Fundamentals of Label Studies
Guidelines for handling a fascinating hobby
In these times in which the search and the desire for beauty is looked down upon, is buried in the bottom drawer and is sacrificed for pure pursuit of profit, the ranks of record collectors increasingly fill with new, mostly young members. That especially the area of Jazz profits from this is particularly welcome, and a clear statement against the undemandingness of many of today’s consumers of music. The vinyl album as a sound carrier is in many ways a mediator of the times: through its musical contents as well as through the qualitative and artistic realization of the product itself. However, time alone does not define the arts, but the artists themselves, who in turn are influenced in their speech and expression by the respective situation and the prevailing zeitgeist. Record collecting in the ideal case would mean: to document and make developments in music history visible. Needless to say that the focus is always on the music. ”Music is a transmission belt of imagination and a carrier of ideas.” This sentence by essayist Werner Bräuniger is surely true, however, the aesthetic understanding comprises the total of all possible information and impressions. But this complete picture can generally only be painted by the original sound carriers of the respective time. Only few collectors will be able to withstand the flair of a deluxe cover that appears as a qualitative and artistic quantum leap compared to the packaging of a newer sound carrier generation with its functional ugliness. It is therefore not surprising that collecting jazz albums wins more and more enthusiasts. It is also understandable that original pressings are preferred, either because of the often better sound fidelity or because of the continuous increase in value. But what exactly is a first pressing, how can it be recognized? These questions will be examined in the following article, and I think it will also be worthwhile for already experienced collectors, because the efforts for an exact dating of record pressings are largely in their initial phases. Note that the emphasis here is on ”exact”! In the past couple of years, a few works around this topic have been published. Although some are more useful than others, and despite many mistakes and even more omissions, they are still steps in the right direction. At the end of this article, we will take a critical look at these works. If we compare the situation of record collectors to the amount of books that a philatelist has at his disposal, with all the catalogs of special printings and variations including color guides and watermark listings, etc. that can be used for exact dating and, thus, valuation, then it quickly becomes obvious where we presently stand in our field of collecting. The following explanations will form the basis for detailed descriptions of individual record companies, which will be published later in subsequent installments.
Which records are considered to be originals?
There is probably no other word which is (mis-)used as inflationary and improperly as the term ”original”. What exactly is an original pressing? According to the generally used definition of the term, an original means any records from the entire first production run, in which the title was manufactured for the first time in the respective format, i.e. the record did not previously exist in this form. From this definition, it follows that are also original pressings of a 33 rpm long-playing record that contains reissues of material originally issued on 78 rpm records, although the recordings are not issued for the first time. However, the originals of these editions cannot be called ”first pressings”. There are other definitions of the term, which only consider the first issue of a certain title to be the original. According to this definition, there would, for example, be no originals of the RCA-Vintage series. This is simply absurd, especially because there are, of course, also a number of later pressings of this series that can relatively easily be recognized as such. Another aspect is that this particular series also comprised several previously unissued titles. In this example, the confusion would therefore be considerable.
It would only be logical to define the following: the records of a first pressing, e.g. of a 10”/25cm Blue Note album, are to be designated as originals, although they contain material from 78s. The same, of course, also applies to the first release of these recordings on the 12”/30cm format. The first pressings of these recordings, however, are the 78s. The term ”original” should furthermore only be used for those sound carriers that were manufactured in the original country of origin, i.e. the native country of the parent label, on which the recording was first released. There are exceptions to this, but they are so few and far between that they can safely be ignored within the scope of this article. The first licensed issues in foreign countries are marked with the respective country code, i.e. D-, NL-, US-, F-original, etc. It should be considered that these versions should have been issued within a tolerable period of time from the original. Some European editions, especially of US productions from the 1950’s, were not issued until several years after the originals. An LP which is issued three or four years ”late” can therefore not be termed, for example, an NL-original; the more correct description would instead be ”First NL issue”.
But what about a press run that has been manufactured shortly after the first pressing due to unexpected strong demand? In such cases – one could assume – there would be an almost identical production situation: same pressing plant, still existing labels, possibly even the same masters, unaltered vinyl compound equal to the amount used before, the same covers, etc. This is where the problems start. According to the above definition, these records are, of course, no longer originals, but second pressings (not to be confused with reissues). But these records are usually still considered originals, because in most cases the primary characteristic, i.e. the label, is identical. The reason is that until not too long ago, records were only examined regarding the label (if at all), provided that the respective original label design was known. Fortunately, however, in most instances not all characteristics are completely the same. The attentive reader who has followed us so far will notice immediately: here we are faced with a number of problems to be solved. In the following chapters, we will try to sort out this hotchpotch of questions and problems a bit.
Another aspect which applies almost exclusively to US-American pressings should be mentioned in brief within this chapter. The U.S.A. are a huge country extending over approx. 9.4 mill. square kilometers. It is obvious that any economically thinking company owner will try to keep his distribution channels as short as possible. This would mean, for example, that a label from New York City would try to have its records/covers also pressed/printed on the West Coast. RCA, for example, maintained pressing plants in Indianapolis, Rockaway and in Hollywood, California, which, by the way, can be identified by the respective letter codes in the dead wax. Let’s stay with RCA and assume that a certain record was manufactured at the same time in all three plants. Then we would of course have three press runs that would be considered originals. Besides the different pressing plant codes in the dead wax, these could also show other different characteristics which may easily lead to their evaluation as second pressings. I think this example clearly shows the problems resulting from this situation.
Therefore, an exact dating matrix needs to be worked out that lists all relevant data of the respective record company – including recording studios, pressing plants, etc. – chronologically, and in a way that serves to solve the problem. Unfortunately, such an information tool is presently not in sight.
Methods of dating
– Question formulation for the development of a methodology –
The manufacturing date of a record is to be determined as exactly as possible. The question must therefore be: Which existing information that can be found on the sound carrier (record/cover) or can be deduced (for example from the thickness of the cover or the weight of the record itself, etc., or from relevant data of the company’s history) is useful in order to solve our problem? We can assume that everything related to the design and the manufacturing of the product ”record” was first and foremost based on commercial aspects. This means that there is (almost) no consciously placed information which would immediately enable us to determine the correct manufacturing date. Of course, that would have been too easy. Many record companies and their owners – at least in the area of jazz and classical music – were surely aware of the fact that they created a cultural asset which would be of importance for many years to come. But only few of them had the farsightedness to envision that first pressings and originals would attain such a fascination as historical documents among collectors, so that they now can be considered minor antiques. A comparison with book publishers may be a bit far-fetched, but it drastically illustrates the attitude and the value placed on their own product. Every diligent publisher marks the first printings of his books or states exactly which printing it comes from, generally with the total figure of the print run. It goes without saying (and is sometimes even stipulated by law) that the name of the printer, as well as the year and sometimes even the month of publishing are given. In 1980, the International Association of Sound Archives (IASA) and the International Association of Music Libraries (IAML) issued a final request to the sound carrier manufacturers to not only list the artists, authors and titles on the sleeves of their products, but also recording date and location, running time, the names of recording supervisor, sound engineer, producers and any related data, in order to increase the value of a sound recording as a source of scientific study. (1) A sensible demand, although the pressing date was not mentioned. The determination of such data, as well as their classification and evaluation, and the way to obtain them will be explained in detail in the following.
By now, we certainly know which labels most record companies used at a specific time. Many companies, however, used the same labels over a longer period, so we must stick to the above-mentioned characteristics and relate these to the respective time frames the best we can. For this, it is usually essential to have knowledge of certain production methods, as well as the characteristics unique to the individual labels. In order to obtain such information, it would be necessary to gain insight into company archives, provided they existed at all. By looking through written correspondence, order memos, etc., it could be exactly determined with which pressing plants and printers the record company worked during which periods of time, how many copies were pressed, where the recordings took place, where and by whom the mastering was done, and so on. Many relevant questions could be solved immediately. It can safely be assumed that only very few companies still have these documents in their possession, and if they do, there is probably no index or register system for finding the relevant files. All this is, of course, my own personal assumption, but I have so far not heard of anybody who has done such research directly at the source. Discographers who were granted access to record company archives have up to now never considered any of the aspects mentioned in this article. But almost like an archeologist we need comparable objects and data that can clearly be placed into a chronological sequence, so we need to obtain the information elsewhere.
The main source for company-related historical information is still the contemporary trade press, more to this later. First, let’s take a look at the fundamental information, i.e. the primary and specific dating characteristics on the sound carrier itself, which can be linked to the historic information.
1. Primary dating characteristics
1.1 The outer sleeve
At record fairs you can often see collectors who are obviously looking for originals and, for example, examine the label of every Blue Note or Impulse album, although experienced collectors can already tell by the outer appearance that certain records can impossibly be older pressings. The cover itself, its material, printing quality ,etc. already reveals a lot. It is often not even necessary to take a look at the back of the cover. Thus, experienced collectors can make a first selection without an objective examination of the other characteristics.
I am well aware of the problems arising from the interchangeability of the three information elements – cover, inner sleeve and record. From a purely scientific point of view, any conclusions made from uncertain sources will not yield exact and watertight results. The information therefore must be placed in relation to other findings in order to verify the respective conclusion. As records are usually produced in amounts of at least a couple of hundred copies (except for very small editions for which the information situation is usually unequivocal), there is a theoretical possibility for comparing data. Aside from the inner sleeve, which is often missing, an exchange of the other two components is rather the exception. However, from years of experience I can only say: nothing is impossible! As mentioned in the beginning, the manufacturing of a record is almost exclusively determined by economic factors, i.e.: if there are any remaining covers from the initial pressing in stock, then these are, of course, first used up for a second pressing. It goes without saying that this also applies to all other parts, down to the labels. This fact must be borne in mind for all attempts at dating records and therefore also applies to the further discussion of all other aspects. In order to avoid repetitions, this alert will be made here for the last time with an exclamation mark!
Which information, then, can be found on the cover of a record, and what can be seen from it/which conclusions can be drawn?
I would first like to mention the German Label Code, because it offers us a clear time frame. The Label Code (LC) was introduced in 1974 in order to introduce a quick reference system for distributing broadcasting royalties for music played on the radio. This code can be found exclusively on the back cover as well as the label of sound carriers produced in, as well as for, the German market, i.e. for example also on Dutch CBS pressings, because CBS no longer pressed their records in Germany after 1970. This, however, does not mean that all German pressings with an LC number were manufactured before 1974. Some smaller companies – and a few larger ones – only introduced the Label Code in later years. Sometimes only the promotion copies had an LC sticker applied manually after production. This method can still be found on foreign productions intended for radio airplay in Germany. This is understandable, because the LC number has no relevance for the normal consumer. In summary: a record bearing a German Label Code has definitely been manufactured after 1973; the reverse conclusion, however, cannot necessarily be drawn.
I have placed the ”LC story” at the beginning of my observations because it is (almost/generally) the only piece of information on the cover, which can be evaluated without any comparing data.
The first thing that catches the eye when examining the outer sleeve of a record is, of course, the cover design. Many larger companies that offered an extensive catalog of titles tried to adapt the packaging of their product to the prevailing contemporary zeitgeist and fashion trends when releasing a new edition of an album. A typical example is Prestige Records with numerous changes in cover design for the same musical contents. The producer Bob Porter once said about his former employer: ”My mentor, Bob Weinstock, the founder of Prestige Records, had drummed into my mind the basic philosophy behind reissues. Each succeeding generation of jazz fans would be interested in the classics of the era. Update the packaging, use fresh liner notes, but don’t make too many jackets!” (2) Like many independent label owners of his time, Weinstock was renowned as a smart businessman. It may or may not be true that he was trying to lead some potential buyers into believing that they were purchasing a previously unreleased recording; after all, many collectors still fall into this trap today and only discover at home that they already own the recordings under a different guise. Nevertheless, the rule was rather to have more covers printed than needed for the first pressing, in order to have stock for an early second press run. Very many second pressings that have been manufactured soon after the first edition therefore come in first generation covers. This was done throughout the industry; some of the major record companies had their own printing shops and processing plants for the manufacturing of album covers, labels, etc. However, the small, independent companies – including almost all labels focussing on jazz releases – needed to have theirs printed by freelance printers. In the mid-1950s, there were only nine such printers who were able to carry out such work at all. (3) 1955 was the main year for the switch from 10”/25cm long-playing albums to the 12”/30cm format, and it is obvious that the few print shops were completely overburdened. It must have taken years until this shortage was overcome, because the sales figures for 12-inch albums virtually exploded over the following years. More than a few production managers will therefore have entered agreements with several printers in order to enable the company to release its products in time or at least as soon as possible. However, there probably were no production splits for one and the same title, which would have been uneconomical. We can therefore safely assume that the first pressing of a certain record came in covers from the same production run; remaining covers, as mentioned above, were then used for the second edition. Provided they didn’t lie forgotten in a storage room only to be discovered years later and be used for an entirely different pressing – but don’t panic, this fortunately was rarely the case. But still, as I said before, in this context there is hardly anything that hasn’t at some point appeared in some way. Again, the Prestige label offers good examples. Take a look at the Status label, originally conceived as a budget line, and be amazed! But the Status mess must be considered an exception; something like this only needs to be taken into account for certain companies, often only for certain series or even individual numbers.
Besides the above-mentioned obvious differences such as a complete change in cover design, there are other characteristics that can be helpful for distinguishing pressing generations. These include color changes and different printing qualities – details that up to now only have been considered to be of minor importance, if at all. Another aspect is whether the cover is glossy or not, as well as the quality of such a lamination. The packaging should also be taken into account; some first editions had a fold-out cover, whereas later issues only came in a single sleeve. Cover size, manufacturing quality and the thickness of the cardboard used for the cover are also aspects of increasing importance.
Also belonging among these technical production characteristics are the various methods of manufacturing the sleeves; without doubt an indication for the quality and, thus, a matter of finances. Some one-man-operations, such as for example Arhoolie, were at first not able to afford expensive cover processing for their tiny editions, and therefore used neutral covers onto which a printed information sheet was pasted by hand. (4) Even a few larger operations, such as Moses Asch’s Folkways Records, used this ”bootleg technology” for their smaller editions. (In Moe Asch’s case it should be mentioned that he was one of the first label owners who added inserts with sometimes quite extensive information and lyric transcriptions to their products.) Apart from the few smaller enthusiasts, it can be observed that most covers of American jazz productions from the 1950s and 1960s keep a high standard of quality. In later years, this quality level was not reached anymore, and probably wasn’t aimed for, either. This results in numerous differences that can be used for dating purposes, for example the above-mentioned cardboard thickness and – often disregarded – the design of the cover spine, which, due to the various production methods, sometimes appears strong and thick, with an added cardboard strip (Riverside a.o.), or flat and thin with a simple spine fold (early Blue Note, early ECM a.o.). For the latter kind of production, the spine lettering was mostly omitted, or the lettering appears on the front or back cover, if the spine lettering was carried over from existing printing materials for the cover sheet. Album covers manufactured in Great Britain, Scandinavia, France or the Benelux countries often have a simple processing with flaps in common. The front side was printed with flaps that were glued to the inside or the outside of the back cover sheet, depending on the ”in-house style”. All kinds of mixed forms have developed in this respect, all the way to partially flat pressed cover spines (early Musidisc, America, etc.). The Blue Note label serves as a good example for the numerous ways of processing covers. The following listing is done chronologically from 1955 upwards for 12”/30cm albums (5):
1. Folded on the bottom, flush on top; with and without spine support.
2. Folded on top, flush on the bottom; with and without spine support.
These two techniques are basically the same; for this period of time, #2 can be regarded as a rare exception.
3. Folded at the spine; spine appears flat without lettering.
4. Two individual parts; with and without spine support.
5. Folded at the spine; front side has flaps on the top and the bottom, both are glued to the inside of the back side. Some manufacturing runs have smaller, semi-circle-shaped glue flaps.
6. Folded on the bottom; an approx. 10mm wide flap on the top, which is fitted flush to the back side sheet. Same principle as for many Japanese covers, offers better protection from record breaking through side of cover.
7. Folded on top; otherwise same as #6. Same note applies as for #2.
This listing clearly illustrates the importance that must be placed on the various manufacturing technologies. Blue Note is surely among the most difficult cases regarding the identification of originals, because during the time period of a pressing generation, numerous additional pressings were made that are identical in their primary label characteristics, so that other factors play a major role for an exact identification.
As could be assumed, most of the useful information consciously placed on records can be found on the back cover. However, the printer’s copies were only updated from time to time. Quite frequently, covers were printed with a different front side, while keeping the same back cover. Please note that this applies to a manufacturing period until the late 1970s at the most. The reissues of these records in their original cover design (not in original covers, as is often wrongly stated) that were mainly issued in the 1980s, are easily recognizable.
Still, company addresses were updated when possible; sometimes respective stickers were applied. But the handling of the individual companies regarding their back covers cannot be generalized. As for many other specific aspects within our topic, the usual practice of the respective labels must be worked out and related to the correct time frame. It is clear that an address change is an important hint; under consideration of the above-mentioned restrictions, we can assume that the record was then manufactured after the company had moved.
Some record companies used part of the back cover as advertising space for previously issued titles in their program, sometimes also for titles in preparation. If a certain series was currently being continued, then the advertising announcements were generally brought up-to-date. If we therefore examine a record on which the announcement of other titles goes far beyond the catalog number of this issue, then it is certainly not an original. The announcement of three or four numbers in advance is sometimes also be found on original issues and can therefore be tolerated. A number of companies never used advertising space or inserts for first editions, so that these are also easy to distinguish. Such records may feature a completely different back cover design, or may only show a different placement of the copy. In rare cases, typographical differences are discernible, but these are mostly of minor importance, because they often appear together with other, more important characteristics, and thus can only be used as additional proof.
An exact description of the historical development of the liner notes does not belong here and would go way beyond the scope of this article. Some remarks about liner notes are nevertheless necessary in this context. In the immediate years after the introduction of the long-playing record (in 1948, at first only in the U.S.A.), the writing on the back covers generally only consisted of meaningless blurb intended for sales-promotion. (6) Especially for jazz productions, this was soon superseded by texts that dealt with the musical contents in a factual way. In view of the above-mentioned repeated use of printing materials, the data given in such accompanying texts must be evaluated cautiously. From a discographical point of view, the information regarding line-up as well as recording date and location are mainly of interest. For our purposes, the latter two aspects cannot necessarily be related directly to the date and place of manufacturing. Much more important is any information regarding the persons who participated in the production, such as recording supervisor, sound engineer and cutting engineer. This is not only of historical interest, but sometimes also leads to the successful decoding of cryptonyms or even cryptographies that are engraved in the dead wax of many records. I will deal with these abbreviations in detail in a separate chapter. Audiophile enthusiasts will especially welcome information on the microphone brands and types used for the recording, as well as their placement in the recording studio (Command, Contemporary, Time, etc.). Such data themselves are only randomly interesting for our purpose, but the placement of these and other remarks on the back cover, as well as the instances in which such information was present on certain pressings and omitted on others, can be revealing – in short, all aspects that indicate that a new printer’s copy has been made. In this context, it should be considered that the position of the back cover sheet might shift due to production differences. In some cases, printer’s copies were simply shortened in order to make room for additional remarks such as ”Stereo”, etc.
The names of printers, if present, are mostly given on the bottom of the cover, sometimes hidden under glued flaps.
All in all it can be observed: the more costly and large-scale a production has been conceived and realized, the more useful data can be found.
We will now turn to one of the most misinterpreted signs to be found on the outer sleeve of records, the ”P” in a circle followed by a year. This symbol does not – as has often been assumed wrongly – designate the year of the pressing, but the year in which one or several music titles have been produced. Thus, compilations (samplers) that combine tracks from various sources may carry several of these production symbols, also be found on the label and sometimes in the dead wax. Because the dates of recording and pressing are quite frequently close to each other (at least for concept albums), this dating surely has a certain importance, but only for clearly identified originals. In case of new transfers/processing of historical material, the year of this re-working is often given as the production date.
The number prefixes, as well as the catalog and order numbers will be dealt with in the label chapter, and will not be considered at this point.
I have previously mentioned the changes in or the new design of a company logo among the general distinguishing characteristics of printing materials, and their importance should be further stressed here. For the logos, basically the same applies as for address changes or additions, etc. Because the graphically re-worked or newly designed logos were again used over a longer period, then for this time frame a correct dating can be achieved. Such company signs were often introduced for the whole line of production, but at least for a certain series. There are often small, but important details that the superficial viewer may easily overlook. A suitable example is the Impulse ”compact logo”, which can easily be confused with the subsequent logo, because the only difference between them is the space separation between the Impulse and the ABC box. For a certain period, this detail distinguishes originals from second pressings. If one only looks for a primary characteristic for originals, and not for an exact dating, then the discovery of such a distinguishing factor can be sufficient.
We therefore differentiate between two kind of characteristics that, of course, also need to be evaluated differently. On one hand there are the general characteristics such as address, logo, etc., on the other hand the specific characteristics that only apply to a certain record. In practice this means: if we have two or more copies of the same title with identical primary characteristics (address, logo, etc.), but with different specific details, then we must make a further selection according to company- or title-relevant criteria. For all aspects that have been discussed so far and will be discussed below, this must be done according to the rules of logic.
Finally, the aspect of the country of origin must be mentioned. This appears to be no problem at all, after all the respective information is almost always given and can rarely be overlooked. And usually the record and the cover should come from the same country of origin. However, as I have already often mentioned in the record descriptions of my auction lists, this is not always the case. A few remarks are therefore necessary in our context.
U.S. labels who had their records pressed in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, either on a licensing basis or through subsidiaries, quite frequently delivered the respective jackets from their own American production. This leads to different origins for the individual elements of the record, a situation which is often true for Impulse or Blue Note/Liberty, and others. The reason for such adifference is not a malicious or accidental exchange of record and cover, but is based on purely economical factors. By exporting covers, the company was able to have a larger number printed, which definitely cost less than having, for example, one thousand covers printed in Germany (the average good press run for a jazz album intended for the German market). The freight costs for the comparably lightweight covers probably didn’t bust the calculation, either. Furthermore, this way the record company could be quite certain that the licenseee didn’t press any more records than agreed – not exactly a method conducive to mutual trust, and I do not know of any examples after the mid-1970s.
Counterfeits intended to trick collectors are actually very seldom in the area of Jazz/Blues LPs, and are almost always easily recognizable due to badly reproduced covers. It may sound paradox, but the technical facilities for manufacturing an exact repro of a glossy cover from the 1950s are simply no longer available today. Every collector who has concerned himself with originals has also developed an instinct for the important indicators, so he cannot be fooled easily. The paper and printing quality alone is often a far cry from the original. The criminal energy of counterfeiters is only a problem for 45 rpm singles, because these can be reproduced more easily, and closer to the original. The area of Rhythm & Blues/Vocal Groups/Doo Wop is especially affected by this, because top rarities now reach prices of several thousand dollars. (7)
Bibliography/further reading on the topic of album covers see notes (8)
1.2. The inner sleeve
The above-mentioned problem of the exchangeability of the various elements of a record applies especially, mostly even exclusively, to the inner sleeve. The information that can be established from the inner sleeve can consequently in no way be used as a basis for reaching logical results. In our dating chain, it is therefore the lowest-ranking aspect. On the other hand, no information available should be ignored, anything that may be helpful should be put to use. The results from the evaluation of an inner sleeve just might serve as an additional piece for substantiating the dating.
Because a missing original inner sleeve mostly does not affect the material value of a record, it is mostly exchanged for a more modern and better one. There is nothing to be said against this, except for inner sleeves who serve a function in combination with a gimmick cover. However, it is common practice and desirable to leave printed inner sleeves that document the respective zeitgeist inside the cover as an insert. There are many inner sleeves with good graphics or simply with cover pictures in color that have their own charm and are appreciated by some collectors almost as much as the cover itself. In this regard, the 1950s and 1960s are again unsurpassed – another argument regarding the quality standards rarely reached in later years.
While some companies at first didn’t use any inner sleeves at all for packing their sound carriers, most soon realized that they were wasting valuable advertising space. It could be exploited relatively easily and served the additional purpose of protecting the record against dirt and mechanical damage. Apart from some of the smallest labels, the inner sleeves were used – not always, but quite frequently – for messages of different kinds. The scope reaches from simply listing catalog numbers with the respective artist names, to showing the covers of other titles in black and white or color, all the way to elaborate graphic reproductions. Sometimes full page texts were to inform the buyers about certain recordings or cutting technologies (stereo, 35mm magnetic film, Dynagroove, etc.). RCA, Everest, Fantasy and World Pacific should be mentioned in particular, because many of their inner sleeves carried the year or even the catalog number of the record inside.
The materials used for manufacturing the inner sleeve are almost as varied. All kinds of paper types and qualities were used, from parchment-like material to high-gloss quality, with or without lining. Also used were inner sleeves made entirely from plastic, transparent or milky, rounded or square, soft or consistent.
Neutral inner sleeves bearing no information can only tell us something from the material used, or maybe from their shape. Some companies, especially in the U.S.A., used inner sleeves during the 1970s that were rounded at the edges, because they simply fitted better into covers that were of slipshod quality on the inside. Although this only helps in isolated cases, it should be mentioned for completeness’ sake.
Much more enlightening is the information to be found in varying quantities and forms on the printed inner sleeves. The conglomerate of data and information often corresponds to those on the outer sleeve and is to be evaluated the same way, as described in the previous chapter, i.e. company addresses, cover reproductions, information about origin, logos, user instructions, manufacturing data, etc. If the facts to be found on the inner sleeve confirm information obtained from other sources, then it can indeed serve as a useful underpinning of the argumentation, whichever way. Again a practical, frequently appearing example: during the 1960s, Blue Note used various inner sleeves that were to point out the long existence of the company. The headline read: ”1939–1965 26 Years Blue Note” or, respectively, in 1966: 27 Years, etc. (9)
Productions that were issued up to this time during the so-called ”New York era” of course had the ”New York label” as primary characteristic. But if we have a ”New York record” with a first pressing date of 1963 in a 1964 ”25 Years Blue Note” inner sleeve, then other indicators such as earmark, weight, poss. glossy cover, etc. should be examined critically. This applies even more to records for which the first date of issue differs even more from the ”inner sleeve date”. Of course it doesn’t take much to imagine that existing originals could have been packed in later inner sleeves in order to update the advertising message. There are several aspects that point towards such a practice, which makes the exact evaluation of other factors all the more important.
Any record collector who not only approaches his objects of desire with open ears, but also with open eyes and mind, has probably noticed the strange combination of numbers and letters that can often be found on the right side at the bottom of inner sleeves. These codes are generally only used for productions by European companies. I cannot explain their meaning completely, because the codes, besides the patent-no., almost exclusively relate to the administration and logistics of the respective company and pressing plant. In order to decipher this information, one would need the respective fundamental information, which can be completely different from one company to the other. If any of our readers can add anything to our knowledge regarding these codes, I would be delighted to hear from them, because this is one possibility for dating that has not been considered before. We will be faced with a similar problem when discussing the topic ”Information contained in the dead wax”.
Around the mid-1960s there first appeared numbers that could be placed in correspondence to the year of manufacturing, i.e. the year appears as two digits of the respective code, for example: 49 12000 1025.1 24.73. This row of numbers probably represents a code for the orderer (the label), the title, as well as the above-mentioned internal company data plus the year, in this case 73 for 1973.
In summary: if all criteria for relating an inner sleeve to a certain time period of the label are met, i.e. if the material and technical characteristics as well as the design and form fit, then we can quite safely assume that this inner sleeve is an original part of the record. In such a case, nothing speaks against the use of the available inner sleeve data.
1.3. The vinyl – its properties, color and weight
If we take a long-playing record of recent production, then we usually see a deeply black disc, made from a clean, high-grade polyvinylchloride compound, without grainy inclusions or even signs of material fatigue that show as radial cracks across the record. This was not always the case. Because the shellac used for the manufacturing of 78 rpm records was among the materials essential to the war effort, it was rationed during World War II. Record companies therefore began to experiment; all kinds of additives were tried -–and most of them discarded again. The decisive developments then came from the laboratories of the chemical industry that also searched for ways to free itself from its dependence on shellac. The result of the research was a synthetic plastic material. Without this basic material, the development of the 12” long-playing record with microgrooves, which was taken up again after the end of WWII, would not have been possible. Or, in other words, as the jazz magazine ”Down Beat” put it in a headline of their issue of Oct. 21st, 1953: ”Wartime shellac shortage started hi-fi ball rolling.” The search for an optimal vinyl compound had not been finished by the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many companies believed in their own secret in-house compounds supposed to guarantee the lowest possible surface noise. Pure vinyl was still very expensive, and accounted for a major part of a record’s production costs. Budget labels in particular tried to lower costs by diluting the vinyl with substitute substances. But also among pressings of established companies, we sometimes find copies with substantial surface noise due to the use of lower quality material. Two different copies of the same title and of identical dating characteristics quite frequently show completely different acoustic properties, i.e. with or without inherent surface noise. Because we can assume that each of the two examples represents the sound of a whole press run, the two copies must originate from different pressings that were either manufactured subsequently in the same pressing plant or at the same time in different locations. In the first case, we would then have a second or later pressing, in the other of course an original. There are those who claim that such records made from low-quality vinyl were produced exclusively for export, but their are no hints, let alone proof, that would substantiate such an assumption. Another possibility would be that in the middle of a press run, a new shipment of vinyl had to be used that didn’t meet the usual standards – or vice versa. It is certain, though, that these differences in quality only happened at a few companies, in the jazz segment especially Atlantic and Prestige, to name just two better-known labels. It should be mentioned in this connection that a bad pressing is not necessarily due to bad carrier material. On the other hand, many records that remind the listener of a bonfire are not always bad pressings, sometimes quite the opposite. But this is an altogether different topic.
For some companies, the different vinyl properties can indeed supply useful information for the dating of a record, if we disregard the above exception for a moment. However, records of European origin are fortunately mostly made from excellent vinyl, especially British and in particular German pressings, which makes it difficult to discover any quality differences of their material at all over the years or decades.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with American pressings of the 1950s and partly also the 1960s. We should distinguish between optical and the above-mentioned acoustic differences. Especially during the early years of the long-playing record, many different vinyl compounds were used that can already be distinguished by their color shadings. Anthracite-colored or almost gray discs are due to a lack of soot additive; they almost always come from cheap productions and do not play noise-free. Cracks from material fatigue can also be observed frequently among these budget issues. A perfect example is the Crown label, a budget brand of the Bihari brothers, Joe, Jules and Saul, who shared the executive management of their labels. All quality differences mentioned above can be found here across the various pressing generations, and even pile up on other labels of the brothers. If this label didn’t carry some original recordings, too, one could wish that all available records on the Crown label had been disposed of as waste long ago. A final quality check, as done in Europe, was probably only common among the larger U.S. companies. Pressings of major labels are usually free from defects after 1955, because clean vinyl was used instead of the earlier recycled or diluted material. On so-called ”audiophile” records we quite frequently find the ”information” that ”virgin vinyl” has been used; in fact, this would go without saying in most European countries and in Japan, and so it was sold to German-speaking customers as ”super vinyl”!
For a general examination of the material, an incident light microscope offering an enlargement of 30 times the size, with its own lamp, is perfectly suitable. Such microscopes are especially constructed for the examination of surfaces and can also be used for enlarging the data contained in the dead wax. It is also essential for the determination of paper quality. These microscopes are available from opticians and cost around DM 130/approx. $ 65.
Because soot particles are usually added to the vinyl compound in order to improve gliding properties, the color of the material becomes black. But as early as in the 1920s and 1930s there were experiments with colored shellac, and some records were issued that way. Even picture discs are well-known from this time period, for which the record was pressed from colorless, transparent material onto a picture carrier.
Polyvinylchloride is much more suitable for adding colors, and the idea was taken up again by many companies. Among the best-known labels that used colored vinyl for their long-playing records (10”, 12”, 7”-EP) are Aladdin, Crown, Duke, G.N.P., Imperial, London, Pacific Jazz, Tampa, World Pacific, later also The Old Masters – the listing could easily be expanded by several other labels. However, the company that probably released the largest number of colored records surely was Fantasy. Taking Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader alone as examples (both had a large number of their recordings released on this label), the chronological sequence of color and material can already be described. Whereas the first pressings in the 10”/25cm format were released in red, green, blue and also multi-colored vinyl, all later 12”/30cm originals were generally manufactured in red vinyl. This was a rigid, not flexible granular vinyl compound, often with color shadings. After around 1958, many of these titles were re-pressed in black vinyl. There are also second pressings in red vinyl, but made from a substantially thinner (lighter) and more flexible material than the originals. Among the other labels, the colored copies also mostly belong to the first press runs. However, there are also numerous examples for parallel manufacturing. Especially in the Rhythm & Blues segment, many singles were also pressed in color besides the normal pressing. The number of independent labels to which this applies probably amounts to more than 50, the most renowned of which are Aladdin, Chance, Checker, Federal, Parrot, Prestige, Vee Jay, in Europe also Storyville, etc. Because the colored editions were often limited, these records show a high, continuing increase in value.
Quite often the weight of a record is given as an indicator of its age. While it is certainly true that no records weighing more than 200 grams were issued after about 1964, pressings in this weight class were not the rule, if not the exception, in the previous years. For this aspect, a generalization is again not possible, except for the simple observation that a heavy record was definitely not made in the 1970s. Taking the Blue Note label as an example once again, only a few of its numbers reach a weight of more than 200 grams. Copies that weigh 220 grams are only to be found among the 1500 series with ”Lexington” identification. Titles that weigh just over 200 grams end at the beginning of the 4000 series and subsequently decrease in weight down to 150 grams.
Because the amount and therefore the weight of the vinyl compound used for the pressing of records was no longer left to visual estimate or chance since the 1930s, we can quite safely assume that two otherwise identical copies of a record with differing weights do not come from the same manufacturing run. However, a comparison of two copies with subsequent catalog numbers does not lead to conclusions that could be generalized: although the large major record companies that used their own pressing plants may have produced comparable qualities, the smaller independents had to give their orders to external suppliers and therefore worked with different pressing plants over the time.
Some collectors often point out the different shape of the record’s edge within some pressing series. However, because the various shapes, such as square or tapered off, are almost always depending on the weight, we will stick to the more exact and safer procedure of determining the weight.
At the beginning of the 1970s, during the years of the oil crisis rage, the amount of vinyl used for the manufacturing of a record was reduced to a minimum. Many pressing plants switched to a more economical injection method and produced records that sometimes could almost be called flexidiscs. The final point of a steady decrease in quality had been reached. This era also produced the highest percentage of wavy and warped records. While this phenomenon was almost unheard of previously, the mid-1970s could be called the heyday of the ”pan record”. The number of records returned by the trade increased accordingly. It became apparent that after all there was a limit to what the consumer was willing to swallow. The oil crisis excuse soon didn’t work anymore, either, and by the end of that decade a substantial improvement of the vinyl quality and amount could be observed.
Astonishingly, the effects of the oil crisis on European products were not as serious as for records made in the U.S.A. German companies used the situation to their advantage by introducing a seal of quality, which was to point out the excellent quality of German pressings.
By the beginning of the 1980s, the weight differences between the various pressing series of the individual companies were only minor, so that they are not sufficient for use in a dating matrix. The weight standard had balanced out to around 130 grams.
The second part of this article will deal with the ”Information in the dead wax”, including a concise description of the manufacturing process of records. And, finally, we will look at the primary characteristic for dating, the record’s label.
1) ”Schallarchive und Musikbibliotheken fordern mehr Informationen” (Sound archives and music libraries request more information), in: Der Musikmarkt, no.13, 1981, p.8 (thanks to M. Frohne for supplying the article)
2) Bob Porter, ”Labelwatch”, in: Jazz Times, July/August 1994, p.25
3) See also: ”Teure Hüllen” (Expensive covers), in: Jazz Podium, no.10, 1956, p.12
4) Arhoolie label founder Chris Strachwitz gives a vivid description of such a procedure as done in 1960: ”Wayne Pope, his wife Alice, and I sat around his kitchen table gluing printed cover slicks onto the jackets. I had ordered 250 solid black jackets from an album company and from a printer I had ordered the cover slicks on gummed label paper, and so with sponges and lots of elbow grease we finally got enough covers glued on, inserted the pressings and the booklet...” ”20 years of Arhoolie Records”, in: Arhoolie Records Catalog 1980/81, p.58
5) An exact reference list will be included in the Blue Note article.
6) Some of today’s CD booklets read like a throwback into this era.
7) If you are interested in the 1000 most expensive (US) records, please refer to: Jerry Osborne, ”The money records”, New York 1998
8) The last couple of years have brought on something like a flood of cover picture books. But besides nice pictures, most of them hardly give any information. One of the few exceptions is: Manek Daver, ”Jazz album covers, the rare and the beautiful”, Tokyo 1994
The only halfway scientific contribution to the history of the record covers is: Martina Schmitz, ”Album Cover, Geschichte und Ästhetik einer Schallplattenverpackung in den USA nach 1940, Designer – Stile – Inhalte” (history and aesthetics of record packaging in the U.S.A. after 1940, designers – styles – contents), Munich 1987. Although the author ”only” examines 78 rpm record albums (box sets) and largely disregards the LP segment, this book can be unreservedly recommended because of the wealth of material it offers. The interviews with many industry insiders and designers alone make up for any weaknesses in the main part of the book.
9) This also marked the final year under self-direction. In June 1966, Liberty bought the company, and the days of independence were gone.
Translation Klaus Kilian (many thanks to him)
It is inevitable that certain special terms are being used here that may require a clear definition. If a glossary should be requested, then this will be placed at the very end of the complete article in order to explain the relevant terms. Further definition of terminology within the body of the text would overload the article and impair readability; most of these terms should be familiar to the mostly experienced audience of this magazine anyway. Since the contents are largely structured in a descriptive-paradigmatic way, special terms can also be understood from their context. For example, the „ambivalent“ double meaning of the word „label“, used for both the „inside label“ on the record itself as well as the record company, can almost always be assigned correctly from the respective context. In short, the determining function of all other (structuring) terms is of vital importance. In this connection, which only goes to show once again that nobody’s perfect, I have to admit that a major mistake has been overlooked during proof-reading: on page 30 of the first part, the word „logo“ in the first column, lines 18 and 21, should actually read „label“. Please correct accordingly.
About the abbreviations used for countries of origin: there have been partly almost bizarre „discussions“ about this topic in several collectors’ publications as early as the 1960s. In order to place the importance of this detail into proper perspective, I would only like to add the following: sometimes the better things prevail, in this case the use of the internationally accepted country codes used for cars/license plates, which can be looked up in any decent road atlas.
The © (Copyright) note, which can be found on nearly all record sleeves and CD booklets/inlay cards only refers to the copyright of the cover artwork and can therefore not lend any assistance in dating, because all further releases using the same design show the same year (see also the various RCA productions in this respect).
Finally, there is another important addition that unfortunately could not be included before part 1 was printed. It concerns US pressings exclusively, and its value for dating purposes is comparable to the (German) label code in that it can be used for a relatively clear separation of time periods (see also the respective paragraph in the first part of this article, with all its reservations) – the US zip code. This postal code, a five-digit number, was introduced on January 1st, 1964. Since this number can be found with almost any address on the cover, the inner sleeve and partly also on the label, it is an important hint for dating at least for the respective period.
I am thanking Klaus Kilian for pointing this aspect out to me; Mr. Kilian is also responsible for the translation of this article into English. The exact date of the introduction of the 5-digit zip code was found out by Hans-Peter Lastovka. Many thanks to him, too.
Any further suggestions, recommendations, additions and information are very much appreciated by this author.
Fundamentals of Label Studies, Part II
1.4. The information contained in the dead wax 10
The information to be found in the dead wax, i.e. the area between the last „band“/track on the record and the label, varies greatly from one record company to the other, regarding value as well as quantity of useful information. Smaller, mostly independent labels quite often limited this information to the matrix number, which itself was mostly identical to the order- resp. catalog-number. I strongly doubt that such scant hints allow any conclusions regarding the quality of a pressing, as has sometimes been claimed. However, it is correct that the mere existence of a matrix/order no. in the dead wax does not have much relevance for the dating of a record. Differences are only discernable and useful concerning the way in which this information is given. The dead wax data on the products of smaller labels are often written manually, i.e. by hand. If the catalog number represents the only information in this area, then only a „graphological“ comparison with another copy of the respective album could reveal whether the pressing matrix has been manufactured from the same „mother“ or not. If additional information besides the matrix number can be found, then the placement or spacing of this information can also be considered in this comparison. 11
Many records, mostly by larger companies, show data printed in the dead wax by machine. This is of importance to a certain extent, because this was often not the case for later re-pressings and/or bootlegs, especially regarding 45 rpm singles. However, as always this cannot be generalized. As mentioned before, the specific practice of the respective company and pressing plant must be considered.
For the logical understanding of the following aspects it is useful to first of all explain the essentials of the manufacturing process of a vinyl record. In this, I am concentrating on the significant steps and processes that are relevant for the topic at hand, disregarding for example the technical and physical aspects that determine the sound quality of the end product and such. Those readers who are interested in other aspects or detailed information about the manufacturing of records are referred to the respective specialist literature. 12
1.4.1. Excursus: Manufacturing of vinyl records
In order to concentrate on the relevant time period, I am disregarding the 78 rpm shellack era; the basics of manufacturing have almost remained unchanged and were only improved in their details due to technical innovations. Because the advances in magnetic sound recording were a decisive step towards the development of the long-playing record, I would like to start with the reel-to-reel tape.13 This was much improved after World War II and was used in most recording studios from about the beginning of the 1950s. When the projected recordings have been recorded on tape and approved, the next step starts: the magnetically recorded sound wave impulses are now transformed into mechanical impulses and cut into a lacquer foil with a cutting lathe to which an engraver is attached. This work is done by a cutting engineer and can be repeated as often as required, for example if the desired result is not achieved first time around or if additional pressing generations are needed. The appearance of the lacquer foil is similar to the finished record, and it could theoretically already be played back on a record player, but that would destroy the information contained in the fragile grooves. During the further manufacturing process, the virgin lacquer is covered with a thin layer of silver, followed by a layer of nickel or copper, by means of electroplating. Thus, a metal plate is created, which is separated from the initial lacquer. This plate is called the „father“, the „master“ or the „original.“ The lacquer cannot be used anymore after this process. The separated „father“ is now a negative and shows ridges instead of grooves. During another electroplate process, the „mother“ is now created in a similar way; it has – as a matter of course – grooves again. From the „mother,“ the „son“ is then made, which now represents the actual pressing stamper. Several copies can be made from both „mother“ and „son,“ which is of relevance for the following decoding of the data in the dead wax.
1.4.2. The information – its decoding and evaluation
As mentioned above, the amount and the quality of the information to be gained from the data in this area of the vinyl vary greatly. A mere matrix number cannot tell us much besides the already mentioned characteristics for comparison. However, quite a few mostly major record companies such as RCA, Columbia, Fontana, Philips, Mercury, Decca, H.M.V., etc. have left us manifold cryptographic data that will be named the „matrix code“ in the following. The codes are almost exclusively printed by machine (i.e. not manually) and are in many cases identical regarding number and amount of contents, but the different record companies used specific codes for most of the information. Not all of this information is relevant for the dating of the record, but because the isolation of certain aspects wouldn’t make much sense didactically, I will now deal with the matrix codes in detail.
For a better understanding, I will again use specific examples for this topic. It is obvious that a general article such as this one cannot give a complete account of many different companies, but only cover certain examples in order to show the significant characteristics. Further research then remains for label-specific examinations.
Among others, RCA is a label with a comprehensive matrix code; I have chosen this label also because almost every collector probably owns some records from this company and can therefore compare the following statements with the actual records.14 Let’s take RCA LSP 2568 (Della Reese; Della On Stage) as a specific example. If we take a look at the dead wax area, we first find a rather long combination of numbers and letters, in this case on side 1: N5P Y 3082 – 1S. Its meaning should be decoded as follows: RCA encoded the year of recording with letters, in our example an „N“, which was used for the year of 1962. Unfortunately, the alphabet was not used chronologically throughout in this method of encoding, so that a quick dating of the recording cannot be done without help. For example, „E“ stands for 1954, and „X“ means 1969.
It is not clear to me which meaning the following number „5“ has; it is frequently pointed out that the numbers „1“ and „2“ can usually be found in this spot, and that these refer to the respective side of the record. This would be easy and seems to make sense, especially because the first part of the code can also be found on the label and therefore cannot be related to the sequence of pressings. But all is not always as it appears. It is more probable that this number represents an internal license code or a subordinate series designation, both of which are definitely not to be regarded as relevant for dating purposes, though.
The following letter denotes the respective music segment, for example „R“ for classical music, „T“ and „P“ for pop, and „J“ for jazz recordings. The following „Y“ tells us that this is a stereo recording. RCA mono records show a „P“ instead. After this follows the actual matrix number15, which is of course different for the two sides of the record. At the end of the code stands the sequential number of the lacquer, which represents the origin of the respective pressing generation, as described above. In another spot in the dead wax area, there is a letter with a number, in our example „A1.“ The letter denotes the chronological sequence of the „mother“ produced from the „father;“ the number names the order of precedence of the resulting „son“ (pressing stamper). In our specific case this means that for the manufacturing of this record, the first „son“ of the first „mother“ was used. From an audiophile perspective, this is of course the perfect constellation, because every further generation inevitably results in a loss of quality. Figures such as „D4“ etc. can also be found. This „mother-son relationship“ has also been designated in the dead wax area in the same or in a similar manner by other companies, and is therefore transferable. The final RCA hint concerns the location of the pressing plant in which the record was manufactured: „H“stands for Hollywood, „I“ for Indianapolis, and „R“ for Rockaway.
As already mentioned, the example RCA can indeed be used as an equivalent for other labels with machine-printed matrixes regarding the contents of the given information. However, we can also find a number of other hints, which also applies to companies using a manual code. For some marks, it seems probable that they are simply cryptic marks by an employee who was involved in the manufacturing process. This could for example be a monogram-like signature (in the case of the Mercury label even with an added number denoting the number of the cutting lathe) or a characteristic sign, such as the famous „ear mark“ on Folkways, United Artists, Blue Note, and other records.17
Furthermore, the manufacturing date of the above-mentioned pressing tools is quite frequently mentioned in a manual „inscription.“ From the beginning of the 1960s, Atlantic noted the recording year with a two-digit number at the beginning of the matrix number. In case of a new press run of an already issued record, for example in a new series, it can easily be seen from the matrix code whether the old pressing matrixes have been used for manufacturing, because in such instances the existing prefix code including catalog number has mostly been scratched out and replaced by the current number. This approach can, among others, often be found at the Prestige company and its various sub-labels. The recording director and sound engineer working for Prestige, Savoy and Blue Note over a longer period of time was Rudy Van Gelder. He also left his „house mark“, the widely known „RVG“ sign, in the dead wax; until approx. 1958 in manual form, then machine-printed, later as „Van Gelder“ imprint.
Let us now consider the so-called delta number. Delta is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet and is depicted as a triangle. This triangle with an added combination of numbers can be found in the dead wax of productions by several US companies, mostly based on the West Coast. Method and system of the allocation of delta numbers has not been completely resolved yet.18 However, it is clear that this numbering system has only been used for records manufactured in Californian pressing plants – across various companies and in chronological sequence! The numbering was started around 1954 and continued until the end of the 1970s, covering all record formats of this time period. When a reissue was manufactured with new pressing tools, a new, up-to-date delta number was usually allocated, so it is obvious that this information could be important for the exact dating of a record. If a timetable with fixed basis figures were available, this would represent a major step for determining original pressings, at least for pressings from the West Coast. But as the reader may expect by now, there are also many unresolved question regarding the delta numbers. For example, there are records with different delta numbers on each side, or records that only show a delta number on one side. Furthermore, all other possibilities must be considered, such as the use of already existing pressing matrixes for new press runs. The whole topic of delta numbers still leaves much room for research and speculation, because the basic purpose of the numbering system has not been cleared up yet.
Because we are not dealing with the „78 rpm code“ here, which besides the discographically relevant sequence of take numbers of course also contains information about format, recording location and engineer, etc., we can almost finish this chapter. However, I still need to mention the prefix code plus order number, which can of course also be found on the label and the sleeve. A prefix is a combination of letters placed before the actual catalog number. As mentioned above, quite a few of the smaller independent record companies only noted the prefix and the order number manually in the dead wax, instead of a more comprehensive machine matrix code. The prefix normally consists of two or three letters, and is mostly allocated to a certain series and/or distinguishes the various methods of recording (mono, stereo, etc.), formats or even distribution channels. For example, Savoy for a while used the same MG prefix as their distributors, the Mercury/EmArcy company.
The order or catalog number mostly remained unchanged for repressings, as far as they were issued in the same series. Only when the record was reissued, it usually received a current prefix and number – with exceptions to the rule. It is certainly true that the release date of a record can be approximated by means of the respective order number20, if the sequence of catalog number has been strictly regular, which unfortunately is not always the case. However, the release date alone doesn’t tell us anything about what the respective original pressing must look like. We can only deduce what it should look like.
If we take an even closer look at the matrix codes, we can find several other hints that still await decoding. There are several approaches that could prove useful for the dating problem. The decisive factor is whether these aspects can clearly be related to a fixed point in time, i.e. which data were given where and when in which kind of way – and what does it all mean? There’s still a lot to be done in this dead wax area.
1.5. The label
Without doubt, the most important distinguishing feature for the determination of an original pressing is the paper label on the record itself. Some readers may find it unusual that this topic has not been discussed earlier in our coverage of the primary characteristics. There are two reasons for this: firstly, we have examined the record from the outside to the inside, which places the label at the end of the chain. Secondly, the importance of the label as a primary characteristic, which every collector is well aware of, should be placed in its proper perspective and reduced to those parts that really give us relevant information. In short: everything should fit together. So, let us now „get down to the nitty gritty“ – of course from the outside to the inside.
1.5.1. The label size
Although often overlooked, the diameter of the label on productions from the 1950s and 1960s plays a not insignificant role regarding the determination of originals. Some companies used smaller labels for a number of first editions; for example Riverside, Crown with its sub-labels Kent and United, Chess, etc., as well as some European companies like Bellaphon, Deram, etc. The difference in size is easy to discern, because there is a blank, slightly elevated space of about 5 mm around the centered label, which would be covered if a normal-sized label had been used. There’s no need for a measuring tape here. The only plausible explanation for this are economic reasons: it was simply possible to print more labels from each sheet of paper if a smaller label was employed and/or there was less waste/offcuts. Reducing costs meant larger profits – which also leads us to the paper and its varying quality.
1.5.2. The paper
A difficult chapter. To be honest, it is unexplored territory in the field of dating characteristics. One thing is certain, though: more than a few record companies, among them again mostly the independents, used paper of considerably varying quality over the years, a fact that can be utilized for dating purposes. The following can be observed and distinguished by close examination or, even better, with the aid of an incident light microscope for surfaces, as mentioned in part 1: paper quality ranges from mat paper with rather raw surface all the way to almost glossy material. The overall appearance, however, is very much influenced by the printing technique. For example, many 78 rpm labels had a rather modern, rich, glossy print appearance. But with the aid of certain tools, it can still be determined whether raw paper containing wood particles or paper of more refined quality was used. These differences also account for the varying degree of brightness of white, i.e. non-printed areas. One always has to take into consideration, though, that aging processes and/or environmental influences play a role, too, which can often be recognized in a certain irregularity of appearance or yellowing of the paper. At this point it should also be mentioned that the light part of the Blue Note labels, as for many other companies, was created with printing color. Apparent unevenness in the paper, not seldom to be observed among older pressings, mostly results from the sometimes faulty PVC ground that the label is glued upon, and have therefore nothing to do with the paper. All in all, the paper is a rather minor aspect, especially when considering that real dating problems often arise from pressings that are closer together in time and thus mostly use labels made from the same paper, often even from the same production. The situation is a bit different for 45 rpm records, because singles offer far less aspects and hints regarding dating than long-playing records. But even for this format, the paper quality is almost exclusively relevant for identifying counterfeits; i.e. when a substantial amount of time has passed since the original pressing and the original paper used for the manufacturing of the labels isn’t even available anymore.
There is no doubt that this topic leaves quite a bit more room for research, for example through chemical analyses21, but that wouldn’t prove much considering the limitations already mentioned. And of course specimen from the label would be needed, the removal of which would influence the value of the record negatively. And then we don’t want to go too far in our examinations. Fact is: if there are differences in label paper quality to be found among otherwise identical products, and if alternative manufacturing sites can be rules out for the company in question, then the records quite probably do not come from the same press run! However, the existence of such marked quality differences point to a rather longer diverging time period, so that almost always other more important criteria should be present. For the time being, the paper quality alone does not offer conclusive information for the chronological placement of a record within a narrow time span. A difficult subject, indeed.
1.5.3. The color – composition and shading
Much more important than the paper quality is without doubt the label color. Besides the design, and the printed information and its placement on the label, the color of the label is one of the most important distinguishing factors. It can be used for recognizing manufacturing periods and recording processes (mono/stereo) of many companies. The variations in shading supply much closer time data as well as geographic hints regarding manufacturing. Companies that changed the color of the label relatively frequently of course offer more potential for evaluation than companies that kept the same color or color combination over a longer period. World Champion is this respect must be the Blue Note company that didn’t change the basic label colors (and design) for 30 years. Well-known to everyone with the slightest interest in jazz, the blue-white label with the timelessly modern (bauhaus) label design offers – at first sight –few clues for an evaluation according to color aspects. However, comparisons especially among labels of earlier production phases show a number of variations in color shading. Although these mostly apply only to individual titles, they do mark different manufacturing runs from different points in time, but to be placed within the same pressing generation. This is one example for the vast variety of color differences that cannot yet be clearly evaluated. For the Savoy label, the different shades of red that were used also point us towards the date of the pressing– besides showing certain pressing characteristics.
It is quite obvious that not only the used color, but also the respective printing technique plays a role in this respect. Many collectors who have ever tried to clean a Blue Note record up to and including the „47/63“ identification with a record washing machine will have found out to their astonishment that the label color washes out very easily if one doesn’t proceed extremely carefully – and that this doesn’t happen with subsequent later labels. Similarly, many CBS labels from German production appear like lithographies, i.e. with seemingly porous surface. All this points towards different printing methods that I won’t explain in detail here and should be left to an expert in this field. The important thing is to recognize the effect of the different techniques on the end product – the printed record label. Which isn’t easy without the already twice-mentioned microscope.
By far easier to evaluate are labels with clear changes in color that can be assigned to a more or less clear-cut period. Every collector will know the most popular record companies for which the label color plays a crucial role in determining originals by heart, the most important being Argo, Blue Thumb, Capitol, Chess, Columbia, Crown, Decca, Fire, London a.o. In many cases, the recording process was also identified by using different colors, for example on Atlantic, Contemporary, King, Riverside, and other labels. Sometimes a certain series was highlighted by using a different label color, for example on Reprise.
The evaluation potential of the information source „label“ depends on (the possibility of) its description! This is particularly true for the differences in color. Whereas almost all other hints are relatively easy to put in words, this is much more difficult regarding an exact description of the color. At present, we are still operating with the basic colors, which by far isn’t enough for the more precise examination methods we are striving for. Most record dealers will counter that more exact label descriptions and therefore also color denotations would only confuse the customers. I admit that I would have to agree for the time being. This means that the long-established description methods will need to be expanded and made more precise in order to make a more exact dating possible. One will have to accept that this cannot be done overnight, but will have to be implemented gradually and continuously according to the respective (general) level of knowledge. Collectors/buyers, then, are also requested to deal with the subject in still greater detail and ask their dealers the respective questions. The dealer will in turn need to adapt to this and expand the information he is giving accordingly.
But how do we achieve a more exact color description, then? Because only a few people would probably be able to imagine the color difference between violet-purple-crimson and crimson-violet-purple, both the collector and the dealer would need to have an identical color shading scale at their disposal. There is of course nothing like this available (yet) for record collecting purposes, but there is something similar: the „Michel Farbenführer“ (Michel Color Guide) for stamp-collectors. This color guide comprises a total of 158 small color plates with round holes that can be placed on the surface to be examined – in our case the record label – until a close approximation has been found. The classification and naming system was developed by Prof. Oswald and unfortunately does not contain all color shades that have been used within our area of study, although these could be calculated. However, this scale is still of great help, especially because the shade variations are denoted in German and English, which prevents communication misunderstandings. This guide is highly recommended and available for a few Euros (or whatever) in your nearest stamp-collector’s shop.
1.5.4. Pressing characteristics (etc.) on the label
The so-called „deep groove“ pressing characteristic can be regarded as a paradigm for the continuous increase in knowledge about our topic. Only about ten years ago, this pressing hint was nowhere to be found in label descriptions, but has in the meantime become an indispensable and important piece of information. It also makes clear in an exemplary way how such statements are taken for granted in their analysis as well as in the understanding of their meaning.
The circular depression in the label, which is caused by the manufacturing process, can be found on very many records from the 1950s and 1960s. It results from a raised cross-piece on the pressing head or, respectively, pressing table, which increases the adhesion of the label on the record. The existence of this characteristic hints at a certain production period, which can be of varying relevance for dating according to the record company (and manufacturing site) in question. Overall it can be stated that this trait is already missing on records from the early 1970s at the onset of the oil crisis – exceptions proving the rule. As mentioned before, most (US) pressings by that time were much too thin to even show any „deep groove“ characteristics. The appearance would then have been similar to a predetermined breaking point. However, the products of most companies already didn’t have a „deep groove“ anymore by the late 1960s. The (sweeping) statement can thus be: (US) records with „deep groove“ have usually been manufactured before around 1970. Regarding European pressings, however, this characteristic can still be found up to almost the middle 1970s. Before that, instead of the groove characteristic, many labels already had a flat mark, the diameter of which corresponded to the radius of the original pressing characteristic. This form of appearance should not be called „deep groove“!
Many collectors are confused if the characteristic is only to be seen on one side of the record. The only plausible explanation is the educated guess that a certain pressing element had only been replaced on one side, while its counterpart on the other side continued to be used until a later date, for whichever reason. This variety can often be observed on Blue Note pressings, so that many collectors think that it is a characteristic only to be found on records from this company. This is not the case, however, because there are also Atlantic pressings of this kind, albeit much more seldom. In any case, these are records that are to be dated towards the end of the normal, two-sided „deep groove“ phase, sometimes they also go far beyond.
A well-known price-guide for jazz records has contributed to many misunderstandings in this connection, because here the years of first issue listed for Blue Note titles with and without DG are identical! Of course that’s complete nonsense. Furthermore, there are records listed with „Lexington“ address on the label, but without DG – and they’re even valued! Well, I have never seen such a record, and I would bet most anything that such a record doesn’t exist. The „problematic cases“ among Blue Note pressings mostly only occur for the label of the DG transition period, namely „47/63“. Up to around no. 4055, Blue Note originals always show a „deep groove“ characteristic. However, there are DG copies up to the 4100 order numbers, but these must be regarded as exceptions. The (logical) conclusion: if the creation of a record – regardless of the company – falls into a DG-relevant period, then the original pressing must show this characteristic!
The next aspect also refers to the companies Blue Note and Atlantic, namely the „phenomenon“ of the existence of two different labels with different dating information on one and the same record. The rather unspectacular explanation will not come as a surprise to those who have kept attention up to now: the companies simply used up the old labels that still remained from an earlier production. It also happened that one label generation was skipped, in which case of course the respective younger versions are used for the determination of the production date. Such records can never be originals!
Collectors who (privately) ordered direct import records from England as early as the 1960s will remember the stamp-like tax stickers on the label. These stickers allowed the British supplier to exempt his customer from additional (customs) duties by paying the fee in advance, which was documented by attaching this sticker. This practice was not customary for regular trade imports; the duties for these were charged by the respective customs office. (During the 78 rpm era, the stickers on the records were also used to pay the copyright fees that differed from one country to another). Unfortunately, I have so far not been able to find out until when exactly these customs stickers were in use, so that its value for dating purposes is not clear. By the way, imports into England were also marked similarly by the British tax authorities, but only on the back cover.
Stickers that were attached to the label by the record company itself must be regarded as exceptional cases. They mostly contain certain copyright data, i.e. information that would have needed to be shown on the label from the onset, but was either forgotten or maybe had changed in the meantime and needed to be updated in this way. Whatever the case, we can always assume that such stickers are the exception and only appear on individual titles, but they do tell us that the respective record is not an original pressing, because such stickers were logically added at a later date. An example: the Danish Steeple Chase company apparently forgot to mention the Scandinavian NCB (Nordisk Copyright Bureau) on the first edition of number SCS-1001 (Jackie McLean), so that the respective information had to be added afterwards by means of a sticker. On the following second pressing, which is otherwise absolutely identical to the original, the NCB box can be found printed directly on the label itself.
1.5.5. The (useful) information on the label
Besides the naturally present information, the communication of which represents the actual function of the label, i.e. artist(s), titles, composer(s), running times, revolutions per minute (rpm), (P) and © note, record company, catalog number, country of origin, recording process, and various legal threats in case of copyright violation, there are still some other specific and partly marked differences. Let us first take another look at the above listing: it is obvious that a good part of this information has already been covered in previous chapters. At this point, I would only like to repeat the main evaluation criteria in short; not the interpretation of their meaning, but only the outward appearance.
This information can be summarized as positioning characteristics, i.e. the evaluation for dating purposes can only be done by examining the (different) spatial arrangement (and/or the size). Specifically speaking: if any information can be found in different spots on the label of comparable objects, or if certain information is missing, then the respective copies must originate from different manufacturing series, either chronologically or geographically. The same applies to address changes (which offer an even more concrete approach). The zip-code on US pressings, as mentioned in the note preceding this second part of the article, also belongs into this context.
The evaluation of the other information functions similarly, namely:
a) The logo. The distinguishing characteristics can roughly be classified into three categories: 1. Position (for Atlantic, Capitol, Epic, Dot, Prestige, etc.)
2. Size (mainly important for EmArcy, Jubilee, King and
3. New design (ABC, Atlantic, Imperial, Kent, Liberty,
Mercury and many others)
b) ® (Registry Mark) resp. T.M. (Trade Mark). Stands for registered trade mark, which means that the company logo is protected by brand law, for which reason the trade mark note can mostly be found close to the brand logo. There probably will be (or has ever been) hardly any company that did not register the copyright to its own label’s logo. However, not all companies immediately noted this fact with the above-mentioned abbreviations. The introduction of these signs varies quite a bit, and they were sometimes not used continuously. This applies to only a few labels, but needs to be considered.
c) Information about the official associations administering the mechanical reproduction rights. Their function is to protect the copyright of sound recordings. They represent the interests of the copyright holders, supervise the performance and broadcast rights, and collect and distribute the respective fees. In Germany this is done by GEMA, in the USA by ASCAP and BMI (etc.), SACEM in France, NCB in Denmark, and other too numerous to mention.22 All these associations are joined together in the umbrella organization BIEM, located in Paris/France and responsible for the negotiation of international agreements.
The abbreviations of the copyright associations are mostly noted on the label in a small frame or box. For our purposes, these are characteristics which are only relevant regarding their position, existence (or non-existence), form and size – and of course the period of time during which they were used in one way or another. Sometimes it is also possible to determine the country of origin by means of the copyright association, if this information is otherwise lacking. For example, may German Atlantic pressings from the 1960s contained no remarks about the production country on the label, except for the GEMA note (disregarding for a moment the other typical characteristics such as cover finish or pressing characteristics). But even in this case we need to approach carefully, because records manufactured in a foreign country, but intended for sale on the domestic market, of course also noted the respective domestic copyright association.
Another aspect of the copyright information is the D.P. sign, standing for domaine public (or in English: public domain), denoting recordings for which the copyright period has expired and that can therefore be published without any license information. This period extends at the moment to 50 years.
d) The design, which is along with the label color among the most obvious characteristics. While the design of shellack record labels during the 78 rpm era still required an eye-catching design to attract attention and promote sales23, the design of LP labels was more and more reduced to functional, commercial graphics. Which doesn’t mean, as we all know, that a certain label design was continued to be used for all times. Quite on the contrary, there is no record company that remained in business over a longer period of time and didn’t change its label design at least once, not even Blue Note. The classification and evaluation of a design change is mostly connected to other differing characteristics, especially the simultaneous change of the label color.
With the primary characteristics mentioned so far and its (general) typifying, we have a number of tools available that open up possibilities to clear useful paths into the thickets of the dating jungle.
In the following part of the article we will deal with the secondary dating aids. These are the tools that will then (also) enable us to relate the factors that have been described so far to a specific date. These are mainly (contemporary) periodicals, (written) publications of the record companies themselves, company biographies, discographies as well as other publications and literature on this topic.
10) Other terms, for example „lead-out area“, are also sometimes used for this part of the record. However, I have settled for the term „dead wax“ here, mainly because I am familiar with this term through the discussion of 78 rpm records (note from the translator).
11) According to Martin Schaefer/Manfred Körfer: Tonträgerpiraterie (Record piracy), Starnberg 1995, p. 72, „the details of the manufacturing machines are so different that one could say that there is a distinct fingerprint of a pressing plant or even an individual machine“. Unfortunately, the authors don’t give any hints which characteristics these are. It is also not clear whether they refer to LP or CD production.
12) Dietrich Brakemeier deals with this aspect in great detail in his comprehensive work: Living Stereo; Munich 1994. See also: Fritz Bergtold: Moderne Schallplattentechnik (Modern record technology), Munich 1959. This book also contains much detailed information about the production methods of the 1950s. There is probably further literature on this subject area that I am not aware of yet.
13) See also: D.A. Snell: Magnetische Tonaufzeichnung (Magnetic sound recording), Eindhoven 1963; also: Siegmar Spanger/Hans Koebner: Das Tonband-Buch (The reel-to-reel book), Seebruck 1965. About the history of the development, see: David Morton: Off the record – The technology and culture of sound recording in America, London (etc.) 2000; Pekka Gronow/Ilpo Saunio: An international history of the recording industry, London (etc.) 1998, p. 133 f. The development towards the reel-to-reel tape recorder as we know it today is based on a German invention. During the last days of World War II, American occupation troops disassembled and „liberated“ the machines used in German radio stations along with all patent rights.
14) Especially audiophiles from the area of classical music have done pioneering work regarding the decoding of these data. I am basing my decoding of the RCA information largely on: Phil M.Rees: Audiophile record collector’s handbook. (I only have a photocopy of the relevant chapter at hand, so I cannot supply publishing location and year; thanks to T. Labusga for this copy.) Brakemeier, ibid., p. CLXVII ff., probably also utilizes this source, although his information is more detailed and comprehensive, albeit not always logical.
15) According to Brakemeier, ibid., p. CLXXVIII f., „...(this) is the identification number for the tape that has been used. (...) It only denotes which consecutive recording tape of the respective year has been used.“ However, this statement must seriously be doubted!
16) The identification of CD pressing plants is similarly easy, because the inner ring of the CD shows the so-called SID code. The manufacturer of the master is identified by another code.. See Schaefer/Körfer, ibid., p. 76.
17) The origin of the „ear mark“ is not completely clear; it could also be the sign of a pressing plant (which is not probable in my opinion). However, many early pressings with this characteristic also show a „Wb“ sign, which could point toward a cutting engineer.
18) About the problematic nature of delta numbers, see: Ray Astbury: Delta numbers, in: Blues & Rhythm, no. 28 (April 1987), p. 21, and by same author: Delta numbers update, in: Blues & Rhythm, no. 36 (May/June 1988), p. 10.
19) Information and explanations about some 78 rpm matrix codes can be found (among others) in: Robert M.W. Dixon/John Godrich: Blues & Gospel Records 1902–1943, Chigwell 1982, p. 8; Joachim Schütte: Schallplatten sammeln (Collecting records), Menden 1993; Brian Rust: The American Record Label Book, New York 1984.
20) On this (very unreliable) method, Galen Gart has based his work: ARLD – The American Record Label Directory and Dating Guide, 1940–1959, Milford 1989.
21) See Harald Fibiger: Einführung in die Papier-, Zellstoff- und Holzschliffprüfung (Introduction to paper, cellulose and wood sanding examination), Heidelberg 1954. Standard work of the time, which describes the identification, evaluation and proving methods.
22) A comprehensive listing along with a detailled description of the tasks of the various copyright institutions can be found in the work by Robert Lyng: Die Praxis im Musikbusiness (Practice in the music business), Munich 1990, p. 50 ff.. See also: Jan Herchenröder: Wir sammeln Schallplatten (We collect records), Gütersloh 1961, p. 64.
23) About the iconography of 78 rpm shellack record labels see: Rainer E. Lotz: Grammophonplatten aus der Ragtime-Ära (Grammophone records from the ragtime era), Dortmund 1979, p. 196 ff.