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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Recent News: 78 Records

Source: Google News

Jack White to release Elvis Presley's first-ever recordings
New York Daily News, March 6th

The "Ball and Biscuit" singer will be releasing the songs on a 10-inch, 78-rpm record on April 18 through his label, Third Man Records. A 7-inch, 45-rpm version was due out later this year. Presley around 1956. In 1953, he paid $4 to record two songs...Read more

Tearing Up the Pop Charts
The New Republic, March 5th

The magazine had reported on record sales in articles and columns, but had not yet attempted to produce an ongoing, systematic tabulation of the sales of 78-RPM singles. (Long-playing records had not been invented, though the term “album” was beginning ...Read more

The Bill Miller Show | AM 1570 & FM 94.1
Kndy Radio, March 5th

The foundation for the early Wax Works shows was a collection of old 78 rpm records donated to radio station KSEK. Harbart (the station owner) and Hannes (station program director) found an instant audience for their version of nostalgia radio. The...Read more

Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel to perform at The Egg
Troy Record, March 5th

At that point in time, Wills' recordings from the '30s and early '40s were only available on scratchy 78 RPM records. Haggard's release included several musicians from Wills' band. “It really was a lesson book,” says Benson. “It was like, 'Ok, guys...Read more

Blues veteran CeDell Davis in Clarksdale, Holly Springs
Jackson Clarion Ledger, March 4th

Mathus captures the dark, rough-hewn sound of Davis' Fat Possum releases, and the bluesman's life is illustrated through spoken tracks about playing with Tunica's Dr. Ross as a young man and listening to 78 rpm records by Charley Patton. Davis tackles ...Read more

There Are Two New Immersive Plays in L.A. One Is Magical, the Other ... Not So ...
LA Weekly, March 4th

That last item comes from a soundscape (by John Zalewski) that plays through various speakers throughout the room — tinny, scratchy echoes of 78 rpm records that bleed into subliminal, ominous pulses that bleed into a radio broadcast with...Read more

Salina's Acoustic Sounds to rev up vinyl record production
Kansas.com, March 4th

They had reportedly been used in the mid-1990s for bootleg 78 RPM albums for export to India, before the operation was shut down by law enforcement. Then the machines were bought in 2003 by a man who wanted to start a pressing plant, but couldn't put ...Read more

Kan. music firm doubles down on vinyl renaissance
USA TODAY, March 3rd

manufactured between 1968 and 1972 -- the company will have 27 in operation, making them one of the largest makers of vinyl albums in the U.S. The presses were last used two decades ago to make bootleg 78 RPM albums exported to the Indian market, ...Read more