Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Opening The Label

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Thursday, January 24, 2013
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Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Opening The Label

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

Opening the Label

Jack Warner Decides
He Needs a Record Label.

1958

Jack Warner ran his movie studio. By the 1950s, the term “Brothers” now hardly mattered; other than Jack, the other three Warner men lingered in New York, doing investing stuff mostly. Burbank, Jack owned it. There, he had a final vote on anything.

He liked making money that way.

To his credit, Jack Warner had added sound to movies early on (“The Jazz Singer” in 1927 was one). He’d also become a leader in making cartoons, with Bugs Bunny and pals. He’d gotten early into producing hot TV series. Set up a music publishing company (MPHC) for Warners. But in the late 1950s, he’d felt another of his discontents. But first …

In 1957, in an underhanded financial deal, the Warner brothers sold their ownership shares of their studio. They were bought out, equally. Almost. Jack had secretly set up a side deal, and with it he bought back all his brothers’ shares, and immediately got full ownership back. For himself only. He was now the Warner Brother.

Warner Wants More

The other discontent: Jack Warner knew that other studios, like MGM and Paramount, were now making money by selling their own soundtrack albums via their own record companies. Warner, however, had been stuck on a lesser path: If his studio had a promising movie (or TV) soundtrack, it leased it to some record label elsewhere, and Warner just got a royalty, not the whole profit.

A couple of recent licensing events had made Jack squirm. Recent Warner hit movies (like 1954’s “A Star Is Born” and 1957’s “The Pajama Game”) had both ended up licensed to Columbia Records.

And one of Warner’s own contract stars, Tab Hunter, was free to record off-Warner, since Warner had no record label. Hunter had recorded with a indy label in Hollywood named Dot Records; made hits; so good that Paramount Studios gobbled up Dot, and now Paramount, too, had its own record label.

Jack Warner decided now it was time. Again. The Record Business calls.

Back in 1930, Jack Warner had bought his first record label: Brunswick Records. Cost: $28 million. That deal was not well remembered by others at the studio. Looking back now …

The First Warner Bros. Record Label,Called Brunswick

1930

Decades before the late 1950s, the four Warner brothers had bought their own record label, one named Brunswick, in the time when records were 10” or larger and revolved at 78 revolutions per minute. Warner bought Brunswick as the era of movies-with-sound had changed their business.

Brunswick-Balke-Collender sold its Brunswick Records to Warner Bros., who hoped to make their own soundtrack recordings for their sound-on-disc Vitaphone system.

Now, with Brunswick in his business folio, Warner plowed ahead. He stuck with Brunswick’s top talent handler, another Jack, this one named Jack Kapp. Off we go. Warner now could have a star like Al Jolson sing in Warner movies, and then Jolson fans could buy records of those performances.

So, starting in the Great Depression (1930), Jack Kapp (now working for Warner) produced records by Jolson and a bunch of others who appealed to the ear.

Bing Crosby came aboard, and became Brunswick’s biggest record star. Also singing into Vitaphone mikes: The Mills Brothers, Boswell Sisters, Cab Calloway, and Ozzie Nelson.

Three ill-timed events followed:

First, with the new sound-on-films systems, the old Vitaphone audio systems for theatres sounded as old as piano rolls. Brunswick lost one edge there. Then a second edge moved in. The Great Depression reduced record sales, eventually down about 90%. Then, third, radio shows playing music made listening to their recorded music free.

By 1931, for Warner, Brunswick meant little. In December of that year, Warner leased its whole Brunswick operation to a business called the American Record Corporation. Jack Warner felt relief. His cohorts at Warner just shook their heads, and inside told themselves “never again.”

No one had predicted that the Great Depression would kill record sales. It did.

It took only about one year, but Warner Bros. got out of records. Its executives felt relief. “Never again,” they murmured over and over.

One thing got left behind. The word “Vitaphone,” for those fresh microphones Warner Bros. Pictures used to record sound-for-film. “Vitaphonic” would become a new motto in the early years of WBR.

••••••••

A Business Plan to Die For

So, come the late ‘50s, when Warner raised his “again” pen to sign a new record label deal, heavy resistance was voiced by executives like the studio’s tough and frugal, Herman Starr, then the studio’s head of music publishing, via a division called MPHC (Music Publishing Holding Company). Starr loathed the record business. He was not one to keep quiet. Relinquish” was not in his genes. Still…

Jack Warner knew better. He set out to search for a label to buy or a record man to take over this move. And he knew a star when he touched one. He set out to search for a label to buy or for a record man to take over this move. To Starr and others, he’d say, “This is my studio. Just mine.” After months of searches, he found his man.

His find – a record business star -- had credentials of great appeal. He’d already risen to the top of Capitol Records. He’d left Capitol to become head of an even bigger label, Columbia Records. There he’d introduced the first LPs (Columbia’s development, with a price held to $4 each) and also intro’d a new way to sell: mail orders through The Columbia Record Club. He’d then retired to Sherman Oaks, California, and, time on his hands, started a “do good” called The Record Academy (NARAS), which gave out Grammys for goodness. He was a mega-exec named Jim Conkling, married to a sweetheart singer, Donna King, one of the King Sisters.

Jack and Jim talked. Conkling liked starting a studio label. Warner wasn’t ready to plunge in big. “Maybe a couple of million,” Conkling estimated. That was the same as backing one movie within Warners; not a major risk. To Warner, he’d just make one fewer movie next year.

Conkling had with him a business plan (actually just a budget in hand-written notes) when re revisited Warner in the Chief’s studio throne room. There, Jack Warner sat behind his desk, which was up on a foot-high dais. Visitors started out 12” shorter in this room.

Conkling ran down the numbers on “how to start a label from scratch this year”:
• A new kind of recording, LPs with “two-channel stereo” were just emerging. Conkling said two-channel was making mono records sound tinny. And WB’s new label could rush into that void: not just stereo, but better – “Vitaphonic Stereo.” “Vitaphone” would be what people would go for, even if it was just a sexy word for stereo. Warner’s label could rush in with new, stereo albums for all kinds of music. Like “Square Dance in Stereo.”
• Warner would aim at “mature audiences,” leaving the new rock-rage of those Elvis Presley types to other labels. Warner wanted album sales, anyway. Skip that competitive market, just for kids, anyway.

Next:
* Issue many albums for reasonable profit, not just the few releases that most young, independent labels could issue. Conkling knew the record staffers who could handle this “many” release schedule. They were record business veterans, like Jim himself.

To Warner, Conkling’s approach sounded safe and sane, and Jack Warner said a fast “yes.” He felt good about how Warner Bros. Studio, with its stars and movies, could make more profits starting right now. He signed a deal with Jim Conkling, and that impressed the whole industry. Conkling’s contract earned him $100,000 a year, plus stock options in Warner Bros.

••••••••

Opening the Doors
Above the Machine Shop

Studio help found space for this new company opposite the pictures-TVs offices on the main lot. 3701 Warner Blvd. There, across the street, next to a big parking lot, was a two-story “facility” that had once been the studio’s machine shop. It still had linoleum floors. Its electrical outlet still were double-size, thereby handling more voltage for tools that went grrrrr.

Conkling once described his first day in his “office.” "Here I was supposed to be starting a first-class record company. I had no secretary. I had no file cabinet... In fact, the only things in the office besides the desk and chair were one lead pencil and a yellow pad of paper. That was it. That was Warner Bros. Records, Incorporated."

Soon enough, Conkling clustered a staff of colleagues around him.
VP of Sales: Hal Cook from Columbia.
Recording Engineer: Lowell Frank
Album Director: George Avakian from Columbia
Merchandising Director: Joel Friedman, from Billboard magazine
Controller: Ed West, from Warner Bros Studio, put under Conkling by Jack Warner to watch his money.

Jim had a good address book, filled with colleagues he could call on to help. Jim dialed. “We need an album and…”

Some calls went to family from his wife Donna’s King Sisters side:
To pianist Buddy Cole (husband of Yvonne King). “Have Organ, Will Swing.” became a Vitaphonic album.
To band leader Alvino Rey (husband of Luise King). Still under contract to Columbia, but Rey made up a new band he named Ira Ironstrings. First LP: “Ira Ironstrings – Music for People with $3.98 (Plus Tax If Any).”

Jim called studio musicians: From the picture company came conductors who’d already led orchestras record movie scores. Easy enough; all written down; just do the score one more time.

Not Just the First Ones, Though.
WBR Needs That “First Hundred”

So…they came out with little regard for pop artists or young stars. More and more…

Conkling rushed to get 100 albums out into the market in Warner’s first year. In stereo, for sure. Vitaphonic Stereo. So…

Ray Heindorf: “Spellbound” soundtrack
Warren Barker: “Waltzing Down Broadway”
Henri Rose: “Fastest Piano Alive”
George Greeley: “World’s Ten Greatest Piano Concertos”
Matty Matlock: “And They Called It Dixieland”
Trombones Inc.: “Power Packed Trombones”
Sonny Moon: “Let’s Dance All Night”
Cal Lampley: “Last of the Red Hot Cha Chas”
Don Ralke: “But You’ve Never Heard Gershwin with Bongos”
Ira Ironstrings: “Charleston in Hi-Fi”

While new albums were getting to the starting line, so were distribution deals. Hal Cook, working out of WBR’s dull-looking offices in New York, had assembled deals with indy distributors in many towns.

International Director Bobby Weiss, often overseas, had made similar deals for distribution of records in Europe and Asia and South Africa and Australia and… (Weiss would also pick up some singles for Warner to distribute in the U.S. “Al Di La” from”Volare” was his big.)

Warner Bros. Records budget on this date: Minus $230,000 had been spent to start sales income. Right on budget. Now, out to the public.

WBR’s first single had been “The Star Spangled Banner” without Jimi Hendrix. It was mailed out on July 31, 1958. More and more albums marched forth from Burbank:

Felix Citkowicz: “Stereo Goes to a Polka Party”
Warner Bros. Military Band: “Sousa in HiFi”
Ray Heindorf: “Spellbound” soundtrack
Warren Barker: “Waltzing Down Broadway”
Warren Barker: “The King and I for Orchestra”
Henri Rose: “Fastest Piano Alive”
Matty Matlock: “And They Called It Dixieland”
Trombones Inc.: “Power Packed Trombones”
Sonny Moon: “Let’s Dance All Night”
Cal Lampley: “Last of the Red Hot Cha Chas”
Don Ralke: “But You’ve Never Heard Gershwin with Bongos”
Ira Ironstrings: “Charleston in Hi-Fi”
George Greeley: “World’s Ten Greatest Piano Concertos”

…and to round out the first 100: Number #WS1300: Don Ralke’s “Stereo Goes to a Dance Caper”

Which is why, in record stores, Warner Bros. got known as “that piano albums label.” To see how hit-less that first hundred albums from WBR was, you can check out all 100 of the titles here (for free).

While new albums were getting to the starting line, so were distribution deals. Hal Cook, working out of WBR’s dull-looking offices in New York, had assembled deals with indy distributors in many towns.

Warner Bros. Records budget after 365 days of operation: Minus $230,000 that had been spent to start sales income. Right on budget. Now, time to reach out to the public. Sales begin!

And with all this: One hit single: July 31, 1958

But first, before all those piano albums, what Jack Warner “asked for”: A record by the young man Jack Warner had just pulled away from Dot Records.

Stay tuned.

Whatever Happened To:

Albert Warner: Retired in 1957 to Miami Beach. He’d had enough. He died there in 1967.

Harry Warner. Died in 1956 in Los Angeles.

Sam Warner: Died in 1927, one day before the premier of “The Jazz Singer,” for which he’d developed the film’s “talkies” recording. Died in New York.

Brunswick Records: From the American Record Corp., then sold to CBS, then to Decca after CBS started its own label Columbia, then to Decca Records, and finally (maybe) those masters end up at Universal Records.

Bing Crosby: He had several good moments with Warner Bros. Records and early Reprise, but was leading a casual, well-done life. He had had a good home a few miles from WBR, but seemed more often in Palm Springs. He had many “White Christmas”s until his death at La Moraleja, Spain, in 1977, at age 74.

Al Jolson: Died in 1950 after a tour entertaining the troops. He was 64, having been born in 1886 in Russia.

Jack Kapp: He stayed with Brunswick following Warner’s sale, and built it into Decca Records, with many artists (Crosby included) following him in the next years’ of innovation. He died in 1949, at age 48.