The Birth of EMI

Wherever are people, whatever their society, whatever their culture, you will find music. During most of our history, we could hear that music if we were only close enough to the people who played it, the musicians. For many, many years, music was a transient, live form of art.

See also this video about when Sony bought EMI:

Then something important happened. Just a few years before the turn of the 19th century, it all changed and things wouldn’t be the same any longer.

1887-1919

In the year 1887, Emile Berliner, an inventor who was born in Germany, presented his invention, the “Gramophone” which was a totally new technique for recording and reproducing sound. He used discs and this process would revolutionize the way we would listen to and experience music.

The history of EMI started at one of Berliner’s companies, the London-based Gramophone Company which was founded in 1897, taking a leading role in bringing musicians and the revolutionary sound recording machines together.

In the first years, the new medium was shunned by many well-established stars. Many saw the “gramophone” merely as a sort of gimmick. The Gramophone Company realized, however, that making recording deals with well-known artists was key if they wanted to attract wider audiences to recorded music.

The company established relationships with the stars and within a few years, the company had signed artists like Nellie Melba, Adelina Patti, and, very significantly, the Italian star tenor Enrico Caruso. With Caruso, The Gramophone Company made over 240 records during Caruso’s career and the impressive record sales, subsequent fame all across the world, as well as his significant income through royalties, persuaded a lot of artists to embrace the brand-new “gramophone” technology. Check also this post about how the University of Calgary received the immense EMI Canada Archive a few years back,

Right from the start, the Gramophone Company had a strong focus on international expansion and within a year, subsidiaries were founded across many European countries and it didn’t take long before the company’s operating areas were including Europe, the Middle East, Russia, India, parts of Africa, China, and Australia and within a decade after it was established, more than 60 percent of the company’s revenue was generated outside the UK.

In 1897, there were more music companies established in London besides the Gramophone Company. In that same year, The Columbia Phonograph Company (the other genealogical thread of EMI) opened for business. The company was set up by U.S. based Columbia Phonograph Company General, and it worked with cylinder recordings including the “graphophones” that were used to play them.

Initially, these music cylinders were outselling the flat records of Berliner but towards the end of the 20th century’s first decade, his flat gramophone records were selling better than the cylinders. Columbia expanded rapidly as well overseas and by 1903, the company was established across Europe as well as in Egypt.

In the years preceding the outbreak of World War I in 1914, The Gramophone Company sold some 4 million records on a yearly basis, but the war was the cause of serious disruption to the business as the factories were mainly used for manufacturing munitions.

After the war was over, there was nothing left of The Gramophone Company’s German activities and even today, the company is operating as the classical label DGG (Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft). The EMI Music Canada Archive, that includes numerous iconic album covers, was given to the University of Calgary a few years ago.

1920-1929

During the third decade of the 20th century, the international music industry found itself back on track. Record sales were booming again as consumers across the world were buying more and more music records again. Columbia’s recording contracts included top conductors of those days such as Sir Thomas Beecham while The Gramophone Company had signed famous British conductor and composer Sir Edward Elgar and additionally released recordings from great orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic.

The Gramophone Company managed to sell over a million copies of a record for the first time in 1926. This was Mendelssohn’s O For The Wings of a Dove (from Hear My Prayer), sung by Ernest Lough, a 14-year-old singer on the company’s HMV (His Masters Voice) label. See also: The EMI Canada Archive.

During that decade, Columbia was expanding through the acquisition of several recording labels across Europe such as Germany’s Odeon, France’s Pathe, and London-based Parlophone label in 1926. Parlophone was an important label that had contracted many classical top artists including those days’ leading tenor Richard Tauber.

In those days, the recording technology improved significantly and in the mid-1920s, the Gramophone Company started to release double-sided record discs and electrical recording was embraced in 1926 which dramatically improved the recording quality.

1930-1949

Both for Columbia and the Gramophone Company, things were on a steady rise until, in the early 1930s, the Great Depression came hitting hard. Before long, record sales lost more than 80 percent and caused by this new, devasting business climate, both companies decided to merge in 1931. The name of the brand new company was Electric and Musical Industries. EMI, as it became known, was born.

Both Columbia and the Gramophone Company had their own R&D departments and not so long after EMI was formed, a remarkable scientist at EMI, Alan Blumlein (who came from Columbia) developed the first system in the world for recording and playing music in stereo sound. To learn more about the EMI Canada archive that was donated to the University of Calgary, check out this article.

The international markets were in a depressed state, though, and it would take another 25 years before stereo recordings would be widely available for commercial purposes. Inspired by EMI genius Alan Blumlein, not only stereo technology, but also the first electrical television saw the light of day which allowed the United Kingdom to be the world’s first country that launched public television services. Another EMI Labs invention was radar which benefitted to the Allied Forces greatly in World War II.

After WW II was over, further technological achievements and developments were launched and the industry started to flourish again. Magnetic tape recording machines became widely available for the first time which allowed artists to record several takes of a song rather than recording everything in one session. The R&D labs of EMI were also involved in developing tapes for recording so the company also began to design and sell its own models. For information about Canada’s Anne Murray, click here.

One more key development was launched in 1948 when the world’s very first 33rpm LP on vinyl was released in America together with a new 45rpm single record. These vinyl formats were lighter, more durable, and cheaper than the earlier 78rpm shellac disc records. LPs were able to include up to 25 minutes of recorded music on both sides, far more than possible with a 78 record. Both formats became instantly popular and were responsible for a dramatic expansion of the recorded music market.