Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Record Pirates

Record Pirates:

Talk-o-phone Phonograph, Leeds Records Made in Toledo by Alan Borer

There is much discussion in the news lately about “burning” CDs, international copyright of music, video and audio “piracy,” and similar news. Some countries do not enforce laws, or even have a law, ensuring that royalties go to the original performer. But of course, there is “nothing new under the sun,” and Toledo was once the scene of just such piracy in the days of Victrolas, Edison Records, and talking machines.

Toledo was once was the home of a line of early disc record players known as the Talk-o-phone. Associated with the Talk-o-phone company was a record division (a “label” we would call it today) known as Leeds Records. In existence from 1902 to 1910, the two companies competed against the giant of early sound recording, the Victor Talking Machine Company (still in existence, although now called RCA). Talk-o-phone and Leeds competed for nearly a decade, but in the end fell victim, to the fact that, at its heart, the companies were the offspring of a music pirate. As Sherlock Holmes might put it, let us review the evidence.

Unfortunately the evidence is somewhat contradictory. We know from census information that Toledo was once the home of a man named Albert Irish. He lived on Monroe Street with his wife and children, and identified himself as a “real estate agent.” But in 1902, he was approached by a man with the lengthy name of Wynant Van Zant Pierce Bradley of Brooklyn, New York. Bradley, it appears, was a record pirate, having done pirate work for the Zonophone record company. Perhaps to escape attention in New York, he moved to Toledo, or made contact with, Albert Irish. Irish (possibly providing the cash) and Bradley (likely providing the insights into recording piracy), soon had Talk-o-phone up and running.

The early years of the twentieth century saw a craze for disc records. Thomas Edison was still making cylinder records, but Emile Berliner and his disc shaped records started a trend that last until records were eclipsed by CDs only about 15 years ago. There was fascination with records, recorded sound, and music, which led to a free-for-all among record manufacturers. Such issues as record size, one side or two, and licensing was all up for grabs. The fluid nature of the industry could be seen in Leeds Records.

Made in Toledo, Leeds was not the highest caliber of recording, even in 1902. It has been suggested that the recorded sound quality of Leeds was about five years behind that of Victor. The most notable thing about Leeds Records is that they were one-sided, that and they had an ornate gold label.

There is no doubt that some of Leeds Records were of recorded music originally released by others and then pirated by Bradley. International copyright at this time was poorly understood and poorly enforced, and some Leeds Records were dubs of musical performances made in other countries. But others were made on the up-and-up. For example, Leeds sold legal, original recordings of contemporary vaudeville star Byron G. Harlin. But enough of the Leeds Records were pirated to get Irish and Bradley in trouble.

Leeds was apparently a subsidiary of the Talk-o-phone Company. An odd point in this story is that Talk-o-phone records were also sold as its own label. Talk-o-phone sold phonographs starting in 1903, and sported a product line of relatively low priced machines. Bradley put quite a bit of imagination into his scheme. Talk-o-phone offered seven different machines, each named for a musician, such as the “Sousa,” and the “Herbert,” (after Victor Herbert). It may have been only a coincidence that the Herbert was Talk-o-phone’s cheapest model at $15.00, while the Sousa retailed for $40.00.

Bradley may or may not have been making a statement about the relative popularity of the composers. But his piratical eye continued to wander. Also in 1903, he introduced a dog mascot for Talk-o-phone, a shaggy dog with the motto, “Familiar Voices.” This seems to have been a direct attempt to pirate Victor’s “Nipper” and his motto, “His Master’s Voice.” Nipper is still used in RCA advertising a century later. Talk-o-phone’s unnamed dog would not survive the court fight that drove the company into oblivion.

In 1909, Victor and its team of lawyers brought suit against Talk-o-phone. The result was practically a foregone conclusion. Victor was flush with cash, Wynant Bradley was a known pirate, and Talk-o-phone had borrowed Victor’s dog, its ornate player cabinets, its recording artists, and who knows what else. Victor’s lawyers triumphed, and Toledo’s foray into the record business ground to a halt. Albert Irish continued to sell real estate in Toledo. We do not know whether he lost money in the fiasco. Bradley disappeared; if he continued as a pirate, he kept it a deep secret.

And so, Toledo lost its bid to become a center of the recording industry. A few ancient records and a few Talk-o-phones, now highly prized by collectors, are all that remain. But it was a colorful episode. Our pirates didn’t sail the waters and bury treasure; instead they brandished waxen records and kidnapped a dog in their unsuccessful brigandage.

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