Recording Pioneers- Part 7, William Barry Owen

 

Name:              William Barry Owen

Born:              15 April 1860

Resident:        Born in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts

Occupation:   Sent to London to raise investment funds for the Gramophone Company to expand into Europe

Loves:             Music, Musicians, Gambling, London high society parties

 

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In July 1897 William Barry Owen resigned from his post with the National Gramophone Company in the United States and sailed for Britain. He was sent by Emile Berliner, inventor of the Gramophone and flat disc to set up the company in England and find investors. When he arrived he met a young Welsh lawyer; Trevor Lloyd Williams who became his co-founder of The British Gramophone Company in 1899.

Owen was an excellent sales man, having refined his selling talents as a sales man during his law degree at Amherst College. He was also a gambler who enjoyed the high stakes of starting up new ventures and more importantly he enjoyed living the high life that could be achieved if successful and so he jumped at the potential high profits in Berliner’s new Gramophone.

Initially he threw himself into the work but found high society London to be a tough crowd to crack, the Gramophones were selling but he found it difficult to attract investors to help build the business. It was his idea to bring in the Lambert Typewriter as an insurance product in case the Gramophone flopped. However, as fate would have it, the Lambert typewriter failed to bring in much revenue and The Gramophone Company stopped production in 1904. At this point Owen seemed to loose interest in the business,  he remained on the board for two more years and then left The Gramophone Company altogether in 1906.

After resigning he left Britain and returned home to the United States where he made several unsuccessful attempts in the agricultural business. By 1910 he had spent all of his money and was riddled with debt. He spent the rest of his life living off a pension paid jointly by Victor Talking Machine and The Gramophone Company.

Nipper 1884 – 1895

Name:            Nipper

Born:              1884

Resident:        London

Occupation:   Posing for paintings, attacking Gramophones, looking for His   Masters Voice

Loves:              Being a world famous icon, treats

Francis Barraud’s painting of a fox terrier to an early gramophone remains one of the oldest and best-known of trademarks and records logos. It was a brilliantly conceived piece of commercial art that has become one of the worlds most recognised trade marks.

Courtesy of  EMI Group Archive Trust

Courtesy of EMI Group Archive Trust

Nipper was a stray dog found by Mark Barraud (Francis Barraud’s brother) in 1884. He was called Nipper because he a habit of nipping at the back legs of any visitors. Nipper became Francis’ pet three years later when Mark died.  The iconic ‘His Master’s Voice’ painting was made some time before 1899, although in the original Nipper was listening to an Edison phonograph.

On May 31, 1899, Barraud went to the Maiden Lane offices of The Gramophone Company with the intention of borrowing a brass horn to replace the original black horn on the painting. Manager William Barry Owen suggested that if the artist replaced the machine with a Berliner disc gramophone the Company would buy the painting.  Since then Nipper has been the face of a huge global brand the ‘His Master’s Voice’ painting is one of the most recognised trademarks in the world.

Courtesy of  EMI Group Archive Trust

Courtesy of EMI Group Archive Trust

The Four Major record companies in the UK (in 1924). #1

We’ve stumbled across a wonderful book called “The Talking Machine Industry” written by Ogilvie Mitchell in 1924. It is a bit of a hack job to be frank. Mr Mitchell’s style is frothy and he gallops across a range of subjects to do with the history of recorded music at that point (i.e. less than 50 years after Edison invents the phonograph). The book is one of a series of books about Common Commodities and Industries and appears to have been partly financed by adverts from the industry in question (and in return features some product placement). Long since out of print, it’s a fascinating read. We particularly enjoyed the review of the four big UK companies of the day and will reproduce a section about each of the big four over the next few days, starting now with The Gramophone Company – the predecessor company to the modern EMI.

“In England at the present time there are four companies manufacturing the higher priced records. Of these The Gramophone Company, Ltd., undoubtedly holds the field. The history of this extensive concern has already been referred to cursorily in a previous chapter, but we would like to lay before the reader a more comprehensive chronicle of its origin and rise. Like most of the other large firms engaged in the industry The Gramophone Company began its career in America. As previously stated, Berliner was the man who gave the term “gramophone” to his invention of a disc machine, though he never claimed an exclusive right thereto. In 1896 or 1897 Berliner sold his English patent rights, including, it is said, his rights in respect of certain patented improvements, to a private firm calling itself The Gramophone Company, taking its name from the instrument. In 1899 this concern transferred its business to a company incorporated under the style of The Gramophone Company, Limited, the object of which, as defined by its Memorandum of Association, embraced, inter alia, the manufacture and sale of gramophones and phonographs and gramophone discs and phonograph cylinders. The last mentioned firm continued to sell machines and discs made under Berliner’s patent until the following year, when it parted with its business to a company with a larger capital. This new concern had about the same time acquired an interest in typewriters, and was incorporated as The Gramophone and Typewriter Company, Limited. The same year the Tainter-Bell patent expired, and the engraving method being considered superior to etching, the company abandoned the latter process and adopted the former, continuing, however, to use the name of gramophone. There was nothing wrong in that, for the essence of the Berliner system was the sinuous line of even depth and the word “gramophone“ had come to denote a disc talking machine, as opposed to the phonograph and graphophone which were at that time operated by cylinders.

The Gramophone and Typewriter Company established a branch in England almost as soon as it was inaugurated, with Mr. Barry Owen as its representative, and some time afterwards dropped the typewriter section of the business, reverting to the old title of The Gramophone Company, Ltd. They had their offices in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, and so rapid was the growth of this British branch that a company was formed with a share capital of £600,000, the ordinary shares in the first instance being offered to the trade. Thereupon they removed to the City Road where they remained in full swing until the extensive works at Hayes, Middlesex, which were opened in 1907, were ready to receive the army of workers of every description attached to the firm. This enormous factory has been enlarged and developed since that date until it now covers twenty-three acres of ground.

Ever since the expiry of Berliner’s 1887 patent The Gramophone Company had arrogated to itself the sole right to the term “gramophone.” In its dealings with the trade it had consistently claimed monopoly rights in the word as denoting goods of its own manufacture only, and by warning circulars, legal proceedings and threats of legal proceedings, had done its best to support its exclusive claims. Other manufacturers refrained from describing their instruments as gramophones from the dread of infringing the alleged rights of the company. The gigantic bubble, however, was destined to be pricked.

In the year 1910 the company applied for power to register the term “gramophone” as applicable solely to the wares manufactured and dealt in by them. The most memorable case ever heard of in the talking machine world of this country ensued. It came before Mr. Justice Parker and lasted four days. Experts, legal and otherwise, were called, examined and cross-examined. The court was crammed with all the leading lights of the trade, who were there either as witnesses or as spectators. At length judgment was pronounced Power was refused, and the word “gramophone” became the property of anyone who had a disc machine to sell. A verbatim note of the whole proceedings was taken at the time by the Talking Machine News, and was published the morning after judgment was delivered. It was the only paper that printed the case in extenso.

In legal matters The Gramophone Company have been rather unfortunate, for previous to the case we have spoken of they lost one over the Gibson tapering tone arm in 1906. This was an invention for which they claimed sole rights. These were disputed and the action went against them. Nevertheless, if they have been unlucky in the courts it cannot be denied they have been marvellously successful in business. Before the war there were subsidiary companies in various capitals of Europe, and they were connected with the great Victor Company of America, which has now a large controlling interest in the concern. The Zonophone Company, too, has been absorbed by this firm.

During the war a portion of the huge factory at Hayes, the foundation-stone of which, by the way, was laid by Madame Tetrazzini, was given over to the manufacture of munitions. It is believed that The Gramophone Company was the first industrial concern, not normally engaged on Government contracts, to convert their plant. Within ten days of the declaration of war, the output of certain essential fuse parts was commenced. These required extraordinary accuracy and the mechanism at command of the company enabled them to make a beginning almost at once.

Of the artists exclusively engaged to make the famous “His Master’s Voice” records for the company we shall speak later, and in the chapter devoted to the “Talking Machine as a Teacher ” we shall have something to say of the firm’s efforts in that direction.”

We’ve been trying to find more information about the author but little is available. He appears to have written several pulp novels around the turn of the twentieth century and at least one song called Heroes. (Not the same song as was later recorded by David Bowie!)

Recorded music sales are growing exponentially. Supply can’t keep up with demand….

….in 1898!

We followed how the Gramophone Company and its German sister company had some significant teething problems with the production of discs during the first year of business in 1898.

Whilst the English company was dependent upon its discs coming from Germany it had also agreed to source its gramophones from the American manufacturing plant run by Eldridge Johnson. The American company would send over gramophone parts and the UK company would assemble the gramophones in the Maiden Lane offices before despatching to their 600 retailers.

The huge demand for gramophones stretched this supply chain to the limit during the first year of trading in 1898 particularly as the busy Christmas season approached.

Fred Gaisberg recalled: “We looked upon that first Christmas as our last opportunity to turn a debit balance into credit but our stock of machines was cleared out early in December. Shipments of parts from America were held up, and the dealers were “sitting on our doorsteps” demanding goods. When eventually the cases did arrive, a few days before Christmas, everybody from the manager down to the office boy worked into the early hours assembling the parts. With faces and hands smeared with black lead from the spring-cages, we must have been a comical sight.

Nevertheless, early on Christmas Eve our stock rooms in Maiden Lane were cleared of machines and records, so we “trooped” into Rule’s to celebrate our achievement with drinks all round.”

You can almost hear the excitement of working in a start up business…Fabulous stuff.

The main problem with starting new businesses…

…is getting all the ducks in a row. The early recording business proved no different.

Emile Berliner decided to set up his European disc pressing factory in Germany rather than England in 1898. In doing so he created the German Gramophone Company – aka Deutsche Grammophon (DG).

Berliner’s European operations were therefore split in two. DG was to manufacture the discs in Hanover. The Gramophone Company (of England)‘s role was to find the artists, make the recordings and sell the resultant discs.

Whilst Fred Gaisberg set up the Maiden Lane recording studio in Covent Garden, London, his old friend from America, Joe Sanders, was establishing the disc factory in Hanover. Fred’s task was perhaps the simpler of the two and he quickly set up the studio and created a backlog of recordings that needed pressing as discs. Sanders struggled to provide a manufacturing solution as quickly. He was dependent upon the pressing machines being first made and then delivered from America. They proved slow in arriving.

In the meantime the company sold the 150,000 records that they had imported from the States. These were quickly running out. The gramophone was already proving a huge success in Europe. Generating sales was not turning out to be the problem for the new business, but they were finding it difficult to make enough discs to meet the new demand. Alfred Clark who ultimately became Managing Director remembers the early days of the business in a later article for Gramophone Magazine (here) and recalls that “from its earliest days the company made large profits”. By Xmas of its first year of business The Gramophone company had established a distribution network of more than 600 shops selling gramophones and discs, including the oldest record shop in the world; Spillers Records of Cardiff.

Joe Sanders received his manufacturing presses in the autumn of 1898 but the factory that was being built in Hanover to house them was not ready. To meet the demand for discs in the run up to Christmas of that year he erected a huge tent next door to where the manufacturing plant was being built and produced the entire European supply of discs from under a big top. Even with such constraints he was able to deliver discs within a month of the recordings being sent from London which is a quite remarkable achievement. The proper factory was completed in 1899 and you can see the presses in action within it, here:

Setting up a record company #6 Getting the right people onboard

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #6. It’s late 1895 and the fledgeling gramophone enterprise has just raised $25,000 from the Philadelphian syndicate to expand the business. Berliner now begins to look around and take on more staff.

His first move was to increase his research staff. Fred Gaisberg suggested his brother Will, who was just about to leave school and was desperate to join his big brother in the recording game. Berliner was happy to take the younger Gaisberg on but Fred’s father thought otherwise. Will recalled in later years, “My father informed my brother that he did not think that he should let two of his sons start their careers in such an uncertain business as the talking machine. His friends with whom he had discussed it agreed with him. I was put to selling coal, and a school chum of mine, William Sinkler Darby was given the position.”

William Sinkler Darby would go on to have a long recording career and would travel the world with Fred Gaisberg making many of the first recordings in each country that they visited. We followed them in their Russian trip of 1900, where they picked up these wonderful bearskin coats (not so wonderful if you are a bear.) Darby is on the right, Fred on the left.

Was Will Gaisberg bitter? Probably a little. Did he while away his life in the coal business? No. His father’s reticence to allow him to join elder brother Fred restrained him for only a short while. In early 1901 Will followed his brother across the Atlantic to join him at the Gramophone Company in Maiden Lane.

Setting up a record company: #1 Get the technology right

When William Barry Owen and Trevor Williams shook hands to establish the UK’s first record company, The Gramophone Company, in 1897 they sent for Fred Gaisberg, an American “recording expert” to come over to England to help them by setting up the recording department and the UK’s first recording studios in Maiden Lane.

Fred’s involvement in the American parent company, The United States Gramophone Company, went back much longer – to its very inception. We plan to tell the story of how that record company came into being in seven blog entries over the next seven days….

You might remember from an earlier blog entry that Fred had been working for Thomas Edison’s Columbia Phonograph Company before meeting the eccentric inventor, Emile Berliner. Berliner had worked out how to record on flat discs that were a marked improvement on the cylinders being used by Edison. He called his playback device the gramophone. Fred asked Berliner for a job when he felt he was was ready to take the new invention to market.

Later in 1893 Fred recalls that he “received a postcard asking me to come and see him [Berliner]. In great anticipation I called at his house. he informed me that in recent months his laboratory experiments had culminated in the production of a recording and reproducing process sufficiently advanced to place on the market. He also confided to me that three of his relatives and friends had formed a small syndicate to exploit his gramophone. With the limited funds he wanted to make a small programme of songs and music for demonstration purposes in order to raise capital for promoting a company. He told me I was just the person he was looking for….My value to Berliner rested in the fact that I could collect quickly a variety of effective talent to make these demonstration records.”

Fred of course said yes to Berliner’s offer and they switched into business start up mode. Over the next six days we plan to highlight some of the key moments in the setting up of what would become the record business. All the great recordings from Sinatra to The Beatles to Lady Gaga can be traced back to the events of the next few years. 1893 to 1897 saw the invention of recording sound become a business.

Publicity photos of the early Gramophone stars #2 Albert and ‘is old Dutch

This is the second in a series of publicity shots from the early years of the recording business that our friends at the EMI Archive Trust have made available to us. These two photos are of Abert Chevalier who was a comedian, actor and music hall star at the turn of the last century. He is clearly throwing himself into the world of PR – much more so than opera stars Gluck & Homer in our previous photo.

Chevalier’s most famous act was as a singing Cockney costermonger (or market trader; which must be the top photo) and biggest hit was My Old Dutch which was a sentimental tune about a man’s love for his wife ( its Cockney rhyming slang: Dutch = Duchess of Fife = wife). It was written in 1892 and already hugely popular when Fred Gaisberg recorded Chevalier singing it at the Maiden Lane studios in 1899. The tune was a hit both in the UK and US and went on to two spawn two films of the same name, the first starring Chevalier in 1915. His full name has to be mentioned; he was born Albert Onesime Britannicus Gwathveoyd Louis Chevalier. We are going to give Mr C 4/5 for his photo pose but will award him an extra half a mark for that collection of forenames. So, final PR score for effort in a publicity photo = 4.5/5. Great score.

If you have been affected by any of the content included in this post please dont hesitate to get in touch with The EMI Archive Trust who will be happy to talk to you about this picture and the rest of their wonderful collection.

“That faint perfume of the salons” The Gramophone Company moves into Opera. 1902.

In the early days of their UK business (i.e. before 1900), Gaisberg and the Gramophone company made good headway in persuading music hall stars and comedians to record with the new Gramophone technology. They found it much more difficult to persuade the great Opera singers of the day to condescend to do so.

To try to alter this, Gaisberg recruited Landon Ronald, who had been Nellie Melba’s pianist and is seen above posing with her, to come on board as an A&R man to actively target the recruitment of Opera stars to the cause in 1900. Their breakthrough came a couple of years later with the huge success of the first Caruso recordings in 1902 which proved that the new medium sounded good but also, crucially, that it was a lucrative new source of revenues for the singers.

On May 30th 1902 Pol Plancon, who was a leading Opera star, arrived at Maiden Lane for a first recording session with Gaisberg in pursuit of the recording shilling. This photo is from the EMI Archives and shows Plancon in a publicity shot. Fred remembered him as “daintily booted and gloved like a Parisian dandy with that faint perfume of the salons about him” which certainly concurs with the picture. Plancon was not impressed by the dingy premises at Maiden Lane, literally turning his nose up at the place. It took some witty stories from Landon Ronald, who was there as accompanist, to relax Plancon sufficiently to deliver his contracted 10 sides of music.

These are the pictures that show the birth of the UK recording industry.

In 1898, the recording industry was a handful of years old and based almost entirely in America when one of the big Stateside players, The United States Gramophone Company, owned by Emile Berliner, decided to move into Europe to challenge the
thee year old French Pathe Company who was the biggest European recording company at the time.

They sent an American, William Barry Owen, over to London to bring together a syndicate of local investors to finance the expansion. Owen was a natural entrepreneur and gambler as Fred Gaisberg remembers:

“He was an opportunist and a bold gambler…You would always find him in the stiffest game of poker in the drawing room..and his eyes would bulge as he laid a full house of the table. He brought to London an infectious enthusiasm and energetic leadership which I believe was quite new to the conservative English city man of that day.”

Owen connected with Trevor Williams who was a Lincoln’s Inn solicitor who was enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new technology and raised $5,000 from friends and family to acquire the European rights to Berliner’s Gramophone.

Gramophones were to continue to be manufactured in the US and imported to Europe. The new investors insisted, however, that recordings of European popular artists were essential to the company’s success on the continent.

The new company, called simply The Gramophone Company, held its first meeting in April 1898. Owen became Managing Director and Williams was made Chairman. As with most start up businesses, the management were motivated by the fact that they had invested their own money in the company. They decided to order 3.000 gramophone machines and 150,000 records from the States to start the business and requested an American recording expert to be sent over to help them develop the European recording programme.

Emile Berliner chose 25 year old Fred Gaisberg to come over to England to set up the recording department which he did in the basement of The Cockburn Hotel 31 Maiden Lane in the late summer of 1898.

More photos of this birthplace of the British recording industry have been unearthed by the EMI Archives staff.

Here is the first picture that was found and we talked more about it here:

This next, new, picture shows the same room but from a reverse perspective. It looks like Amy Williams and the mysterious young man from the first picture are seated on the right hand side of the picture and that could be Fred Gaisberg on the left. There is a strange looking multi-horned contraption to the right of the picture and we are not sure whether that is a recording or playback device:

And the exterior of the Cockburn Hotel at 31 Maiden Lane that leased its basement to The Gramophone Company looked like this. Its difficult to make out the two people in the doorway but they could well be Fred Gaisberg and a colleague:

Clearly the studio was ready! Next stop….find some artists.