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.

Rivalry and co-operation

We’ve seen that Alfred Clark left Berliner’s employ in favour of Edison and moved to Paris to set up a rival to the Gramophone Company in Europe. This put the two old friends, Alfred Clark and Fred Gaisberg, in direct competition for new recordings in 1899.

Clark, pictured above, proved to be a canny businessman. He contacted Trevor Williams, the Chairman of the Gramophone Company and persuaded him to pool resources rather than go head to head against each other.. The Gramophone Company would lead the recording programme. Clark would contribute towards the costs of the recording programme and in return would be able to use the recordings on the cylinders that he would sell for playing on Edison’s phonographs. The Gramophone company would be able to sell the same recordings on their own format. This co-operation seems extraordinary today but Clark was able to secure the deal and it had the consequence of putting more pressure on Fred Gaisberg to deliver more high quality recordings.

To this end, the Managing Director of the Gramophone Company, William Barry Owen, decided to step up the recording programme and send Gaisberg on what must be one of the first field recording trips – to the continent with special portable recording kit.

How Deutsche Gramophone was born

We saw how Trevor Williams and William Barry Owen set up The Gramophone Company in England in 1897-8 to exploit Emile Berliner’s new gramophone technology by finding & recording artists and marketing and selling their records – as well as selling the gramophones to play them on.

Under their deal with Berliner, Williams and Owen agreed that gramophones were to be manufactured in the US and then shipped to The Gramophone Company for European distribution. Their first order was for 3,000 machines, which they would sell for £10 (equivalent of circa £910 buying power today).

The Gramophone Company’s first stock of records also came from the States. The initial order was for 150,000 American manufactured discs. Berliner and the European management decided that a European disc manufacturing facility would be needed quickly because the boat from USA was not only too expensive but too slow for the new enterprise.

Berliner decided to set up a separate company to manufacture the European discs. His brother Joseph offered to invest in the enterprise on the proviso that the pressing plant be located in Hanover, Germany, where he lived. Berliner, who was apparently wary of British Trades Unionism, agreed to the plan in 1898. The new company was called The German Gramophone Company – or, in German, Deutsche Grammophon. It would go on to become one of the greatest record companies of all time and remains today a separate label functioning within the Universal Music empire.

Berliner sent over one of his American team, his nephew Joe Sanders, to set up the plant. He’s standing second from the right in this picture of Berliner’s early US team. Berliner is seated front left.

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.

A Welshman and an American went into a hotel. They came out as employees #1 and 2 of the UK recording industry.

One hundred and fourteen years ago, in December 1897, an American businessman was pacing up and down his room at the brand new and ostentatious Hotel Cecil on the Strand.

The hotel had been opened the previous year in 1896 and was the largest and grandest in Europe, situated in the most fashionable shopping street in the world. Sadly it didn’t survive changing fashions and was knocked down to make way for Shell Mex house in 1930 but back in the day, it looked like this:

Hotel Cecil from the Thames

Hotel Cecil from the Strand

Dancing at The Cecil was all the rage.

The American, who was William Owen Barry, was not there to dance. He had moved across from the US to set up a new company. In fact he was seeding a new industry that did not yet exist in the UK; sound recording. He needed investors and had presumably taken rooms at the expensive Cecil in order to suggest the seriousness and potential rewards of his business proposal.

William Owen Barry

He’d met a number of potential investors since arriving in London in the summer but had not yet been able to secure the necessary funds. Hotel bills and entertaining expenses were no doubt growing as he trawled the town for financial suitors but as he came to end of the year he still had little to show for his endeavours. No doubt there would have been pressure coming from his boss, Emile Berliner, in the States – probably along one of the new telegraph cables that were shrinking the globe. He was pacing up and down the room as he waited to meet a potential investor; Trevor Williams (or to give him his formal Edmund Trevor Lloyd Williams) was a Welshman from North Wales who worked as a solicitor at Lincoln’s Inn and impressed by the new technology and had a yen to invest.

Trevor Williams

But the American needn’t have worried. The Welshman had formed a syndicate to invest $5,000 to secure the European rights to the new fangled Gramophone. They shook hands on a deal and agreed to work together to establish and grow this new business. They would reconvene in the New Year to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and formalise The Gramophone Company. Possibly a glass or two were taken? Maybe a cigar smoked? And then the Welshman would have stepped outside onto the teeming Strand, back into the bustle of the city at the centre of a huge empire, at the peak of the Naughty Nineties, head spinning with the new business opportunity….

Anything was possible.

P.S. In the years to come, their company would return to The Cecil to make records of the house band….

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.