Monday, October 21, 2013

W42: RCA-Victor Records

Albeit a strange read, this week’s Biblio-Mat book was nothing less than fascinating in capturing a slice of music history.

Definitely has a kitschy feel to it.
RCA-Victor Records was actually a 1950 catalog of all the musical records RCA-Victor had produced up till then. The stylized blue/red gradient cover on cheap cardstock seemed to capture a beach sunset and evoked a surf culture vibe even though it predated the movement by a decade or so. The 297 interior pages were beginning to become brittle, which isn’t surprising as the 25 cent printed price pretty much guaranteed that the quality of paper would be scraping the bottom of the barrel. Interesting enough, this catalog was printed for the Canadian market, which couldn't have been that much different than the American market at the time.

Copyright was a simpler thing back then.
My first memory of RCA revolved around their cassette tapes. My parents had a whole bunch that they would record Chinese music on and I was always fascinated by the RCA ones since they were all solid black with white ‘RCA’ on them, which stuck out from the multicoloured and transparent tapes of Maxell, TDK, Sony, etc. It would be many years before I actually learned what those letters meant.

Kids today have it easy.
RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, grew out of a monopoly backed by the US Army and Navy. Formed in 1919, it lasted until 1986 when it was bought by GE and then broken up. Like Sanyo, the brand license was sold to manufacturer goods with the name since it still held value to people, which explains why we continue to be able to buy RCA branded electronics today. The recording arm of RCA, though, split off into a separate entity and is still active under Sony Music Entertainment.

With the purchase of the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1929, RCA-Victor was formed and became one of two main record labels in the US. Going up against the 33 1/3 LP’s introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, RCA-Victor opted to push their 45 rpm vinyls hard but the format was a dismal failure, probably due to people having to swap records every five minutes. As such, this 1950 catalog was probably one of the last ones to have a 45rpm focus.

Probably a good thing.
The beginning of the catalog gave great insight into what the musical tastes of the time were. With a section on all the famous composers arranged in chronological order, it was clear that classical music was the big market at the time. Even more useful, though, was the pronunciation guide for foreign names and titles.

This was followed by a glossary of musical terms that proved to be more enlightening than first thought as it not only covered the standard common terms like Allegro and Forte but also the lesser known and more obscure ones like Fantasie, Pizzicato, and Scherzo. The eight pages of terms was probably the highlight of the book in terms of pure educational value, which was very much unexpected from a catalog.

This was quickly followed by what was expected from a catalog – advertisements. The three pages of ads contained the only images in the whole book shilling RCA-Victor’s brand of needles, record players, and storage albums, probably because you would need a whole book full of 45’s to play a half hour of music.

Not as fun as the stuff on the back of comic books.
The majority of the catalog itself wasn’t much of a read as it was just a reference for order numbers and prices. Though this section spanned 271 pages, it was actually much shorter in terms of unique items as each record showed up twice - once under the title of the song and again under the artist. That being said, it was still an enlightening read through as it not only showed where the musical tastes of the masses leaned towards at the time, but also the scope of music industry in 1950.

Is it a soundtrack if it only has one song?
This catalog contained every record RCA-Victor had produced up until the middle of the 20th century yet still contained fewer songs than probably half the people I know have on their computers. It’s a shocking reminder of how pop culture music as we know it is still a relatively young medium. Most of the records ranged between $0.85 to $1.25. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $8.00 to $11.75, which isn’t too bad for a record until you realize it only had two songs on it at most.

RCA-Victor seemed to have mainly backed the orchestral and classical scene and it wasn’t until they bought Elvis Presley’s contract in 1955 that their focus shifted into more pop culture. As such, most of the artists and songs in the catalog outside of play recitals and motion picture soundtracks were unknown to me so I will end this with the most famous RCA-Victor artist I found in the book:  

Spike Jones and Lisztomania at its best.

Book rating: 7/10 (Unexpected fun read)

Random quote: “Storage albums are readily stored in cabinets like books and the resulting library will gradually grow, enriching one’s life and providing unfailing entertainment for the leisure hours.” (Provided you have records to put in them and a record player to play those records…)

1 comment:

  1. Ah, but know this---vinyl is coming back!