Music Piracy In… The 1950s

12.10.10 Posted in Blog by

A vinyl record probably isn’t the first music carrier that you would associate with abundant piracy practices because the production of vinyl has been and still is mainly an industrial matter. You would need a pressing plant to illegally copy or repress vinyl. Does that mean that vinyl piracy didn’t exist? As will be shown in this post, the introduction of this new recording standard in the 1950s was followed by a wave of piracies. Music piracy in the 1950s.

Since the disc had overtook the cylinder in its popularity in the 1920s, the new advanced electrical recording process had made it relatively easy to prevent illicit copying in the 1930 and 1940s. The impact of radio and the Great Depression had made the sales of records drop in the 1930s and had almost sounded like the end of the recording industry but in the 1940s the industry got up on its feet again and at the end of the decade new technologies and materials marked the beginning of a period of significant growth for the music industry.

New technologies

One of those technologies was the transistor that would cause profound improvements in recording and playback techniques. A new material was the multi purpose thermo plastic polyvinyl chloride (vinyl) that arose from the oil industry. The material was suitable for making recording tape and gramophone records with very low surface noise. The strong combination of the transistor and the vinyl microgroove record resulted in an unprecedented growth of the music industry. Music could now easily enter anyone’s home. But because of this new recording standard, a new wave of piracies also emerged. Why?

After the introduction of the microgroove LP in the 1950s, the production of 78rpm shellac discs was discontinued. Only a selection of older recordings were reprinted on vinyl by the record companies and the lack of access to older recordings resulted in a new wave of piracy practices. Communities of music devotees wanted to restore the access to these “classic” recordings and therefore began to repress them on vinyl themselves, without official permission. Next to restoring access to classics which occurred often in jazz communities, piracy was about providing access to rare recordings of live performances in the opera community. At that time many recordings that had their origins in Eastern Europe were often simply appropriated. You may now wonder: where were these bootleg vinyls pressed then?

Illegal Pressing

This is what the record companies were thinking too. Because of the abundance of these piracy practices, the recording companies therefore subsequently increased their efforts to get a hold of the bootleggers. One of them, RCA Victor, took the lead and stated that they would not only target the labels but also the pressing plants that were pressing the discs for them. Eventually, it came out that these reissues were printed by their own Custom Pressing Devision…

Although record piracy in the 1950s was also a commercial enterprise, the incentives by which these communities functioned can also be understood as moral piracy. It centered around accessibility and arose from communities of music enthusiasts that shared a devotion for music and that wanted to create canons to judge quality by. The sentiment among these record collectors was that these pirates were providing a public service, much like that of the sheet music pirates that were described in an earlier post. As long as the record companies were letting their old recordings gather dust they were, in the eyes of the piracy communities, betraying the public and culture in general.

This post is part of the ‘Music Piracy In…’ series. For more information about this series, take a look at this introductory post.

3 Responses to “Music Piracy In… The 1950s”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sarah Gagestein, Robbert van Ooijen. Robbert van Ooijen said: Did music piracy also exist in the 1950s? Read all about it here: […]

  2. Ed Rogers says:

    I remember in the early 50s we would see vinyl LPs that were said to be of “pirated material.” My late brother was in the sound and record business in those years, and there was one label called Jolly Roger, that was said to be a “Pretty blatant” name, as they were allegedly taking recordings from England and Europe and reissuing them in the U.S.. A couple of summers, we went down to St. Louis to the Muny Opera and liked to shop at the bargain basements of the big dept. stores. My bro told us that some of the LPs we bought were of those “pirated” works. They were often pressed on the cheaper grade of plastic and had noisy surfaces. I often wondered about this and had heard little or nothing of the practice. Ed

  3. […] Ooijen, R. V. (2010, November 12). Have you heard it – music piracy in… the 1950s. Retrieved November 10, 2017, from […]

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