Everything was on a steady upward curve for The Gramophone Company and Columbia until the 1930s when the Great Depression hit the recording industry, as most others, like a tidal wave. Before the decade was out, sales of records had plummeted by over 80%.
In response to this new business climate, in 1931 The Gramophone Company and The Columbia Graphophone Company, as it was then called, agreed to a merger. The new company was called Electric and Musical Industries, or EMI as it quickly became known.
That same year, 1931, saw another major development for EMI when the company opened the world’s first custom-built recording studio at Abbey Road in London. The legendary studios were opened on November 12, 1931 with a historic recording in Studio One by the London Symphony Orchestra of ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’, conducted by its composer Sir Edward Elgar.
Both The Gramophone Company and Columbia had their own research and development departments. Not long after the formation of EMI, Alan Blumlein, a remarkable EMI scientist who had joined the company from Columbia, developed the world’s first system for recording and playing stereo, ‘binaural’ sound, which allowed the creation of stereo records and stereo films as well as surround sound. However, given the depressed nature of the market, stereo recordings would not be widely commercially available for another 25 years.
As well as stereo technology, under the genius of Blumlein the EMI labs also gave birth to electrical television (allowing the UK to be the first country in the world to launch a public television service) and radar, which would be of immense benefit to the Allied effort during World War II. Blumlein’s career was tragically cut short due to his untimely death in a plane crash in 1942. There is much secrecy surrounding the crash as Blumlein and his colleagues were working on the top-secret radar project at the time.
When he died Alan Blumlein was 38. He received no obituary and still does not appear in the UK’s Who’s Who directory. However Blumlein’s legacy, both for the Allies during World War II and for the music industry all around the world ever since, is beyond question. Many people, from the Wartime citizens of the UK and beyond to everyone who enjoys music today, owe a huge debt of gratitude to the genius of Alan Blumlein.
After the war ended further technological developments were introduced into the music industry. For the first time magnetic tape recorders became available for studios, allowing artists to perform several takes of any given song instead of having to make the recording all at once as before. Tape also made live performances outside the studio much easier to record. EMI’s research labs were very involved in the development of tape and the company started designing and selling its own models.
Another key development came in 1948 when the first vinyl 33rpm LP was released in the US. Together with the new 45rpm singles, these formats were cheaper, lighter and more durable than the old 78rpm shellac records. An LP could also hold 25 minutes of music on each side, much more than a 78. Both were instantly popular and dramatically expanded the market for music.