Decline of Classical Music recordings during the 1930s

So we’re told that before the “Classical Music Crisis” that:

Classical broadcasting was profitable. So was classical recording. In the 1930s, the leading American record company, RCA, made half its money from classical music. NBC, the parent company of RCA, created an orchestra for Arturo Toscanini to conduct — hyping him as the greatest musician who ever lived — and aired its concerts first on radio and later on TV, with commercial sponsors. (Sandow 2013)

So the main claim here is that classical recording is profitable and to illustrate we’re given the example that in the 1930s RCA made half its money from classical music. However, In the Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound, Volume 1 we’re told this:

The U.S. national economy was at its lowest point in 1931 and 1932, giving RCA its only deficit years.

Between radio applications and jukebox sales, the record industry had enough business to survive the early years of the Depression. The 50,000 jukeboxes in operation in 1930 accounted for about half of the 6 million records sold in that year. (Hoffmann 2004, pg. 1157)


However, the boom years of the late 1920s were followed by a depression that was even deeper in the record business than in the general economy. Sound film and radio replaced records as a fashionable form of entertainment, and by the mid-thirties, record production had declined from the level of 1929 to, for example, one-tenth in the USA and one-sixth in Germany.

The depression caused a series of bankruptcies and mergers. In the USA there were only three active companies by the mid-193os, and in Europe the situation was almost the same. (Gronow 1983, pg. 64)

One-tenth of the production levels with bankruptcies and mergers in the mid-thirties from the late 1920s boom in the record industry isn’t a particularly profitable trend. By the end of the 1930s things did pick up for the recording companies but for the most part, recordings in general (much less classical recordings) weren’t particularly profitable during most of the Depression years.


Then we turn to this:

During the 1930s popular records outsold Red Seals by a ratio of three to one (Hoffmann 2004, pg. 1157)

Red Seal Records was the Classical Music arm of the RCA Victor company. Maybe at some point classical recordings made up half of the revenue for RCA Records, but it didn’t happen in the 30s.  And even if it was half–half of 1/10th the revenue of the 1920s isn’t something to write home to mom about.

Very few recordings during any part of the early half of the 20th century sold many copies, much less classical recordings.  As Young and Young (2005) state:

Few serious compositions attracted strong public attention during the period, and the classical tradition suffered from both the competition of other musical formats and continuing economic constraints. For classical recordings, that situation translated as disastrous: by 1931, 500 copies constituted the average sales total for a classical disc… (Young and Young 2005, pg. 171)

Even big sellers like Caruso probably only moved a few hundred thousand copies because it was the sheer number of releases that drove the early recording industry not the number of units sold per release. Remember that the LP (“Long Play”) Record hadn’t become the norm yet so a release could simply be a single A side.  An A side with a B side would count as “two releases.”

Another less direct indicator of the record market is the number of new records issued annually. Although exact figures are difficult to come by, discographers have given us several methods by which new releases can be estimated, and we know, for instance, that the Gramophone Co. alone issued about 200,000 titles in the period extending from 1898 to 1920. If this figure appears unexpectedly large, it must be remembered that average sales were low. Reports of Caruso’s recordings selling millions of copies must be taken with a grain of salt, although it seems quite likely that some records did sell hundreds of thousands. However, record companies seem to have been quite satisfied with sales of a few thousand copies, and in order to open up new markets, sales of a few hundred may have been quite acceptable. (Gronow 1983, pg. 60)

Seems like the general attitude towards classical music hasn’t really changed much over the decades in the US and all the effort put into raising the “level of American musical literacy” is a perennial problem.

Americans have long embraced a love-hate relationship with classical music.  In a culture that espouses self-improvement, people see serious music as intrinsically superior to more popular forms. At the same time, these people favor the more accessible, “easier” popular formats for their own listening. This disingenuous situation prevailed throughout the 1930s, a time when a number of groups, both private and governmental, actively attempted to raise the level of American musical literacy. Despite the best of intentions, the efforts failed. Most people continued to buy and listen to pop songs, and then swing overwhelmed all other music in the latter half of the decade. (Young and Young 2005, pg. 171)

This is not to say that the new recording technology didn’t have a big impact on culture. It did. Mark Katz (1998) gives a wonderful overview of how phonographs affected culture, especially in regions where no live classical music organizations existed.  The phonograph was a great supplement (or substitute) to the Women’s Music Clubs which also became much more prominent in the early part of the 20th century (see Whitesitt’s “The Role of Women Impressarios in American Concert Life, 1871-1933” for a concise history).  Of course, the Federal Music Project issued hundreds of recordings which were given out free to radio stations all throughout the US during those Depression years.



Gronow, Pekka (1983) “The Record Industry: The Growth of a Mass Medium.” Popular Music. Vol. 3, Producers and Markets. Cambridge University Press: 53-75 <<>> <<>>

Hoffmann, Frank (2004) Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound. Volume 1. New York, NY: Routledge

Katz, Mark (1998) “Making America More Musical through the Phonograph, 1900-1930.” American Music, Vol. 16, No. 4, University of Illinois Press: 448-476 <<>> <<>>

Sandow, Greg (2013) “Before the Crisis.” Sandow: Greg Sandow on the Future of Classical Music. September 17. <<>>

Whitesitt, Linda (1989) “The Role of Women Impressarios in American Concert Life, 1871-1933” American Music, Vol. 7, No. 2, University of Illinois Press: 159-180 <<>> <<>>

Young, William H., Nancy K. Young (2005) Music of the Great Depression.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press


5 thoughts on “Decline of Classical Music recordings during the 1930s

  1. I want to ask if even a record of. caruso’s could have sold millions back then … I highly doubt that millions of families owned phonographs when they were still relatively new and expensive technology.

    1. It’s possible, but highly unlikely, the Gronow piece estimates that between a third and one half of households had a portable grammaphone by the 20s and 30s (this is surprising to me) and by 1921 an estimated 140 million records were sold in the US (through the first half of the 20s annual sales averaged 100 million).

      That would mean units sold dropped into the tens of millions by the 30s if the one-tenth figure is correct–and a quarter of that number for classical recordings sold (at least by RCA Victor Red Seal) during that period.

      Joseph Murrell’s in The Book of Golden Discs (1974) seems to estimate a fair number of albums with million + sales during the period, but Gronow thinks he overestimates:

      Information on the sales of individual recordings and on the number of releases in this period remains difficult to come by. Murrells (1974) clearly overestimates the number of million-selling records, although there is undeniable evidence of some recordings selling over a million copies in the late 1920S and again in the late 1930S in the USA.

  2. Production methods before 1930 were not conducive to supporting even a longstanding hit at a rate of a million copies of anything. Making a shellac disc took time and it was a slow process. Sometimes when RCA Victor made claims of a million sold it was for a title/artist in every conceivable format; originals, remakes, electrical remakes, in Caruso’s case electrical re-recordings, what have you. And these sales would be tallied up over a period of decades; the various Victor issues of Arthur Collins’ “The Preacher and the Bear” for example, started in 1904 and were still in print up through 1941. The $1.98 double albums “60 Years of Music America Loves Best” issued in 1959 contained selections that were near, but not quite to, the figure of a million sold in the hopes that inclusion on those super-cheap albums would help to push them over the top.

    1. Very good points–and that decades long accrual might have been the impetus for the industry model of “artist development” that would become the standard manner in which the industries invested in artists allowing them several recordings to build interest in the hopes of eventually hoping for that million + hit. But that didn’t happen until the production methods grew cheaper thus allowing the industry to turn into an economy of scale.

      And most of the megahits of today are from the catalog releases of tried and true artists which are still the big sellers–in a way this mimics orchestras tendency to play the old tried and true chesnuts–older best selling records consistently make more money for labels than even newer superstar hits which may or may no have staying power in the future!

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