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Inside the Archival Box: The First Long-Playing Disc

Today is Record Store Day, a movement that began in 2007 in order to celebrate independent record stores and the unique culture of owners, employees, artists, and customers that help them thrive. In honor of the occasion, here’s another “Inside the Archival Box” post with a look at the production of the first LP!

Columbia Records released the first long-playing microgroove record, spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute and holding about 23 minutes each side, in June, 1948. The 12-inch LP quickly became the standard format for commercial recordings, ushering in a new musical unit of consumption—the album.

The Recorded Sound Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress holds a collection of Columbia Records paperwork, which spans the years 1923 to 1964 and contains materials such as record label orders and copy sheets, press release information, recording studio job sheets, and cut-out project information (describing records to be cut out of the catalog).

Label paperwork for the first LP: a recording of the New York Philharmonic playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (Box 121, folder 3, Columbia Records Paperwork Collection).

Inconspicuously described in the finding aid of the collection as “Box 120-121: ML 4001 to ML 4169, 1948 March-1949 April” are label orders related to that very first LP. With a matrix number—the serial number assigned to each side of a disc by the record company—of ML 4001, the first long playing disc featured the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York (better known today as the New York Philharmonic) under the baton of Bruno Walter, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor with Nathan Milstein as the soloist.

The order form, accompanied by several early drafts of the center disc label, is dated March 1st, 1948, and is signed by H.F. Chmura—Columbia Records librarian Helene F. Chmura.

Along with the label order forms for ML 4001 are labels, forms, and several copies of a memo from April, 1948, regarding special demonstration albums consisting of four 12-inch discs and two 10-inch discs that were sent out to Columbia’s distributors in June of 1948 (Office Communication from Ken McAllister to Elmer Eldridge, April 1948, Box 121, folder 3, Columbia Records Paperwork Collection). Along with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, these albums featured three other 12-inch LPs of a demonstration talk describing the advantages of the new long-playing vinyl record and classical music from the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodzinski: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor (with Oscar Levant at the piano), Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, favorites from Bizet’s Carmen, and ballet suites from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Khatchaturian’s Gayane. The two 10-inch discs featured Strauss waltzes and the music of Stephen Foster conducted by Andre Kostelanetz. 10,000 copies of each album were produced to be shipped in bulk to Columbia’s distributors by June 21st, 1948.

Record labels from the demonstration album, sent to Columbia’s distributors in June, 1948 (Box 121, folder 3, Columbia Records Paperwork Collection).

The album’s 12-inch discs were given blue labels and the 10-inch discs green, and both sizes had the sides of their labels clipped to indicate that the records were not for commercial sale.

On that June 21st date, Columbia Records president Edward Wallerstein announced the new technology at a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Wallerstein demonstrated the new record, and declared that Columbia was ready to sell the new format straight away.

LPs are first listed and lauded in the 1949 Columbia Record Catalog. The new record, which featured not only a finer groove but was also made of a sturdier material, vinyl, is described energetically in the catalog:

The revolutionary new Columbia Long Playing (LP) Microgroove Record plays up to 45 minutes of music on one 12-inch record, or approximately six times as much music as conventional shellac records. After more than a decade of preparation, the world’s greatest symphonies, concertos, tone poems and chamber music are now held in their entirety on one album-length record. Available, too, are sparkling collections of lighter music and popular songs, by leading artists. LP records are made of nonbreakable Vinylite, giving you in addition to the extended playing time the strength of Vinylite discs and their noise-free surfaces. Each LP record consists of scores of microscopically fine grooves, precisely controlled channels capable of capturing the most subtle nuances or most magnificent fortissimi.

In fact, Columbia was not the first record company to try to improve upon the limitations of 78 rpm discs. Wallerstein himself had shut down a failed attempt at a long-playing disc during his time at RCA Victor in the early 1930s. Many of the parts of Columbia’s successful LP existed as early as the 1920s: the material (vinyl), the speed (33 1/3 revolutions per minute), as well as several unsuccessful attempts at microgroove, including RCA Victor’s. It was the microgroove that ultimately proved crucial to the success of the long-playing disc, and it was the microgroove that Peter Goldmark and his team of Columbia (and its parent company, CBS) engineers perfected in the summer of 1947. A number of engineers and managers deserve credit for that breakthrough: Goldmark, who oversaw the project; Bill Bachman, an engineer and research director at at Columbia whose “brains and leadership” brought the project to fruition; and several other engineers named by Sean Wilentz in 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story—Bill Savory, Ike Rodman, Jim Hunter, Vin Liebler, and Rene Snepvangers (pg. 129).

The introduction of the long-playing disc changed the way record labels, musicians, and consumers packaged, created, and listened to music. When Columbia first began manufacturing LPs, the term “album” referred literally to a collection of discs contained together in a group of bound sleeves. This was because longer musical works required multiple 78 rpm discs, the most popular recording format at the time. As LPs gained prominence, the term shifted meaning to refer to the songs or pieces recorded onto a single record—creating a new unit of consumption for the recording industry. Beyond allowing listeners to hear an entire symphonic work or extended jazz composition without having to change records every few minutes, LPs could fit a dozen pop songs between their two sides. Bands and musicians began to conceive and record full LPs rather than singles, and the music on these new albums was often unified around a common theme, musical concept, or narrative—enter the “concept album.” To this day the album remains the standard structure of commercial music releases, and vinyl itself has seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years (as a celebration like Record Store Day might suggest). Apart from the major addition of stereo sound in the late 1950s, the LP has remained relatively unchanged as a form of recording.

The Columbia Records Paperwork Collection is available for research in the Recorded Sound Research Center. You can explore the finding aid here. For more information about this collection or recorded sound research in general, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Recorded Sound reference librarians.

Happy Record Store Day 2019!

 

Looking to know more about Columbia Records? Here’s some further reading:

Wilentz, Sean. 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2012.

Marmorstein, Gary. The Label: The Story of Columbia Records. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007.

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