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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Music Review: Doris Day – 'The Essential Doris Day' [2-CD Collection]Blogcritics.org (blog), April 16th
Songs such as “Sentimental Journey,” “Till the End of Time,” “When I Fall in Love (Live),” “Secret Love (78rpm Version),” and “Whatever Will Be Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” (Single Version) remain classics of their type over a half century after their...Read more
Universal Music Enterprises Announces Exclusive Record Store Day Releases ...Business Wire (press release), April 16th
Originally issued on a 78 RPM single, this special record is on a 33 1/3 RPM 12-inch single, and uses the original black-and-pink label from the rare first 1939 pressings. Albert Ammons: “Boogie Woogie Stomp” and “Boogie Woogie Blues” (12” of original...Read more
Nashville Film Festival: Ready To Start ReelingCowboys and Indians (blog), April 15th
The 78 Project Movie – And now for something completely different: Documentarian Alex Steyermark and musician-writer Lavinia Jones Wright journey across America to make one-of-a-kind 78 rpm records with musicians in their hometowns, using a vintage ...Read more
Mountain Home Music Announces 2014 Summer Concert Schedule, First ...High Country Press, April 15th
Hailing from Charleston, S.C., but with roots in the Mt. Airy region, each provide vocals to create distinctive harmonies; it sounds as if every member has just stepped from a dusty old 78 RPM platter, ready to sing again. With many similarities to the...Read more
Plymouth Township man's radio career spans decades, culturesHometownlife.com, April 12th
Narendra Sheth's career in music and radio has taken him from 78-rpm records and reel-to-reel tapes to digital mini discs and computer hard drives. Sheth, of Plymouth Township, is an expert on the popular music of India who last month marked 40 years...Read more
Oakwood academic team heads to nationalsDayton Daily News, April 11th
Do you know these obscure facts? France's sugar beet output went down 50 percent due to World War I. The Berlin Philharmonic is the orchestra that recorded Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on 78 rpm discs in 1913. And, finally, this quote, “Then after awhile...Read more
Technology saves echoes of past from silenceBoston Globe, April 5th
On a winter afternoon in early 2000, Carl Haber, a bearded man in his mid-40s, may have looked like any other collector as he walked into Down Home, a music store in El Cerrito, Calif., picked out a stack of 78-r.p.m. records, paid for them, and drove...Read more
'78 Project,' Cash and Carter Docs on the Road to Nashville Film FestivalBillboard, April 3rd
"It wasn't so much a fascination with 78 RPM records or retro gear, but the equipment itself was sort of the focal point around which these performances would emerge," Steyermark says. "It is intimate and we approach it as a collaboration. We try to...Read more