Before iTunes, CDs, 8-tracks, LPs, or even seven-inch EPs, 78s were the main medium for recorded music, so-called because they were played at 78 rotations per minute (rpm). Produced primarily by Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, and Capitol, 78s were first invented by Emile Berliner in the late 19th century.
At first, Berliner made the “plates,” as the records were called, out of celluloid and rubber-based materials, but in 1894 he switched to shellac, inspired by its transformative impact on the telephone industry. Early shellac 78s measured seven inches across, but by 1900 they were generally 10 or 12 inches in diameter.
For years, early radio stations in both the U.S. and Britain did everything they could to drive 78s out of the market. At the time, most radio stations provided listeners with live music—recorded music represented a threat to their business model. Thus, they discouraged their listeners from spending money on “canned” music. In England, the Musicians Union went so far as to require radio stations to pay the Union for every minute they played records instead of live music.
Thanks to these policies and the poor sound quality of 78s, records took a while to catch on. In the 1920s, Thomas Edison released a competitor to the 78, the Edison disc, which was much thicker (a full quarter-inch!) and featured better audio quality. But the Edison disc required its own expensive phonograph, and it was discontinued in 1929, the same year opera star Arturo Toscanini declared that he would never record anything because a record could not fully capture the beauty of his voice.
Even so, record companies released a wide variety of genres on 78s, from classical to pop to recorded animal noises. In fact, classical releases spawned the origin of the term “album”: because each side of a 78 could only hold about five minutes of music, hour-long symphonies had to be divided into six discs, which were bound together in something resembling a photo album. Seventy-eights were better suited to short pop songs, but this length limitation would prove to be the format’s biggest weakness in the decades to come.
Still, 78s gradually gained acceptance, helped along by the popularity of jukeboxes after the Depression. Then, in 1942, the American Federation of Musicians declared that it would not record anything that did not directly help the American war effort—shellac was scarce, and it was an important material during wartime. The moratorium on record manufacturing lasted until 1944. When production got back on track, though, much of the shellac used for new records was recycled, which resulted in lower-quality discs.
Even so, shellac was on its way out anyway. In 1948, Columbia released the 10-inch LP; when Victor responded with the 45 in 1949, the “War of the Speeds” was on, and the industry soon switched from shellac to vinyl, which was much more durable and allowed for thinner grooves and, thus, longer playing times per side...
In the mid-1950s, seven-inch vinyl singles began cutting into the popularity of 78s even more. Indeed, 1958 was the last year the 78 was the best-selling format in the United States; within five years, 78s were no longer produced in any Western countries, though foreign labels like EMI’s Indian division kept producing them for a bit longer.
Since then, the 78 rpm speed and format have been revived a few times as a promotional gimmick, but these records are generally pressed on vinyl rather than shellac. One example was the Sundown Playboys’ “Saturday Nite Special” in 1971.
The most collectible 78s today are those from the late ’50s, when 78s were less common and releases were often pressed on multiple formats. In the U.K., for example, Elvis Presley’s “A Mess of Blues” is highly collectible as a 78 because it is much easier to find as a seven-inch vinyl single.
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MS Subbulakshmi : Melody PersonifiedIndiaGlitz, September 16th
MS Subbulakshmi was born on September 16th, 1916. She was introduced to music through her mother Shanmukhavadivu. Her first guru for vocal music training was Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar. She cut her first 78-rpm disc at ten. She was also trained under ...Read more
Through 9/30: 'Evidence of Life' at R. Pelaazcentral.com, September 15th
Mixed media, actually plays a 78 RPM record when you wind it up. Part of the exhibit "Evidence of Life" at R. Pela Contemporary Art in Phoenix. (Photo: R. Pela Contemporary Art/Handout). 6 CONNECT 4 TWEETLINKEDINCOMMENTEMAILMORE. R. Pela ...Read more
Almirola 'heartbroken' over untimely blown engineMotorsport.com, September 14th
Almirola even went as high as fifth with about 78 laps to go, before going back to sixth when a caution came out for Carl Edwards' blown left rear tire. And that's when the ... Almirola said this was the first engine problem for him at RPM. “We rarely...Read more
'Sharadiya' songs to touch a milestone this Durga PujaTimes of India, September 14th
The 'Sharadabali' of 1914 announces that a "10-inch violet double sided 78 RPM disc" priced at 3 Rupaiyah and 12 annas each, quite a princely sum in those days, would have six songs by Manodasundari Dasi, Narayan Chandra Mukherjee and K Mullick...Read more
New performances of vintage music are a highlight of 'The 78 Project Movie ...The Oregonian - OregonLive.com, September 12th
Traditional American songs and old-fashioned recording methods are given center stage in "The 78 Project Movie." All around the country, musicians perform vintage tunes in one take on a 1930s-era acetate recorder, capturing the song at 78 rpm like old...Read more
Zolten to be heard on NPR's American RoutesPenn State Altoona, September 12th
The theme of the program is collecting old time music on 78 rpm records. In that context, Zolten will be talking about his collaboration with Crumb on the CD/LP collection Chimpin' the Blues, as well as his work on Volumes 1 and 2 of rock 'n' roller...Read more
Your CD Collection is Rotting: Library of Congress Research Suggests Format Is ...Music Times, August 31st
One of many things the internet was supposed to fix: the loss of music. Researchers and music fans everywhere had reason to fear that decades of music stored on less-than-durable 78-rpm records could be lost with as much as a clumsy intern...Read more
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 ...Under the Radar Mag, August 19th
Amanda Petrusich's Do Not Sell at Any Price examines the esoteric nature of 78 rpm record collecting. In doing so, she travels across America to discuss collecting with the foremost collectors of the format and meets all manner of interesting...Read more