Stamps on Recordings
©Adam Miller

Record and pianola roll collectors cannot fail to have noticed the presence on the record labels of small stamps. This article aims to explain their original purpose, and the author's interest in them now.

The stamps were affixed to the records by the Recording companies. The stamp was a sort of receipt showing that the company has paid to the copyright owner (or his assigned agent), the appropriate royalty payment in respect of Mechanical Copyright. This grew out of the old habit of 'stamping' printed music with the composer's signature. The composer would be paid by the publisher so much per 'stamp'. With the advent of music reproduction onto media that required mechanical devices for its reproduction (Cylinders, Records and Pianola Rolls), a new form of Mechanical Copyright was required. This led to the introduction in Great Britain of the Copyright Act of 1911, and the Board of Trade Regulations (1912) following.

The section of the Regulations relevant here stated that "The adhesive label ... shall be an adhesive paper label, square in shape, the design to be entirely enclosed within a circle, and the side of the label not to be greater than 3/4 inch in length. The label shall not bear the effigy of the Sovereign or any other person ..."

The UK Regulations came into force on 1 July 1912. Rates were initially 21/2% for works already published, and 5% for new works. On 3rd November 1928, these were increased to 31/8% and 61/4% respectively.

Essentially what happened was this:

The recording company, having decided to produce a particular recording, were obliged to ascertain the copyright holders of the songs (generally two - one per side)

Various agencies such as Copyrights Ltd existed to assist in this search. In other cases, inquiry letters were written to various Publishing Houses or composers' organisations requesting this information. There were various scenarios possible here:

The copyright controller was permitted to issue stamps at a value which represented the amount of royalty payable on a single recording. The Recording company was then obliged to purchase sufficient stamps at face value to affix one per record that they planned to produce.

Herein lay the main problem.  The value of the stamp was a percentage of the RETAIL price of the record.  The same composition could appear on diverse labels, with different prices.   More often, the royalties were split in various percentages between multiple parties.

If the copyright controller did not have stamps, there were several alternatives:

In the case of 1. above, often the record label had printed upon it a facsimile of a stamp.

Once the stamps arrived, they would be torn individually from the sheets and applied to the record label. Often there would be two lots of stamps from different suppliers. Where there were multi-track sides or joint compositions, the number of stamps increased.

A scenario may help to explain some of the complexities inherent in this system.

Say HMV wished to produce a recording of Sir Harry Lauder singing two songs, one by Composer A, and another by Composer B. They decide to print 500 on their cheap label to sell at 1/6, and 200 on their deluxe label to sell at 2/6. Their copyright department are aware that composer A is a member of the Incorporated Society of Authors, Playwrights and Composers. Therefore they duly write to the Society requesting that they supply 500 stamps at 11/8d plus 200 at 17/8d (these values being 61/4% of the retail prices respectively). Composer A has requested that his Society take responsibility for his stamping so they take sufficient blank sheets of their own generic stamp and handstamp 500 of them with 11/8d and 200 with 17/8d. They also handstamp each stamp with Composer A's initials. The money remitted from HMV to pay the value of stamps is passed on to Composer A, less 10% commission

HMV asked Copyrights Ltd to ascertain who owns the copyright for Composer B's song. This turns out to be Francis, Day & Hunter. F. D. & H. are then contacted and asked to remit the appropriate stamps. As they have large numbers of similar requests, F. D. & H. have many values pre-printed and so the 500 11/8d and 200 17/8d stamps are supplied from stock.

The stamps are now applied to the appropriate side of the record and the records distributed. Thus, should Composer A find a recording of his song for sale, he can check that his stamp appears on it, and at the correct value for the price of the record.

As can be imagined, this was all rather labour intensive for all parties. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that many preferred the use of imprints on the record label, or using stamps without specific value, the actual amount being known only within an accounting transaction. The stamps waned in popularity rapidly after 1930, and were almost completely gone by 1940. In Australia, however, several companies persisted into the age of LPs and 45s, with J Albert & Son still using stamps on pianola rolls after Decimalisation (1966). In the UK today, almost the sole reminder of the stamps are the stickers used for importation of recordings into the UK from outside the EEC, under the auspices of MCPS. Many LPs of the 60's and 70's bear a plethora of small imprints, most deriving from the design of the original stamps.

As early as 1906, it appears stamps were already in use in both France and Germany, following the 1906 and 1908 Copyright Conventions held in Europe. Stamps were issued in many countries, including the USA (for some scarce records circa 1912 and pianola rolls circa 1917).

They were issued in four categories as below, or frequently in some combination of these.

1. For the Composer himself. These are rare, and are generally those issued under the auspices of the Incorporated Society of Authors Playwrights and Composers (ISAPC) who supported the introduction of stamps, and invited their members to submit designs for their individual stamps. Only a few took this up, such as C. Villers-Stanford, Gordon Davson, Alma Goetz, William Wallace and Sidney Jones, while most were content to use the Society's generic stamp. Australian composers such as Reginald Stomeham and Alfred Jarvis also had their own stamps.

2. By a Music Publisher. These are the most widespread, with over 140 known, such as Francis, Day & Hunter, J. Albert & Son, Lawrence Wright, and many lesser and obscure companies such as Lawrence Hamilton Ltd and Worton David Ltd.

3. By the Recording Company themselves. Most had their own stamps, such as Columbia (Australia), The Gramophone Co (HMV), Metropole, Cinch, Edison and Zonophone. These would be used when the company owned the copyright, when stamps were wanted but could not be obtained from the copyright owner, or where the copyright owner agreed that the Recording Company could account for the royalty with their own stamps. This latter option was the method pushed for by William Boosey's Performing Right Society, yet was bitterly opposed by the I.S.A.P.C. as being open to abuse.

4. By an organisation acting for the copyright owner. These sprang up in anticipation of and in response to the Act and Regulations to assist both composers and recording companies. Examples include The Copyright Protection (Mechanical Rights) Society, Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, B.I.E.M and Universal Copyrights.

The author's interest is both philatelic and sociological.  From a philatelic point of view, these stamps (which are classified as Cinderellas) are fascinating for their wide variety of issuers and countries, their variations in paper, printing and perforation, their many errors and provisional usages, plus the fact that they have not been widely studied and that there is very little published to date.  From a sociological standpoint, there is much of interest in the issuers themselves which has required investigation into the Music Publishers, the Recording companies, the composers and the Copyright Agencies.

Cataloguing requires three areas of detailed information:

1. The stamps themselves. This detail can be gained from a close examination of many copies of the stamps to detect changes in perforation, printing method, paper, watermark.  The many provisional values and small print runs provide a wide variety in overprints (handstamped, manuscript and even typewritten) pertaining to value or the name of the copyright holder.

2. The various companies and composers involved.  Composer information is fairly available at the reference section of your local library.  Information on the various Recording companies is also fairly good, except the more obscure ones, such as ARIEL or METROPOLE. The music publishers and copyright organisations are much more difficult, with the exception of a few major players. Many flourished only briefly between the years 1912 and 1940, and were not deemed to be important or interesting enough to have been studied and documented previously.

3. Dating of the stamps. It is important for a catalogue to be able to classify when a particular stamp, or related set of stamps were in use, and when a change in design occurred. The only means to ascertain this is via the date of the recording upon which the stamp was originally found. When a number of copies of a stamp found on different recordings gives a good agreement as to dates; i.e. 90% of all copies of a set of stamps are found on recordings that date from (say) 1925 to 1927, this set can be confidently catalogued under these dates, and made distinct from (say) a similar set having a design, perforation or colour change, that generally appears on recordings from 1927 to 1930. Fortunately, guides for dating recordings are becoming generally available. Unfortunately, stamps are often soaked off the record without any note being taken of which record a particular stamp originated from. I have documented details of every record my stamps have come from, with xeroxes or photographs of the more unusual ones.

The author has made heavy use of a publication entitled "The (almost) complete 78rpm Record Dating Guide".  This has a very good coverage of many English and American recordings but still has gaps.  The dating of stamps from Australasian pressings is incomplete, but improving.  Likewise, there is nothing readily available for dating most pianola rolls.

The author has recently produced the 2nd edition of the detailed catalogue listing of the known stamps and issuers and is always keen to correspond with people who can assist with both material and information.  If you also have an interest in the stamps or have personal knowledge of their use, the author would be especially pleased to hear from you.

©Adam Miller 2017