s had the money to buy Edison’s first phonographs, he was among the first to build his own coin-operated jukeboxes. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, he made his first killing as an entrepreneur, installing one hundred coin phonographs for the public.
With almost twenty years of experience, Leon Douglass knew the trade inside out—the personalities, the technology, the music, and above all the audience. Eldridge Johnson, who was a relative newcomer to the game, gave Douglass free rein to formulate Victor’s image and commercial plan, even paying him a higher salary than he paid himself. The trust was mutual. Douglass would say of Johnson, “He was a shy man but had the most brilliant mind I have ever known.”
It was Leon Douglass who understood the iconic power of a novelty painting by Francis Barraud that Berliner had received from his London office back in 1899. Called
His Master’s Voice,
it depicted a fox terrier called Nipper peering into the phonograph trumpet out of which his dead master mysteriously spoke. After the transfer of Berliner’s patents to Johnson, Leon Douglass labeled all of Victor’s products with a simplified logo of the dog and gramophone. In time, the image and the slogan “
His Master’s Voice
” would be among the most striking and enduring trademarks of the twentieth century.
As well as showing off Caruso in advertisements, when the industry’s first monthly trade magazine,
Talking Machine World
, began in 1905, Douglass secured an exclusive deal to put Nipper on every cover. Though very costly, it proved to be an effective way for Victor to declare its preeminence. “Mr. Douglass was one of the ablest and most brilliant men of his time in the advertising and selling fields,” wrote Eldridge Johnson. “From the outset [he] insisted on spending thousands of dollars per month for advertising. Although his policy in this respect was at first somewhat startling to me, the rapid and continued results obtained proved the soundness of these expenditures.”
Then, in August 1906, Victor released an experimental model that, quite literally, turned the market inside out. What distinguished the
from previous phonographs with protruding horns was its revolutionary “internal horn,” hidden inside the elegantly carved wooden cabinet. Leon Douglass personally built the first Victrola prototype, believing “ladies did not like mechanical looking things in their parlors … Mr. Johnson was afraid we would not be able to sell so many. And I was a little timid myself … They cost so much, we would have to sell them at two hundred dollars each. We not only sold those, but many millions more. [Eventually] we were obliged to use seven thousand men to make the cabinets alone.”
Demand for the Victrola boomed into the hundreds of thousands, firmly establishing Victor as the world leader. Many hundreds of millions of records were sold thanks to the popularity of its homey, salon-friendly design. Between Victor’s powerful advertisements, its catalog of operatic stars and its beautiful players, Douglass and Johnson had found the perfect formula to capture the spirit of the Edwardian era.
Alas, following the birth of Leon Douglass’s son—whom he christened Eldridge in honor of his boss—the Nebraskan salesman became burned-out and suffered a severe nervous breakdown. In just seven years, Douglass had navigated Victor to a position of total dominance but overworked his mind until it became a room full of voices. Illustrating the deep affection at the top of the company, Eldridge Johnson allowed Douglass all the convalescence time he needed on full pay, $25,000 per year. As things turned out, Leon Douglass’s office would remain a dusty museum in the Camden, New Jersey, headquarters. He was nominated in absentia as the corporation’s symbolic chairman.
His protégés continued to scoop up exclusive deals with the biggest stars of the day: violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler; Irish tenor John McCormack; sopranos Alma Gluck, Nellie Melba, and Luisa Tetrazzini. The humbled Columbia stepped back and let Victor create a virtual monopoly in highbrow music.
Now twenty years in the game, Edward Easton was heading for his own breakdown. With Victor charging ahead on every front, he began looking for alternative markets and foolishly returned to the idea of selling dictation machines to administrations. If the business plan was ill considered, his timing couldn’t have been worse. The expanding money supply needed to support America’s economy had come from discoveries of gold reserves in Alaska, Colorado, and South Africa and gold transfers from European banks. Worried by their diminishing reserves, European banks increased their interest rates, and the gold began flowing back to Europe. Also, following the previous financial crash in 1893, regulation forcing banks to maintain cash reserves had failed to include trusts. As a result, the number of trusts holding only 2–3 percent cash reserves had quadrupled. So when the stock market fell by 50 percent in October 1907, worried depositors began withdrawing their money from trusts. Unable to pay, many banks became insolvent.
Although calmed by government bailouts, the so-called
Panic of 1907
sent aftershocks through the economy. Easton had been indulging in some wasteful investments, and Columbia found itself with severe cash flow problems as banks postponed making loans. He was forced to lay off hundreds of staff in New York and Washington. After that, his daughter recalled, a “deep melancholy settled over Father. He could not smile. He would hardly speak in the long evenings at home. He would sit for hours staring into space.” Crippled by failure and fatigue, the Columbia boss sank into an inconsolable depression.
On January 23, Easton boarded the morning train to Manhattan, accompanied by his faithful colleague William Morse. When Morse noticed Easton hadn’t come back from the dining car, he sensed danger and asked for the train to be stopped. Edward Easton was found lying between the tracks farther back down the line—alive but mentally numb. He had tried to commit suicide.
The economic recession hit everyone hard, even Victor, whose sales plummeted by 50 percent. All companies adopted the same crisis management policies; cutting prices, letting go of weak product lines, and concentrating efforts where demand was strongest. Phasing out cylinders, Columbia launched its own copy of the Victrola, the
and began producing its own double-sided discs. By about 1910, however, confidence returned, and Victor celebrated its best year to date with 107,000 Gramophones sold. Investing heavily in marketing, it launched its own newsletter,
The Voice of Victor,
which kept dealers up to date with new releases, merchandising ideas, and corporate news. Traveling salesmen began arriving in stores giving away free Victor signs and elegant shop displays.
Edward Easton came back to work, but he was dealt another blow when his popular manufacturing chief, Thomas Macdonald, suddenly died at the age of fifty-two. After years of brooding, he sent out a message to Thomas Edison: Columbia was for sale.
“Why if you people are doing so well are you willing to turn your business into our hands?” asked Edison’s label head, Frank Dyer. Easton confessed he wanted out of the business. He had lost interest; his dearest business friends were all dead. Although Dyer was tempted by Columbia’s disc patent, one revealing memo from him to Edison evoked the burning issue that Columbia’s competitors could never forget. “There is the feeling that has always existed against Columbia and Mr. Easton personally as being unscrupulous and unreliable,” he wrote. “I know that Mr. Eldridge Johnson entertains the same feeling.”
Though Easton’s offer came to nothing, it at least provoked a reality check within Edison’s camp. In 1913, the company released its
Edison Diamond Disc
, which used vertically cut grooves. Being obsessed with sound quality, Edison launched his new system with heavily publicized “tone tests” held in theaters and churches. The machine and a singer were hidden behind a curtain, and crowds were invited to distinguish between the two. In fact, it was all an absurd gimmick; the singers were all trained to sing like a record player.
Edison’s Achilles’ heel remained music. Stubborn, uncultured, and fiercely possessive of
invention, he took personal control of A&R. He received excellent operatic recordings from his European partners, but his contempt for people he called “opera perverts” meant that many potential hits were never released in America. A famous put-down by the violinist Samuel Gardner held that Edison’s deafness “had nothing to do with his musicality, because he didn’t have any.”
As Edison fought back clumsily, Edward Easton’s demise was rapid. Having never won the full respect of the wider record business, he died in 1915 an unhappy millionaire at the age of fifty-nine. Although his competitors considered him a shark, he was responsible for some important precedents in the music business. In particular, through his extensive use of lawyers, Edward Easton was a taste of things to come.
As war broke out in Europe, Eldridge Johnson’s musical empire was on top of the world. Celebrating its first million-unit record in 1915 with Alma Gluck’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” by 1917, Victor had sold half a million Victrolas and released some 7,000 titles. However, with such success came responsibilities. When America entered the war in late 1917, Johnson was constrained by the government to convert most of his factory to manufacturing rifle parts and biplane wings. Coal shortages also forced closure every Monday for eleven weeks in early 1918. In that grueling year, Victor only managed to press 21 million records, a 40 percent drop in productivity. Fortunately, America’s war effort was brief, and by 1919, Victor’s annual production rose to 474,000 machines. By 1920, annual business rose again, and the company had its second-best year, selling 560,000 machines and 33.4 million records. In 1921, Victor sold a spectacular 55 million records.