Recording new sounds: the role of record companies

vinyl record

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For many of us records - CDs, LPs, download tracks, etc - have become such a part of our lives we can't imagine what life without them would be like. They have become part of who we are, and we turn to them in many different situations. Many of these situations are based on familiarity - we already know the sound that will come out of the speakers or the earpiece.

The ability to hear a favourite piece again and again, and to choose when to hear it, has been one of the great gifts of sound recording, and one that record companies have kept alive ever since they first arrived on the scene in numbers in the early 20th century. To a considerable extent they built their businesses on it. But from an early stage they were also aware that selling what was familiar was not enough but had to be mixed with a judicious element of newness. Often the new sound was not unique to records. For example, newspaper advertising in 1927 might encourage readers who had seen the first 'talking picture' featuring singer Al Jolson, to go out and buy his records. In the same way, many years later, advertising for Celine Dion's recording of 'My heart will go on' typically included a phrase such as 'Love theme from the movie Titanic'. But if records were not the very first purveyors of a new sound in those instances, they were clearly what the late 20th century would call cutting edge.

Record companies are businesses first and foremost and as such they make commercial judgements on the sales potential of any sound, old or new, whether it is the sound of a musician, a band, or a whole new style. Sometimes commercial gambles have paid off handsomely and listeners have benefited as a consequence. Sometimes companies have been accused of failing to grasp the significance of a new sound - and its sales potential - and so failing the public. On occasion they have made dramatic mistakes, as when the record company Decca turned down the chance to record the Beatles in 1962, reportedly saying that 'guitar groups were on the way out'.

History shows us several examples of record companies taking note of the popularity of an existing style of music and acting upon that by recording it. In so doing they brought it as a new music to audiences that had not previously known it. One of the most significant examples for the future of popular music occurred in the 1920s in the US, when companies first started recording blues and country music. They did so because although company personnel were sceptical - the audience for blues, then called 'race music', had no money; country music was for 'hillbillies' - they were prepared to gamble on information received that a sufficient market existed. Even so, the success of these recordings came as a great surprise. But for many years the music that was recorded was only sold back to the communities out of which it came. An element of novelty was built in but that rarely extended beyond encouraging people to buy the latest record by, say, Bessie Smith. After World War II however, blues and country music records started to be played more widely on the radio and heard for the first time by a wider audience including many teenagers. The impact of these new sounds was one of the main forces behind the emergence of rock 'n' roll.