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Why were independent record labels and recording artists more likely than the majors to adopt innovative production techniques during the 1950s?

By Holly “Cin” Martin

The 1950s saw an unforeseeable shift in the music industry in many different respects. Especially in the United States, musical styles were changing rapidly year on year compared to previous decades, largely due to the technological advancements, industry practices and attitudes.  Major labels still dominated the market, but independents really began to establish their significance, arguably adopting far more innovative production techniques. Majors such as RCA Victor, Capitol and Columbia had large profits and reputations to uphold, meaning originality may have been compromised.  Meanwhile, independent labels such as Sun, Chess and Atlantic started from places of experimentation, driven mainly by a love for music with not much else to lose.

When exploring the musical changes of the 1950s, one cannot not exclude the ‘King of Rock and Roll’, Elvis Presley. Along with producer Sam Philips at Sun Records, which Presley signed to in 1954, they would spark a new era of Rock ‘n’ Roll in mainstream America and overseas. Rhythm and Blues had already launched its unique identity into music scenes across America through the 1940’s, however major labels still struggled to capitalise on the sound, even as it was initiating the revolutionary sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  It is debated that perhaps the majors’ judgment was clouded by their desire to appeal to mass white audiences, for example Mitch Miller of Columbia Records had little faith in Rock ‘n’ Roll which developed from such genres, favouring traditional Country and Jazz with artists such as Frankie Laine and Tony Bennett. As Miller and Columbia transitioned into the decade, they were unwilling to invest in such new sounds initially, let alone mix the genres as others were beginning to do so.

This is where minds at independent labels, such as Philips, knew they had a more authentic perspective and approach. He wanted to represent African-American music from a more original place. Likewise, Presley had a strong appreciation of African-American music having absorbed “the black blues and gospel” (Elvis Australia 2016) he heard growing up within a poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi and later Memphis, Tennessee. This synergy between the two developed beyond stylistic aspects. The production techniques used in the beginnings of Presley’s career at Sun came from a place of true innovation and one which was famously recreated by a major label, though from a much less valued origin as acknowledged by music experts.  In the song ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ by Bill Monroe, which Presley covered in his very first recordings at Sun, Philips used “slapback”, an echo effect he invented through a tape delay of 134-137ms (Bennett 2017), that enhanced Presley’s utterly distinct sound, subsequently capturing the attention of countless radio listeners.  After major label RCA Victor bought out Presley’s contract, they were “anxious to recreate the “slapback” echo effect” (Churilla 2016), copying Philips’ innovation at Sun. They set up “a speaker at one end and a microphone at the other” (Churilla 2016), capturing the live echo down a corridor, failing to identify the post recording effect and instead had a delay of only 82ms.  Though RCA’s effect contributed to the infamous sound of the No.1 hit ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, it was initially the genuine influences and innovation of independent label Sun Records that made it all possible

Like Miller perfecting carefully selected artists at Columbia and with many genres already getting the ‘Hi-Fi’ treatment since the 1940s thanks to huge quality improvements in tech, such as ribbon and condenser microphones, the concept of recording artists authentically was still being practiced widely. And this arguably led to innovative production techniques being adopted by the major labels, rather than solely the independents. These production techniques can be recognised initially more so by the majors because they certainly had the money and best locations to experiment with anything they pleased. For example, in 1953 Capitol records released Full Dimensional Sound: A Study in High Fidelity, whose aim was “to demonstrate to audiophiles the full range of capabilities in sound reproducing systems” (Frith and Zagorski-Thomas 2012, pg.45). This featured the best recording artists at the time such as Les Paul and was of very high quality due to Capitol having the best studios, equipment, expertise and professionalism, and also the pressure of sustaining such a reputation amongst heated competition with the other majors.  One can definitely see productions such as this deriving from the majors’ adoption of innovative technique, despite appearing only profit driven.

In the 1953 September issue of Billboard magazine, it was revealed the album included an interesting mix of genre, pop and classical respectively, in the album package. It was also stated that “an additional demonstration of studies in percussion by Hal Rees, Ernest Bloch, Tchaikovsky, Villa-Lobos, Shostakovich and Aaron Copland” (Billboard 1953, pg.54), was included, showing innovation beyond not only pop. The instrumentation and diverse recording and production techniques required was an interesting choice, appealing to a more niche audience beside the mainstream pop world. That being said however, there is of course the opinion that those Hi-Fi reproductions of sound are lavish and unauthentic by the time the final product has been churned through several requests or demands from businessmen in the major labels. And, as with Philips, legendary innovation in production technique often starts independently, like Les Paul’s experimentation in multi-track recording in his garage, simply with his own motivation.

One such example during the 1950’s, combatting the majors and their commercialisation of truly innovative technique, is Chess Records. In fact, founders Leonard and Phil Chess were not only in competition with fellow labels, they established the Chicago Blues scene and directly influenced Rock ‘n’ Roll from there on out.  They were laid back newbies “in an African American neighbourhood on the south side of Chicago” (Wald 2010) where their lack of money and musical expertise actually aided them in finding honest talent from poor Jazz and Blues musicians.  They subsequently adopted innovative production techniques, which paired with the authentic and incredible talent, led to the ‘Chess sound’. Leonard Chess himself began “experimenting with open microphones in toilets and sections of sewer pipe” (Moon 2001) to create echo effects. He utilized what was available to him, which was far less than any major label; this had been described as “nothing less than a technological revolution in its time, a clear manifestation of Chess’ resourcefulness” (Moon 2001). Additionally, when recording artists such as the iconic Muddy Waters, Chess “Took the raw urban blues of performers like muddy waters and transplanted them from the bar to the studio simply recording them as muddy played them” (Brown 2007, pg.133).  They adopted innovative recording techniques and attitudes to offer the best representation for their artists. This led to the expansion of their Chicago Blues foundation into Rock ‘n’ Roll and even influenced UK music where “there was far less African American music to choose from, so the Chess albums were coveted keys to a mysterious, faraway world” (Wald 2010), inspiring the likes of The Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger.

Chess Records was not the only contributor to changing attitudes that led to the adoption of innovative production. Many artists during this era were becoming the frontmen, so to speak. Prior to the 1950s, songwriters and labels for many consumers were the appealing factor behind buying a record. However, with the rise of teenage culture, artists themselves became the brand to latch onto.  Independent labels such as Atlantic, became a breeding ground of innovative production techniques to suit the progressive style evolving out of pop culture, much like the artists within the Lo-Fi movement reacting to cultural change.  A good example would be the Coasters, who signed to Atlantic in 1955. They didn’t fit the Atlantic format, but the label didn’t allow that to stand in the way of their potential, hence they released under Atco Records, a division of Atlantic for outliers which was founded that same year.  Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller produced twenty-four US chart entries with the Coasters; they applied many innovative production techniques with a very conscious eye for the Coasters image and brand appeal. In an interview, Stoller recalled “We spent many, many hours in the studio with the Coasters overdubbing” (Gilliand 1967), perfecting their timing and portraying an authentic, good-humoured voice for the youth; “They were entertainers” (Gilliand 1967, part.3) not only musicians.  This innovative and somewhat daring mix of humour and the techniques in the studio used to portray it seemed only possible within an independent label, who was willing to adopt the progressive ideas.

Furthermore, the Coasters’ song ‘Yakety Yak’ among several others were the first records released under an independent label which featured binaural recording (Furmanek 2011), made using two microphones, spaced at a distance close to that between the human ears. This innovative production technique helped shape the Rock ‘n’ Roll sound that dominated the charts with indie artists like the Coasters and Bobby Darin in the late 1950s. At Atlantic, this was thanks to Tom Dowd, who is also credited for innovating multi-track recording among several other technological advancements. Starting as a freelance engineer, he became a permanent addition to Atlantic, using innovative technique for “clear, forceful recordings – he captured drums and bass playing at full volume without distortion – [which] helped make Atlantic singles stand out” (Pareles 2002). Dowd worked for other labels and artists while at Atlantic, a deal that the indie label saw as fair collaboration for the good of the music. A major label would most likely never allow such a deal for the sake of exclusivity. Dowd’s freedom potentially led to the adoption of innovative production and artist development at Atlantic. Making high quality, progressive work that “sold equally well on both sides of the racial divide” (Daley 2004), helped make Atlantic compete securely against the majors.

In conclusion, independent labels in the 1950s were more inclined than the majors to adopt innovative production techniques. This was likely due to financial and geographical restrictions, which encouraged creativity, as was the result for Chess Records.  Also, a passion for the progression of music production, which matched attitudes from a social perspective, and of course, due to a more genuine appreciation for music and the people and values originating from individuals experience, such as it was for Philips and Presley at Sun; all leading to the adoption of innovative production. Majors certainly did construct innovative production techniques too, as we can see with Capitol Records and the work they produced with high fidelity music. But they were perhaps too often stemmed from the innovation of independent labels and many ideas and techniques were diluted by the hunger for reputation and profit, if artists managed to persuade them to risk the latter at all.


References

Anon (1953) Capitol Hi-Fi Album Release, Billboard. 26 Sep.

Bennett, J. (2017) Slapback Echo. Joe Bennett. [Internet]. Available from: https://joebennett.net/tag/slapback/ [Accessed 12 Jan. 2018]

Brown, M. (2007) Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector. UK. Bloomsbury Publishing

Churilla, K. (2016) Elvis Presley was at the height of his career in this stunning flashback performance. Rare Country. [Internet]. Available from: https://rarecountry.com/news/elvis-presley-was-at-the-height-of-his-career-in-this-stunning-flashback-performance/[Accessed 17 Dec. 2018]

Daley, D. (2004) The Engineers Who Changed Recording. Sound on Sound. [Internet]. Available from: https://www.soundonsound.com/people/engineers-who-changed-recording [Accessed 23 Dec. 2018]

Elvis Australia (2016) Elvis Aaron Presley 1935-1953 | The Early Years of a Legend. Elvis Presley Music. [Internet]. Available from: https://www.elvispresleymusic.com.au/elvis-presley-1935-1953.html [Accessed 17 Dec. 2018]

Frith, S. and Zagorski-Thomas, S. (2012) The Art of Record Production: An Introductory Reader for a New Academic Field. UK. Ashgate Publishing Ltd

Furmanek, B. (2011) Binaural or Bust. 3-D Film Archive. [Internet].  Available from: http://www.3dfilmarchive.com/binaural-or-bust [Accessed 23 Dec. 2018]

Gilliand, J. (1967) Big Rock Candy Mountain: Rock ‘n’ roll in the late fifties. UNT. [Internet].  Available from: https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc19762/m1/#track/4 [Accessed 23 Dec. 2018]

Pareles, J. (2002) Tom Dowd, 77, an Innovator In the Art of Recording Music. The New York Times. [Internet]. Available from:https://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/30/arts/tom-dowd-77-an-innovator-in-the-art-of-recording-music.html [Accessed 22 Dec. 2018]

Thomas Moon, D. (2001) Inside the Vaults of Chess Studios. Blues Access. [Internet]. Available from: http://www.bluesaccess.com/No_36/chess.html  [Accessed 18 Dec. 2018]

Wald, E. (2010) How the Blues Brothers Behind Chess Records Made All the Right Moves. Guardian. [Internet]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/nov/06/leonard-phil-marshall-chess-records [Accessed 22 Dec. 2018]

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