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Digital Subscriptions > Long Live Vinyl > Oct 2019 > DECCA 90

DECCA 90

Founded as an offshoot from the Decca Gramophone Company in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, the British label went on to become one of the biggest record companies on the planet, signing some of the most illustrious names in music history, including The Rolling Stones (though famously not The Beatles). Gareth Murphy goes back to the start…

Manufacturing gramophones but not records is like selling razors but not consumable blades.”

This was the famous conclusion of Edward Lewis, a 29-year-old Cambridge grad and financial consultant. It was early 1929, and he’d just completed a market study for Decca Gramophone Company, a struggling gramophone maker. When his demoralised clients didn’t take his practical advice, Lewis decided to do it himself. He rounded up a group of investors and bought them out.

Re-founding Decca in 1929 as a proper record label with a simplified name, the young entrepreneur couldn’t have picked a worse time. The archaic gramophone industry had already been hit severely throughout the 1920s by a newer invention called radio. But it was the Wall Street Crash later that October which sounded the death knell for most record companies. This was the first record crash, eerily similar to the recent one. For over a decade in the inter-war period, it looked like buying disc records was an obsolete business. America’s already struggling record business was decimated from an annual output of 100 million records in 1927 to just 10 million in 1930. Amazingly, it was from this crater of bankruptcies, fire sales and existential crisis that little Decca, an English start-up, became the hottest label in the world.

Lewis’s genius move was to strike when the Great Depression was at rock bottom. In 1934, he hired an astute wheeler-dealer to launch an ambitious New York branch. Jack Kapp was a producer at Brunswick, who’d been careful to insert top-man clauses in his artist contracts, a detail that allowed him to take Bing Crosby to the newly formed Decca. Together, Lewis and Kapp poached the best salesmen from Columbia to chase a brand new market growing around Wurlitzer jukeboxes. Within one year of Prohibition being lifted in 1933, some 25,000 Wurlitzers were consuming over half a million disposable 25-cent records in bars across America – a godsend in the depths of the Depression.

Within just five years, Decca’s American company was selling 19 million records annually, more than the erstwhile giants, RCA-Victor and CBS-Columbia. The quintessential pop label of its day, Decca spotted and scooped up nearly all of the newest-sounding hit acts of the late 30s: Count Basie, The Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Mills Brothers, Louis Jordan. Its studios and pressing factories were better run; its jukebox jobbers and radio pluggers were the fastest to pounce.

And when, in 1940, the record industry experienced a strike by studios and composers, it was Decca that first negotiated with unions and began poaching out-of-work stars from inactive Columbia, notably Billie Holiday, whose best recordings were on Decca in the mid-40s.

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About Long Live Vinyl

Issue 31 of Long Live Vinyl is now on sale! It was The Beatles' last stand and remains one of the greatest albums ever made. Issue 31 of Long Live Vinyl brings you the inside story of Abbey Road, including interviews with some of the key figures who were in the studio with the Fab Four back in 1969. You'll also find an in-depth look at the making of the amazing new 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition and an expert collector's guide. Elsewhere, our packed interviews section features chats with Ezra Furman, Metronomy, Hiss Golden Messenger and Fionn Regan about their new albums. We round up 40 Essential Southern Soul records you need to own, tell the story of the legendary Decca label on its 90th birthday and dig deep into the making of R.E.M.’s ninth album, Monster. If that's not enough, Long Live Vinyl has the most comprehensive range of album and hi-fi reviews anywhere on the newsstand, as we run the rule over new releases from Pixies, Bon Iver, Wilco, Blur and Liam Gallagher, as well as the awesome new AVID Ingenium P&P turntable. Long Live Vinyl is THE magazine for vinyl lovers. Pick up your copy today…