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Author Topic: When The Wolf Knocked On Victor's Door  (Read 1801 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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When The Wolf Knocked On Victor's Door
« on: May 05, 2007, 10:28:54 AM »
Don't know if this will find any interest here but it's something I was asked to scan some years back from a longer study of the topic in 78 Quarterly Vol.1 No.5, 1990 (p.63-77). Anyway, I'm "archiving" at WC prior to deleting from computer. If more appropriate elsewhere please move...or even remove totally:

The Depression comes to VICTOR (a view from the bottom)
Dick Spottswood

Despite its history of corruption and some well-known examples of payoffs, popular music has come to value itself by marketplace statistics and chart positions. Sloppy historians frequently ascribe the million-record seller (a convenient barometer of success) to unlikely?and unprovable?factors from the past.

This study of Victor Records concentrates on the other end of the scale. The years from 1930 to 1934 were the worst in the short history of sound recording. No company besides Victor emerged intact from those years. Victor itself survived only because founder Eldridge Johnson had sold his interest in 1927 to individuals who eventually placed the company under the wing of the flourishing Radio Corporation of America (RCA), whose radio profits helped counter losses from its record sales.

Ironically, many recordings from this era have become classics, from Stokowski's ambitious 14-disc set of Arnold Schonberg's Gurre Iieder to Bing Crosby's initial pop successes. Our focus here is on items from the "race" and "hillbilly" lists, which rarely rivalled pop music or Red Seal sales even before the Depression. A combination of falling commodity prices and boll weevil invasions had already put the agricultural South in a perilous position; Wall Street failures simply compounded the problems. Nonetheless, America's minorities continued to create vital music, and the diminished amount which found its way to recordings is all the more valuable. So are the pressings themselves, whose value increases in proportion to their actual or perceived scarcity.

In the early days of the Victor Talking Machine Company, a file was begun, consisting of one card per side of each pressing. Information on the cards typically includes matrix and release numbers, title, and composer credits, performance description, matrix testing data, and other appropriate data. Sometime, apparently in 1933, sales figures were added to cards, perhaps as a prelude to the introduction of the Bluebird B-5000 series in April. The latest tallies for "race," hillbilly, and pop figures are indicated for release groups on December 16, 1932, January 13 and 17, 1933, respectively. During 1933, the catalog was trimmed mercilessly with special attention paid to slow sellers in the 23,000 series, most of which were deleted by the time Victor's 1934 catalog was published in the summer of that year. Some were recycled onto lower-priced Bluebird and Montgomery Ward reissues; most were never heard of again except in collector want lists.

It is not exactly clear what these sales figures mean. Do they represent actual over-the-counter sales at retail shops or only copies pressed and shipped in expectation of sales? What was the company's policy for returns?and were returns subtracted from totals? Do figures represent total sales at the time of deletion or only as of a certain date? Note that a number of items still available in 1934 are given 1933 figures.

Ultimately, the value of these figures lies in the affirmation of what we already know?23,000 series issues are scarce and some are a great deal scarcer than others. The totals also serve as a rough measure of declining sales rates as the country plunged further into depression. Certain artists, notably Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, still commanded loyalty among their pre Depression fans, even when the purchase of one of their 75? discs strained already slender resources. In the "race" lists, no single artist enjoyed a comparable following, although novelties and Tin Pan Alley hits by the Washboard Rhythm Kings enjoyed cross-over appeal and sold well.

It might help to give a chronology of Victor's handling of its minority catalogs during these troubled years. Clearly, marketing strategies varied and conflicted. The last and most successful strategy was to put race, hillbilly, Mexican-American, Acadian-French, Irish, and calypso material into a lower-priced series with a label of its own. Other ethnic minority material remained on Victor for the most part.

January. 1929 Various V- series begin. They are used to classify minority material previously in the 21,000/81,000 series. A special 46,000 series is created for Spanish language records, concluding with 46,999 in January, 1931. V-38,000 series releases appear from January 8, 1929 to August 15,1930. Foreign language V- series continue through 1942.

April 1929?A V-38,500 (Victor Race Records) series is created, to be distinguished from V-38,000 (Victor Red Hot Dance Tune Records). Releases appear from April 5, 1929 through December 12, 1930.

September. 1929?Jimmie Rodgers is removed from the V40,000 series (after four releases). His records appear in the regular domestic lists (22,072?22,554) through January 1931, and in the 23,500 series thereafter.

December. 1929? cajun discs appear in Victor's 22,000 domestic series.

September. 1930?After Victor V-38,146, the 23,000 series replaces the V-38,000 series. Victor 23,001 (King Oliver) is released September 12; Victor 23,000 (McKinney) is released October 3. The series continues through April 10,1931. It's called variously, "Hot" "Hot Dance" or "Red Hot Dance." The final release, Victor 23,041, is by Duke Ellington.

January 1931?After final releases in the V-38,500 and V-40,000 series in December, the 23,000 series expands to include Victor's race and country catalogs. Victor 23,250 (Walter Davis) is released January 23; 23,500 (Bud Billings?aka Frank Luther) is released January 2. Victor 23,432 (Tiny Parham) is released January 24, 1934; 23,859 (Prairie Ramblers) is released either in December, 1933 or January, 1934. Two successful Duke Ellington releases appear on Victor 22,586 and 22,587, including "Mood Indigo" (see p. 76).

March 1931?"Red Hot Dance" releases begin to appear in the domestic 22,000 series as the 23,00023,041 series closes. The first non 23,000 releases are 22,628 by McKinneys Cotton Pickers and 22,629 by Snooks' Memphis Ramblers, released on March 27 and April 10, respectively.

March 1933?Bluebird B-5000 is released, coupling reissues of two popular Jimmie Rodgers titles. Bluebird is the culmination of previous experiments with budget labels, including Sunrise, Timely Tunes, and Electradisk, along with Eli Oberstein's Crown, Homestead, and (briefly) Gem labels. Documentation for these labels survives in the RCA files, though these labels, operative while Oberstein was in the company's employ, had an unclear administrative relationship with Victor. Only Sunrise lasts into the first few months of Bluebird releases and ends with the demise of the 23,000 series early in 1934.

April 1933?Bluebird B-5001 through approximately B-5050 are released, using both new and reissued material from the popular, race, and country catalogs. File cards for B-5035 through B-5075 are marked "Woolworth" suggesting that the chain may initially have had exclusive retail rights.

Whatever the initial intentions of RCA's Bluebird B-5000 series may have been, the end of the 23,000 series meant that new race and hillbilly releases would join the company's second-string pop artists in its 35? retail line.

RCA's last Depression field trip to the South was to Atlanta and Dallas?from February 2 to 29,1932. More material for both the 23,000 series and Bluebird was recorded in Chicago in August and December, 1933 (these probably were actual field trips, since RCA does not seem to have had permanent facilities in Chicago at the time). The next trip south was in March-April 1934, to San Antonio, resuming the pattern for colleting music from minority artists which lasted through the 1950s.


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Re: When The Wolf Knocked On Victor's Door
« Reply #1 on: May 05, 2007, 12:45:23 PM »
It is interesting to learn from history. Today I believe labels are in a similar situation because the file sharing anarchy era has caused and still is causing a reduction in sales that even price lowering can't much moderate. It make sense to believe some labels will survive this one concluding from the historical example, though, there are those that claim that this is the end of the physical disk era.


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