Whatever the culture, whatever the society, wherever there are people, there is music. Throughout most of history, music could only be heard by those immediately around the musician. Music was a live, transient art form.
Then, just before the end of the nineteenth century, everything changed.
In 1887, Emile Berliner, a largely self-educated, German-born American, who had previously developed the microphone for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, invented his ‘Gramophone’ method of recording and reproducing sound using discs, a process that would revolutionise the way music was heard and experienced.
EMI’s history starts at one of the companies that Berliner formed: The Gramophone Company in London. Established in 1897, the company took the lead in bringing together the new sound recording technology and musicians.
Previously, in the brief history of recorded music, the medium had largely been shunned by established stars. Many saw it as something of a gimmick. The Gramophone Company knew that contemporary artists were the key to introducing people to recorded music and so it was the first record company to forge relationships with stars of the day. Within a few years its roster of artists included the sopranos Adelina Patti, Nellie Melba, Emma Calve and, most significantly, Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, who is widely considered to have been one of the greatest tenors of the twentieth century.
Caruso’s first recording session was on the afternoon of April 11, 1902. In just two hours he recorded 10 songs. Over the course of his career, The Gramophone Company released some 240 Caruso records. His substantial sales and resultant fame around the world – not to mention his significant royalty earnings – persuaded many other artists to embrace the new technology.
The Gramophone Company was internationally-minded right from the start. Within a year of being formed, subsidiaries were established across much of Europe and just a few years later the company was operating across Europe, Russia and the Middle East as well as in Australia, India, China and parts of Africa. By 1906, less than 10 years after starting up, over 60 per cent of the company’s revenues came from outside the UK.
The Gramophone Company wasn’t the only music company formed in London in 1897. In the same year the Columbia Phonograph Company opened for business. Established by the American Columbia Phonograph Company General, Columbia traded in cylinder records and the ‘graphophones’ that played them.
For the first few years of the music industry these cylinders outsold Berliner’s flat gramophone records before the tide began to turn in favour of discs towards the end of the century’s first decade. Columbia too expanded rapidly overseas, doing business across Europe and in Egypt by 1903.
By 1914 The Gramophone Company was selling nearly four million records a year but the outbreak of the First World War that same year caused serious disruption to its and Columbia’s business as their factories were largely turned over to the manufacture of munitions. By the end of the war The Gramophone Company had lost its sizeable German business and was unable to regain control of it (it is still operating today as the classical label Deutsche Grammophon). The company also lost all of its operations in Russia due to the war and the Russian Revolution.