December 18, 2016

The Rise of Independent Record Companies and Rock ‘n’ Roll

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In previous stories we highlighted the role of Sam Phillips and the Chess brothers, two giants of the record industry that made Rock ‘n’ Roll possible. Sun and Chess Records were just two of the many small independent companies without whom the birth of rock may never have occurred.

Other major players were Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, Art Rupe of Specialty Records, the Bihari Brothers of Modern Records, Syd Nathan of King Records, and Lew Cudd of Imperial Records are just some of the players who helped launch a whole new era in music and the record industry. Each one of these gutsy owners are more than worthy of having their own story told. For the purposes of this article we will concentrate on how they collectively were able to pull off an amazing feat.

Way back in the early 1940’s the record industry was under the firm hand of just a few major labels. RCA Victor, Decca, and Columbia were able to dominate the market because they controlled every facet of the industry including recording studios, manufacturing plants, distribution, and even sales outlets. They even controlled the outlets for exposure. RCA was owned by NBC and Columbia by CBS. Both owned many TV and radio outlets.

So how did these small rebel companies make any kind of impact when facing such giants? There were several factors that came together at just the right time. The most important were the formation of BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) in 1940, the US entering World War II in 1941, and the strike by the union known as the American Federation of Musicians.

Prior to the formation of BMI the publishing of music was totally controlled by ASCAP (American society of Composers). ASCAP had been the only way a songwriter could get their material published and collect their royalties. Since ASCAP was based in New York City, the center of music publishing and recording was in the big Apple. With the advent of BMI, the monopoly was broken and writers anywhere in the country could get their music published and/or recorded. Despite having to fight many legal battles with ASCAP, BMI was able to open the flood gates for new music.

Since ACAP owned all of the pop music of the time, BMI took on the rest of the music that was considered to be “inferior”. Blues, Country and R & B soon made BMI their home. By the time ASCAP realized the times were changing, it was too late. BMI had built up a huge catalog of music from all kinds of genres.

During World War II Shellac was rationed. It was a critical ingredient in the making of the records of the time period. The old 78 RPM records were made of a heavy slate like materials that needed binding. Shellac was used for that binding, but it was also used for the making of bullets. This fact led to one of the many slogans during the war that wouldn’t make sense today- “from ballads to bullets”.

With Shellac being hard to get, the major labels had to cut back. The number of new releases was not only scaled way back, but the roster of artists had to be trimmed. The first music to be cut was the ethnic records that were only popular in certain regions of the country. This included the so called “Race Music”.

This left a big opening for the small labels to get a foothold. Since most of the labels didn’t have nationwide distribution, they were able to concentrate on signing artists who were popular in their region.

syd nathan2The last factor in the rise of independents was a strike by AFM (American Federation of Musicians) in 1942. This strike is a long story. The short, simple explanation of what the strike meant to the record industry is this. Some 120,000 members of the union went on strike. Only union members were used in recordings by the major labels so this was another reason for less music being recorded. For years radio programs were forced to use union players for any music that was broadcasted live on the air. Radio stations wanted to play more and more of “canned” or recorded music. Much of the music recorded by the indies were not recorded with union musicians. The unions fought this practice and eventually they worked out an agreement with the smaller labels, but the giants held out. This was only a help to the smaller labels because it caused a mass exit from artists on the major labels who didn’t want to sit out the strike. That gave the indies a big head start when the war was over.

Once the war was over, everyone wanted to satisfy their hunger for new music. The small labels were in a perfect position to satisfy the new mass audience of record buyers.

The big labels were slow moving. They were top heavy and making decisions took a long time. Often they were so slow that they missed out on signing potentially great stars. Most of the small labels were pretty much a one or two man show. This allowed them to make quick decisions. Many of their signings were gut reactions to what they thought would sell in their marketplace. Unlike the major label movers and shakers, the owners of the indies were on the ground level with their audience and were much better at knowing what was “happening” than many of their counterparts at the big labels who often lived their music lives in an ivory tower.

The smaller labels were often run on a shoestring. Their low overhead allowed them to take chances that the corporate labels couldn’t do. They only advantage the majors had was money. This allowed them to buy out some the stars from the smaller labels once these stars had already made a name for themselves. Sometime s it worked and sometimes it didn’t. RCA made a lot of money with Elvis Presley, but many others were already past their peak or were one or two hit wonders that ended up losing the majors money while the small labels were busy looking and signing new potential stars.

Probably the worst offender was Columbia Records. Mitch Miller, who was the head man at the time, flat out said he would never sign a rock act to his label. This defiance led to Columbia losing a lot of money during the 50’s when Rock ‘n’ Roll was outselling almost everything on the pop charts. Ironically Columbia Records became a major player once Miller was out. Their artist roster in the 60’s & 70’s that included Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, Santana, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Aerosmith and Chicago are just a few of the major stars that found their home on Columbia Records.

In contrast, a quick look at the stars of early Rock ‘n’ Roll shows just how much indies developed the music. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis (Sun Records), Little Richard, Larry Williams, and Lloyd Price (Specialty Records), Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf (Chess Records), Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson (Imperial Records), Ray Charles, The Coasters, and Ruth Brown (Atlantic Records), James Brown, Hank Ballard (originator of the twist) and Little Willie John (King Records) and Buddy Holly (Brunswick/Coral Records) were all on indie labels. In fact, astonishingly NOT ONE TOP 100 EARLY ROCK STARS OF THE 50’S WAS DISCOVERED AND SIGNED BY A MAJOR LABEL!



  • Comment Link t. morgan Friday, April 24, 2020 posted by t. morgan

    While there are many good sources for information, one of the best and a great starting point in doing research is "Record Makers and Breakers" by John Broven

  • Comment Link Brandon Tuesday, April 21, 2020 posted by Brandon

    Do you have a source for this information? I am writing a paper and would like some further readings, specifically into the section regarding major labels and ASCAP disregarding Blues, R&B, and Country music.

  • Comment Link t. morgan Thursday, May 2, 2019 posted by t. morgan

    Thanks for the feed back. You bring up a good point. I have never posted the date that any article was written and I should. As a result, I am not even sure myself when I wrote it other than it has been a few years ago.

  • Comment Link Dave Wednesday, May 1, 2019 posted by Dave

    Great article. Please go back and date it so we know when it was written.


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