The Role of Local Agents In Early Recording
by Paul Vernon
In September 1946, EMI produced an internal report on the then-current status of is overseas agents. Listing over 60 separate companies, and accompanied by pithy comments regarding quality, this document bore witness to the long established arrangement, one that had worked well for over two decades. How this practice developed, and the impact it had upon pre-war 'Vernacular' recording, is a story that, to my knowledge has never been told before.
The first company to employ the practice of appointing independent overseas agents was Odeon. As early as 1904, this Berlin-based organisation had chosen to seek out local retailers and appoint them as agents, rather than set up branches as the Gramophone Company and Columbia then did.
Odeon's success caused deep concern among its competitors. Because the local agents were more finely tuned to their market needs, the records they issued reflected local taste much more accurately than, say, the Gramophone Company's contemporary endeavours. Throughout the period 1904 to 1926, when competition between the then-independent organisations was especially fierce, Odeon's product cut deep and worrying slices of the market away from the London-based companies. As a result, both the Gramophone Company and Columbia were forced to adopt the Odeon philosophy.
While the offer made to agents varied a little from area to area, it broadly consisted of allowing one company, often a hardware or electrical store with a good reputation, the sole concession to both sell and service gramophones and also supply records on a wholesale and retail basis. In order to maximise the sale of machines the recording of local artists was vigorously encouraged by the manufacturer. The local agent was allowed artistic licence to find, sign and prepare artists to record. When these preparations were deemed complete a company engineer bringing equipment with him would visit and conduct a recording session that generally lasted a few days. Once recordings had been taken, the masters were shipped back to the parent company for processing pressing and sleeving. The finished product would then be exported back to the original territory ready for sale, almost always bearing a specific series prefix. It is in this way that collectors today can readily identify an 'ethnic' 78. One only needs to know the allocated prefix for a territory to understand which linguistic group the records belong to.
The financial deals varied from agent to agent but, again can broadly be described thus; the expenses involved in hiring a suitable location in which to make recordings artists travelling ant living fees engineers living expenses while on location and other sundry on-site expenditure were first borne by the agent. The parent company, employing full-time engineers, did not charge recording fees to the agent. The artists fees, paid as either a flat rate or a royalty. were the responsibility of the parent company although the agent was expected to prepare the royalty accounting for submission to head office.
In order to recover the costs incurred the agent would be offered a favourable discount on the initial pressing order and then have that discount readjusted once expenses had been recouped. To illustrate these arrangements with a classic example, we can look at the history of the Gramophone Company's involvement with its Portuguese agent, Grande Bazaar Do Porto.
In response to the activities of Odeon and Columbia in Portugal. The Gramophone Company signed a contract with Grande Bazaar Do Porto in early 1927. The Bazaar was in fact, the largest department store in Porto, Portugal's second largest city. and the hub of all wine exportation. In May of that year two Gramco engineers were dispatched to Lisbon to carry out a series of recordings specifically tailored for the Portuguese market. This two week expedition captured a significant body of Coimbra and Lisbon fados as well as recordings by the Foz Melody Band, a surprisingly accomplished dance band capable of interpreting American hits. When the first catalogue was published, two months later, it arguably represented the finest collection of traditional fado then available anywhere.
For the next five years Grande Bazaar and Gramco continued to collaborate in building a wide catalogue of Portuguese music. Fado, corridinho, rural traditional dance and song all found a place in the repertoire alongside local Portuguese popular songs and a liberal sprinkling of imported recordings that ranged from Jack Hylton and His Orchestra to Francisco Canaro. The prefix that Gramco allocated to its Portuguese recordings was EQ, and starting with EQ-I (an imported U.S. - Portuguese hit recorded by Victor), they eventually reached over 300 issues by 1931.
When the 1931 merger that created EMI took place, the new parent company found itself in the position of having inherited three separate Portuguese agents. Columbia had used Valentim de Carvalho in Lisbon since 1926, and Odeon had been dealing with Ricardo Lemos of Porto for over a quarter century. Despite the 1926 buyout of Odeon by Columbia, the two companies had continued to run autonomously. Now with the new consolidation, a rationalisation process was necessary. In extended negotiations that involved executives travelling from Haves to both Lisbon and Porto, it was decided that Ricardo Lemos would be dropped and the Portugese territory he divided along geographic lines between Carvalho in the south, and Grande Bazaar in the north. Grande Bazaar complained, with some justification, that this would leave them with only Porto to service, since most of Northern Portugal was deeply rural and under-populated. The wealth of the country was largely concentrated in the south. Hayes was intransigent and in consequence Grand Bazaar quickly lost ground to Carvalho. By 1935 they had virtually given up selling records and the EQ series was transferred by Hayes to Carvalho to run parallel with the Columbia 8000, J, DL and ML series that Carvalho had been selling since 1926.
Elsewhere in the world similar arrangements had been made between the parent companies and local entrepreneurs. From Dar-Es-Salaam, where Columbia entrusted its product to the Samuel Baker Company, to Buenos Aires. where Odeon found a German ex-patriot, Max Gluksmann to handle its affairs, the commercial colonisation continued. It was an early example of what today would be referred to as franchising. The agent was required not to undertake the sale or promotion of any competitive product, and those that did often had supplies withdrawn from them. Executives from the parent company would tour the territories on a regular basis and prepare reports upon which future company policy could be based. In all matters the parent company made the final decisions. If the head office felt that sales were not realising full potential, or that their goods were being poorly represented, they would simply disenfranchise the agent and appoint another.
In 1926 a Mr. Sheard toured the Middle East on behalf of the Gramophone company, producing a detailed report on his return.. It is interesting to quote from this report, for it not only shows us something of' the inner workings of record companies in general, but also provides an insight into their attitudes to both their own markets and their competitors.
'Martin & Co. claim they could make more satisfactory recording arrangements than Hakkak (the then current agent) have done, that they are better liked by the Trade, and this I believe, also that they (Martin's) have the only shops in Basra and Baghdad devoted exclusively to Gramophone goods, so that they should have the sole rights of distributing. Taking all the circumstances into consideration and bearing in mind we are doing very good business in Iraq, I decided it would not be advisable to make any radical changes as regards distributorship, but rather concentrate on eliminating as far as possible the price-cutting war which I found going on.'
Rather than switch agents, he simply extended Gramco's parameters:
The following firms will be supplied direct from Hayes: Hakkak & Sons, Martin & Co., Hasso Bros., Skenderian, Mohamed Jemil. To cut off supplies from the last three firms would mean that they could swing over to Competition goods whereas now they handle scarcely any other goods than ours. Although five firms are to be supplied direct, only the first two have the right to wholesale and this arrangement will assist in narrowing the source of supply of price-cutters.'
Sheard also set up a dealers association for the five firms and chaired the first meeting, at which it was agreed that monthly meetings would be held; more importantly, Sheard persuaded all five firms to agree to fixed price maintenance which Sheard then had published in the Baghdad and Basra newspapers before returning to Hayes. He also got them to agree to become watchdogs in the price war and submit immediate reports to Hayes should they see evidence of price cutting. Given that the firms themselves had signed an agreement not to undercut each other, it was easy to have them agree to police their own market.
There was good reason to take such steps; lest we should imagine that the ethnic gramophone trade was small beer, the following will prove otherwise:
'CONSTANTINOPLE. I am very pleased to report most favourably with regard to the new distributors appointed by Mr.Vogel:-
Messrs Schorr & Guessarian are extremely able and pushing men who have opened a very fine shop in the best part of the Grand Rue de Pera. The decorations and appointments leave nothing to be desired. The space is 90 x 22 feet and the shop is very lofty so they have had to put a top to the two audition rooms already installed; one of these has a very fine hand-painted ceiling. The main salon has good rugs on the floor and some very fine decorative work, while the whole lighting system has been carried out regardless of expense. The window display is good and the partners are working along the lines advocated in 'The Voice' (the Gramophone Company's monthly house magazine) i.e. to concentrate and not confuse by showing too many lines at once. Owing to the premises being very lofty a good office has been constructed at the back over the repair room and packing room. There are five assistants and a manager who has been seven years in the business with another firm in Constantinople. A good system of record racking has been installed and a card index is in force.'
In the same report the author proposed a £700 budget be allocated by Gramco to make a series of recordings specifically for the Turkish market. Schorr & Guessarian's success with this initial recording session allowed them to quickly establish market dominance in Turkey, not only for themselves but for HMV. In consequence, Gramco continued to dominate the Turkish market for the next five years, and when the 1931 merger occurred, Schorr & Guessarian became EMI's Turkish agent. For them it meant a sudden access to Columbia, Odeon and Parlophone labels as well as HMV. For Gramco it had meant keeping all competition at bay in an important territory until competition no longer was relevant.
Recordings were not always taken in the territories they were made for. Zonophone's early West African EZ series were all recorded in London or Hayes, rather than in West Africa. Given the frequency and affordability of sea travel between Southampton and Accra, it was deemed cheaper to bring artists to England rather than send an engineer and perhaps over a ton ofdelicate and expensive equipment to Africa. Consequently, during the years 1927-1931 a significant number of African artists found themselves in front of a microphone at Hayes. The bulk of Zonophone's West African recordings were sold by the Tarquah Trading Company at their Kingsway stores in Accra, or by wholesale through Tarquah to smaller retailers throughout the territory. Sales figures appear not to have survived, but evidence of their popularity may be gauged by the fact that over 530 issues appeared over a five year period.
The pressing quantities involved in vernacular' recording varied a great deal from country to country. In Greece 1000 copies of each new title seems to be the average, although beyond that point extended sales figures are difficult to estimate. Certain perennial favourites could remain in the catalogue for as much as 25 years, as was the case in Portugal with records by the much loved Dr. Edmundo de Bettancourt, one of the finest of all Coimbra fadistas. Originally issued in 1928, pressings were still being made as late as 1950.
On the other hand, Odeon's 1931 Madagascan recordings received initial pressing orders of only 100 or 200 each, and from this we can only deduce that the sales of gramophones in Madagascar were limited at the time. From the collectors point of view it is perhaps dismaying to realise how few copies must now survive! The Madagascan recordings appear, circumstantially, to have been made in Marseilles by Odeon's Madagascan agent, Cie Marseillaise de Madagascar who like Zonophone, apparently felt it economically prudent to bring artists to France rather than incur the expense and trouble of sending an engineer and equipment out to Madagascar.
Evidence of similar practice in the case of Cie. Francaise du Gramophone, who for the purpose of refreshing their North African catalogue. in 1931 had their agent, Colin & Co. bring their artists to Paris:
'Our contract with Colin provides for a guaranteed minimum average sale of 200 of each coupling, and the results of the last session, held in North Africa in December 1930 show an average of 244 to the end of June on the 91 numbers already issued. This result over a few months is very satisfactory and we have no doubt that the figures at the end of the current year will have increased to 400/500 per coupling We have taken advantage of M. Mahieddin's visit with his troupe of Algerian artists to record 40 titles at the expense of FF 14,300. There are no travelling expenses to pay. M. Mahieddin insists very strongly on the necessity of making a few Tunisian and Oranais records during the present season, as there are no reserves at all of these dialects, and it is necessary to publish something before next year in order to combat the records now being placed on the market by the competition '
Letter dated 4/9/31 from Cie. Francaise du Gramophone to Hayes.
From 1931 until the outbreak of war, EMI continued the practice originated by Odeon. The 1939-45 conflict severely interrupted business throughout Europe and the Far East, but when peace resumed most agents became active again. During the following 15 years the practice was, to a great degree, wound down as the record industry grew, changed direction and shed the shellac disc. By 1960 there were few agents working under anything like the original terms of their contract.
However, these various practices, applied by all the record companies in the first 50 years of the gramophone's existence, provided them with the opportunity to expand and consolidate their positions in the world market. For today's collector, the legacy they left offers a rich and fascinating array of traditional music that should be fervently treasured.
With thanks to: Bruce Bastin, Rui de Carvalho, John Cowley, Ruth Edge/EMI Archives, Geoff Green, Janet Topp / National Sound Archives.
This article was originally published in the magazine Vintage Jazz Mart No 96, 1994.
Copyright belongs to the author. Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997