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What Is A Discography?

One of the essential tools used in the research and documentation of recorded sounds is the Discography. The main purpose of any discography is to document information related to sound recordings and make the information available to both researchers and recorded sound collectors alike. In its simplest form, a discography is a document that attempts to list all sound recordings made by a recording artist, of a given composer’s music, or in a specific musical genre. The information included in a discography varies depending on its size and scope, but an entry for a specific recording in a discography typically includes: title of the work, artist name, names of additional personnel on the recording, recording date, recording location, and release date. Some discographies also include sales information, reissued versions of a given recording (across formats), and playing time. Discographies themselves have appeared in a variety of formats, beginning with journal articles and books, but now including e-books, websites and databases.

RCA-Victor is one of the many examples of record labels that are documented in discographies (this 78 RPM record was released in June of 1959).

Individual entries in discographies have several different unique identifiers. The first identifier in a discographic entry typically is the label that the recording was originally issued on. This identifier allows researchers and collectors alike to know who originally produced the recording. Additionally, the inclusion of the record label as an identifier in a discography also allows one to gain a better understanding of the history of the recorded sound industry by having a chance to see the output of a particular label and how the recordings that were issued on it changed over time. Examples of record labels often found in discographies include RCAVictor, Columbia, Decca, Capitol, Sony Music, EMI, Supraphon, and many others.

Example of a matrix number as shown on a Decca 78 RPM record issued in the US in September of 1958 (the matrix number is located on the left side of the record label next to the spindle hole)

Another important identifier for sound recordings is the matrix number. A matrix number is an alphanumeric code (that often includes other symbols related to the pressing plant the record was manufactured in) either stamped or handwritten (or both) into the run-out groove area of a phonograph record. A matrix number is intended for the internal use of the record manufacturing plant but often provides useful information for record collectors and researchers. The purpose of the matrix number is to assign a filing number to the stamper and to ensure each side receives the proper label, by visually comparing the number on the label to the inscribed number. The first label to utilize matrix numbers was Victor (which became RCA-Victor in 1929) in 1903, shortly followed by Columbia, Zon-o-phone, and many others 1901. On the other hand, cylinder recordings typically do not utilize matrix numbers, with the only cylinders that were assigned matrix numbers being most Edison Blue Amberol cylinders made between 1914 and 1929. The reason why Edison Blue Amberol cylinders during this period have matrix numbers is that they were primarily dubbed from Edison Diamond Disc records (which utilized matrix numbers), which were introduced in November of 1912.

A catalog number (shown on the bottom of this Chess 78 RPM record recorded in July of 1956 and released in November of 1959) is another important identifier of discographic entries

The catalog number is another example of an identifier for sound recordings in a discography. A catalog number is assigned to every release by the record company to identify that particular release. The number is used to track sales through distributors and for the label’s in-house accounting purposes. Catalog numbers are used on nearly all recorded sound formats (78s, cylinders, LPs, 45s CDs, etc.) and is another important tool that allows researchers to document and catalog recordings. The first catalog numbering system was introduced by Edison Records for their numerical series of cylinder recordings in April of 1892 and soon became the norm for all record companies by the beginning of the 20th Century.

Example of a discography including identifiers such as the date (in the “day, month, year format”) and locations in which a series of recordings were made.

Another identifier used in discographies is the title, which refers to the name of the work included in a discography. In addition to the title of the work, discographies also include the names of the artists and composers of the individual entry, names of personnel on the recordings, and the engineers who originally produced and mastered the recordings. The recording date and location where the recording was made are also important identifiers in discographic entries. Dates for recordings are typically formatted as either “day, month, year” (ex. 5 December 1958), “month, day, year” (ex. December 5, 1958), or month only (ex. December 1958). Generally speaking, the recording date and location(s) that a recording was produced are not specifically mentioned on the label of the recording (Brooks, 2000). As such, collectors and researchers typically rely on discographic entries and recording ledgers to determine this information. Take numbers are also an example of a discographic identifier. A take number tells an individual which recording made in a session by a particular artist was used on the final issued recording. Take numbers are usually found in the matrix number of the recording and can either be in numerical or alphabetic form.

Example of a print discography, The Sousa Band: A discography (Smart, 1970).

Several types of discographies predominate, and these are: artist, genre and label. An artist discography typically focuses on one composer or artist, and covers their entire output on all record labels and recorded sound formats. Examples of this type include The Sousa Band: A Discography (Smart, 1970), American Music Recordings: A Discography of 20th Century U.S. Composers (Oja, 1982), and Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville: An Annotated Discography (Feaster, 2010). Genre discographies list all recordings of a specific musical genre. Examples include Blues and Gospel Records, 1890-1943 (Dixon, Godrich and Rye, 1997), The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music, 1961-1965 (Blair, 1985), and Creole Music of the French West Indies: A Discography, 1900-1959 (Boulanger, Cowley and Monneraye, 2014).  Label discographies, on the other hand, include all recordings issued and recorded by an individual record label or associated labels. The Columbia Master Book Discography (Brooks and Rust, 1999) and Atlantic Records: A Discography (Ruppli, 1979) are two of the many examples of label discographies. Record label catalogs, although created by record companies for a different purpose, to sell their recordings, also have value in discographic research. They often contain important information such as catalog numbers, song titles, artist and composer names, and the approximate dates that recordings were originally issued.

Example from the German national discography, Discographie der deutschen Kleinkunst (Büttner et al. 2002).

National discographies are another variation of a discography. As opposed to label or genre discographies, national discographies include all the recordings issued and produced in a defined national or cultural area regardless of label, genre, artist, or composer. National discographies are of importance and value to recorded sound researchers for several distinct reasons. The first reason is that it informs the collection of new acquisitions by institutions in specific countries. The second factor is that it sustains and promotes scholarly research by stimulating the reissue of historic sound recordings and encouraging recorded sound institutions to acquire new and relevant sound recordings for their libraries. Finally, the idea of a national discography allows both researchers and private collectors to find out which recordings were recorded and released in specific countries.

History of Discographies

This logbook, used by Edison Records between 1889 and 1892, contains numerous attributes
that would define later discographic publications.

The earliest known document that can be considered a forerunner to the modern discography is the logbook used by Edison Records from May of 1889 to April of 1892, which was recently made available under the title The First Book of Phonograph Records. Shortly after the commercial production of sound recordings began in 1889, Edison began keeping a log of phonographic performances for future reference. The First Book of Phonograph Records includes several attributes that have become standard in nearly all subsequent discographical publications including recording dates, song titles, artist’s names, and the number of copies made during a recording session. Even though many attributes that are commonplace in contemporary discographies are not present in this document such as take numbers, catalog numbers, and composer names, one can argue that The First Book of Phonograph Records is the first discography in the proper sense of the word, as it seeks to catalog and document the sound recordings made by Edison during the first few years of the industry and established a standard for documenting certain attributes of recordings.

Early efforts to document and categorize sound recordings using unique and easily defined attributes were hampered in part by the fact that no suitable duplication process existed during the earliest days of the recording industry. For example, many of the earliest recordings were recorded as many as eight times in each respective session to keep up with the ever-growing demand for recordings. Additionally, many of the earliest recording artists recorded on an unpredictable and ad-hoc basis due to sudden changes in demand for their recordings, as well as some reluctance to lend their services to a primitive and unprofitable medium. As such, the nature of the early recording industry prevented the establishment of unique catalog numbers for commercial recordings. This, in turn, makes it difficult at best for modern researchers to determine the total output of the earliest recording artists.

Edison recording studios, c. 1889-1893.

Over the next decade and a half, improved duplication methods were developed for both the cylinder and disc record formats that permitted the assignment of unique attributes such as catalog numbers, take numbers, and more detailed artist information. Edison was the first to implement a catalog numbering system with the establishment of its numerical series of cylinders in April of 1892. Other cylinder labels soon followed with their own catalog numbering systems as the 1890s progressed. In contrast, Emile Berliner implemented a block numbering system for his E. Berliner’s Gramophone disc record label in which specific segments dedicated to individual musical categories. This system was implemented when the first Berliner records were issued in the US in mid-1892 and lasted until the label folded in early 1900. Victor Records followed a similar system shortly after it was established in late 1900, but eventually switched over to a sequential catalog numbering system by mid-1901.  

Advertisement for Paramount Records, a label whose unsystematic cataloging practices, make research difficult for discographers and collectors.

Despite the establishment of more sophisticated cataloging methods, many record companies (smaller record labels in particular) were unsystematic in their cataloging practices. An example of a record label known for its unsystematic cataloging practices was Paramount, a Wisconsin-based label active from 1917-1933 and best known by modern collectors and recorded sound archivists for its series of Blues, Jazz, and Country 78 RPM records. Due to both a lack of resources, as well as minimal foresight regarding the future interest in recordings belonging to such genres, Paramount barely kept any recordings logs (particularly during the last few years of the label’s existence) and the few logs that remain are incomplete and leave out even the most basic information pertaining to the recordings. Additionally, many of the major record labels often ignored recordings of less popular and mainstream musical genres such as Jazz and Blues music and did not properly keep track of the information behind them.

Rhythm on Record (1935) is considered one of the first modern discographic publications.

The idea of “discography,” as we know it today, came into being during the 1930s. Much of the early efforts to create discographic methods were led by Jazz and Blues record collectors, who noted that the efforts by record labels to document recordings in such musical genres were haphazard at best. The first two published discographies were “Hot Discography” by Charles Delauney and “Rhythm on Record: Who’s Who and Register of Recorded Dance Music by Hilton Schelman. Schelman’s work focused on the wider spread of popular music over the first few decades of the 20th Century, whereas Delauney took a more detail-oriented approach mostly focusing on Jazz recordings. The methods used by Delauney in his pioneering work were soon adopted by recorded sound researchers and continue to be present in current discographical works. As the decades ensued, discographies expanded in both their scope and complexity with the emergence of new music genres, different sound storage formats, and diverse recording artists.

Matthew Rosehttp://ourpolitics.net
Matt studies and analyzes politics at all levels. He is the creator of OurPolitics.net, a scholarly resource exploring political trends, political theory, political economy, philosophy, and more. He hopes that his articles can encourage more people to gain knowledge about politics and understand the impact that public policy decisions have on their lives. Matt is also involved in the preservation of recorded sound through IASA International Bibliography of Discographies, and is an avid record collector.


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