Music and recordings: a match made in heaven. The biggest recording company in the world for decades was also the biggest in Argentina, RCA. There were others which recorded tango music to great success, but RCA was the giant.
Here is the thumbnail sketch of the most incredible story about records and music you will ever hear: the day RCA Argentina burned all their precious recording Masters and manufacturing template parts. First, a bit of fascinating background ...
In 1900 the record arrived to change the world. That is the year Emile Berliner opened his first manufacturing plant in Montréal to make his inventions: the microphone; the gramophone; the player - which he called the victrola. Of course he built a studio to record in as well.
Here's how fast the world changed: in 1900 Emile sold 2,000 records. In 1901 he sold 2,000,000. How did he do it?
He wasn't launching one business; you had to be able to record something, so - a studio with recording equipment first. You had to manufacture and distribute what you recorded - processing and pressing; shipping, marketing; sales, admin.
Obviously a very astute businessman, with $30,000 initial funding Emile got going and made two key decisions near the beginning which created the recording industry. He needed a logo for marketing and he needed a star for sales.
He bought the rights to the painting of a (dead) Jack Russel Terrier listening to a gramophone by painter Francis Barraud. This became one of the most famous logos in the world. (Appeared first on Berliner record #304).
And he signed his star, Enrico Caruso. Those millions of records flew out the door. (Emile soon built a second factory in Germany). By now his business was named the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Records were the thing until the 20s. What a ten year run! Then - radio arrived. Records and radio together was the new business symbioses dream. Provider / content.
In 1924 Victor merged with the Radio Corporation of America to form RCA Victor.
Every professional musician wanted the income from working in records and radio.
The musicians arrived to the studio usually to record two songs, or four, or six depending on the popularity of the artist.
The record companies had their performing artists and also cleverly created there own studio groups: Orquesta Típica Victor, Típica Brunswick, etc.
The live sound was recorded on a lacquer disc on a lathe, from which the duplication process started. The entire business of a record company is based on owning and securing those Masters' parts.
The destruction of thousands of the Master recordings of RCA records in Buenos Aires circa 1964, including all of RCA's tango catalogue, is a sad story, indeed.
The details are murky because ... no one ever wanted to talk about it. However, here is what local newspapers reported in 2004, when the original 1929 RCA warehouse, after years of abandonment, was refurbished and opened again as a studio space. (Maria Graña was the first to record there again).
In the early 60s, RCA installed a new General Manager they brought in from Colombia, one Ricardo Mejia.
What happened next is not clear. He was the villain, or the fall-guy. But here are the versons of the story:
With his sharp pencil the new manager did his due diligence and decided RCA could realize some income if they sold the land their warehouse/studio was on for real estate development.
He decided the first order of business was to clear the place out so he could showcase it to prospective buyers.
What to do with all the stuff in the building?
He ordered his people to burn everything.
But sir - all our old Master records are in there.
Burn them, he said. So they did.
That's one version of the story. Another is that Mejia told everyone they needed more room for rehearsal of a group he was launching, El club del Clan.
Other accounts in the newspapers claim RCA wanted all along to sell the land under the building storing their Masters to show income on their year-end statements and ordered Mejia to get it done.
All we know for sure is that all the Masters disappeared forever, victim of the business' branch-plant mentality.
After the bonfire, it dawned them that they had made a very big boo-boo.
The only thing to do was send employees out across BA nonchalantly posing as amateur record collectors (to keep their costs down), making friends with record store managers and anybody they could find who had a record collection. They traded and paid out bits of money and brought back everything they pried away from people to the "warehouse" and THOSE RECORDS, in whatever used shape they were in, became the new "Masters." No, they didn't clean them up in any way. That would be very expensive now; back then it was not even technically possible.
From then on, all further duplications for sale were made from that rag-tag lot of consumers' used collections. Including the ones you bought on CD, of course.
We're talking about old 78s that were played over and over, deteriorating in condition every time; often damaged by worn-out styluses ploughing through the grooves many times over the years.
40 years of recordings by all the greats RCA had. Di Sarli, D'Arienzo, Tanturi, De Caro, Firpo, Troilo, Gardel ... on and on and on. Makes you want to weep.
Audio Crime of the century.
But at least they had good quality American Masters of The Monkees and Elvis. No problem, then, for keeping the money flowing in. Tango is dead anyway (accepted general view for 10 years by this point in the non-tango life of Argentina).
My life for the last 15 years has been in my studio in Montréal trying to make all tango records sound better again. 'Cause the record companies sure don't care enough to try.
And RCA wasn't the only careless company. They all have been putting out awful versions of what was once very good material when it was originally recorded. Perhaps it's better not to know exactly why they do, because it is very depressing to know businessmen entrusted with precious human cultural heritage can be so idiodic.
Why do I keep plugging away?
I discovered for myself that surprise awaits when the noise and artifacts are taken away because the ORIGINAL lacquers were very well recorded. The engineers were every bit as competant as the musicians. Those recordings should sound fantastic. So, there is potential when better source material can be found to work from today.
Then magnetic tape came into use in the 50s introducing another story about why our tango music sounds the way it does today (yes, an another unhappy one, sorry).
I hope this doesn't come out the wrong way, but when the late, great Alberto Podestá was presented with 70 of my remasters of his songs (his hits with Di Sarli, Laurenz, Caló) I sent him during one of his live shows, they put on a couple of tracks and he got emotional, saying he hadn't heard them sound that good since the day he recorded them. When he was 16!
My friends John and Cheryl Lowry made the presentation for me and then gave me a video of it all. I got emotional, too.
It's ironic: RCA's life blood was the marketing of "His Master's Voice" (great job, Nipper!).
Then that's what they deliberately condemmed to the fire: all of their own Masters' Voices.
Emile Berliner Museum (in his building pictured above)
Enrico Caruso's Influence on Argentine Tango