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The Record of «Syrena»

Around the years of 1908… 1909 records with the “Syrena-Record” label had become more and more frequently seen on the shelves of Russian record stores. They immediately started attracting customers just like Homer’s seductive and sweet voiced beauties depicted on the record company’s label. Competing record labels took notice. The most savvy of them had realized that this was not just another “one-day wonder” dressed up with a fancy name that used to grew like mushrooms at that time, but a solid enterprise that would not be easy to compete with.

Many Russian record companies that subsequently worked legally on Russian market, started as pirates. This kind of metamorphose had happened to the “Intona” label, which had built up all its start capital by issuing exclusively pirate records, and only after that they began to work legally under the new Syrena label.

A new Russian record pressing plant was built in Warsaw (in 1815 the kingdom of Poland was a part of Russian Empire), and extraordinary enterprising people led this plant. The executive director of the company was Julius Vasilyevich Feigenbaum, a prominent figure amongst Polish as well as Russian record dealers. A true gentleman, he was sincerely devoted to this business. He invested his own money and put in a lot of effort in order to make the financial pulse of Syrena stable and at full potency. Only the most reliable and respectable people, like famous singers, prominent bankers, and elite customers were allowed to visit him at the plant and he treated them with care and kindness.

He peacefully rested after lunch, letting out puffs of aromatic “Havana” while being reassured that all questions would be perfectly solved by the managing-director Fabian Tempel who possessed fantastic energy and abilities. He performed not only major duties at the plant, but also determined the repertoire policy, conducted negotiations with singers, organized recordings and advertising. He shared his clerical affairs with the vice-president A. Gershuni who cognized all secrets of the “mechanics” of gramophone business and also was a fine expert of trade transactions.

The technical director of the company from the day of establishment was Carl Sandahl, one of the pioneers of gramophone business. Before he joined the Syrena he owned a big Berlin “Talking Machine” factory “Sandahl and Lehman”. Another one of his creations was famous at that time the “Lyrophone” company. Professor of the Warsaw philharmonic society J. Hirschfeld was in charge of the musical department. Money, energy, talent and commitment to work of these people had turned the modest Syrena during short period of time into the largest Russian recording company.

Every day the small Warsaw office received orders from Moscow and Saint Petersburg and from other big and small cities; the telephones rang and businessmen arrived. The little plant on the 33 Piękna Street barely managed printing all requested amount of records because the demand had exceeded the production potentiality.

In the beginning of 1911 the company purchased a representative building on the Chmielna Street and began organizing more powerful production. A solemn opening of the new plant took place as early as November. The four-storied building, made of red breaks with the huge mirror glass windows, looked very impressive. It resembled an automobile plant or an electro station. But guess what? It was a real temple of sounds. Behind thick, break walls in there, one could hear marvelous voices, lovely tunes, performing orchestras. Rumbling printing machines picked up sounds, stamped them under their presses, and cooked the “black pancakes” – two-sided “Syrena-Grand-Record” records every minute.

The new plant appeared itself as a technical masterpiece of that time. The company paid 300 thousand rubles for the equipment. The construction was distinguished by good quality and beauty and the production technology was planned very well. Everything was amazing, especially the pressing department with its 76 presses, which could issue about 16 thousand records daily. Before the solemn launch of the new plant, the gathered guests and workers were treated with a splendid breakfast. Champagne was flowing like water. They tossed up congratulating J. Feigenbaum, F. Tempel, and A. Gershuni and complimented everyone who worked on this tremendous plant construction. The faces of main initiators of this event were shining, they seemed were expressing - “Here is the fruit of our hard work. We did it! We have proved that Syrena will achieve even greater records!”

The first record issued by the new plant was a song of M. A. Emskaya “Veterochechek” (“The Light Breeze”). In honor of this event they had sent a salutatory telegram to the actress, and a memorable disk had been left for eternal storage in a special nominal case. Overall, Syrena-Record had printed two and a half million records in 1911.

During equipment trail a testing pressruns were issued. Practically all of them were rejected and sold out for a token price. Technical director of the plant Carl Sandahl was against this transaction, assuming that something were wrong. And he was right. Soon after, all rejected records had appeared on sale in many different country’s cities. However, it was not easy to recognize the product of Syrena, because enterprising, wholesale vendors of the rejected goods sealed up the top of label with the original name. Thus, records with an extravagant name “Imperial Record” had appeared on the market.

Having at disposal a powerful plant, the company started with accelerating speed the accretion of repertoire, foreseeing a great and reliable success. For recordings they invited serious high paid singers and performers. The company paid them not only good money, but also organized very expensive entertainments. For arriving singers the company purchased a luxurious racing-class automobile, which would meet singers at the station, ride them throughout a city, bring them from hotel to the plant for recordings and then to restaurant. The company treated “stars” like the most respectable guests, and this kind of policy bared the fruits. Surrounded with love and cares and earning good fees the performers were more cooperative. They did not decline to sing a song for many times when it was required. Such coryphaeus of the Russian art as L.M. Sibiryakov, B.C. Sevostyanov, O.I. Kamionsky, A.M. Labinsky, A.M. Bragin and many others, were recorded at the Syrena plant.

The competitors jealously watched how constantly the most demanded “hits” appeared on the Syrena’s records. The furor created by Syrena along with huge profits cost also to the company a lot of troubles. For example, the military bandmaster I. Shatrov, the author of a popular waltz “On the hills of Manchuria”, brought a suit against the company, demanding them to pay him an author’s fee. At beginning, he “peacefully” asked to pay 15 kopeks for each sold record, but when the company refused to do so, he started attacking them and brought the case into the court. Syrena picked up the gauntlet hoping that its lawyers would find a loophole in a far from perfect law of “author rights”, which was passed on March 20, 1911. But alas! Regardless of all expectations the big company lost the case and had been forced to implement all plaintiff’s demands.

By the end of 1911 the repertoire of Syrena was one and half times larger then the list of “Zonophone” records – the branch of the “almighty” joint-stock company “Gramophone”. When All-Russian record was broken, the company started a struggle with its main competitor. They opened a large warehouse in one of the houses of Chizevsky homestead located on the Nikolskaya Street in Moscow. Syrena took this step at the very moment when the main office of the joint-stock company “Gramophone” was packed and ready to move from Moscow to Riga. This re-deployment was a result of the struggle for the Moscow customers. They were willing to fight to the end, because success in the First Capital of Russia (Moscow was the capital of Russia before Peter The Great relocated it into St.-Petersburg – translator’s comment) promised special benefits for the company. Syrena brilliantly showed up its character. Soon after conquering the Muscovites, the company had started selling their records from the Moscow warehouse not only to the central Russian regions, but also to the boundless Siberia. Sales in Saint Petersburg were also successful. Every month more that 20 thousand records were sold there. The same picture was noted in Ukraine, where on the Kreschiatic Street in Kiev operated a special wholesale warehouse. The great customers demand for the Syrena records made administration thinking about installation on the plant additional presses, though it already worked in two shifts.

In 1912 after long negotiations the company recorded a very popular singer at that time A.M. Davydov. Records with his voice called “the bread” on the gramophone market. The record had fantastic success, and immediately broke all records of all-previous releases. Side by side with the first-rate soloists, mighty and harmoniously, on the Syrena records sung the best Russian choruses. You can find in catalogs the chorus conducted by I.I.Yuhov, the chorus of “The Temple of Christ the Saver”, the Imperial Chorus of the “Moscow Opera”, the Gypsy Chorus of Varya Panina, and the chorus conducted by V.S. Warsawsky.

The people on 66 Chmielna Street knew very well that advertising is a moving force in commerce. So, they spared no expense on it. Advertisements of Syrena, lists of new records, posters and commercial booklets had regularly appeared in popular publications of that time. The company would never forget to congratulate its numerous customers with Christmas, New Year, Easter, and other holidays. One morning over tea, near the town of Tsaritsyn, a passenger on the Volga steamboat “Graph” excitedly told a striking story. He claimed that a real live siren had entered his cabin through the window at night, and, trembling and shuddering, lay down on the empty upper bed. Many people thought that it was just a joke or a nightmare, but the passenger insisted so sincerely that people became curious. “It’s even better”, he exclaimed. “I slammed the door and the siren now is in my cabin. Let’s go downstairs and check it out”. A few people went to his cabin, and on the upper bed they found a record of the Syrena-Record company. It turned out, that the joker-passenger was a commercial agent. And his extravagant ruse had succeeded: all the passengers on the steamboat were chatting only about the “live siren”; later this joke had spread throughout all of the Volga piers. The agent’s plan was precise: the company brilliantly showed itself on the Nizhny Novgorod Fair that took place soon after. So, the clever advertisement, low prices (from 75 kopeks to a ruble and a half at retail), good quality, big and constantly innovating repertoire were the components of Syrena success on the Russian market.

In 1913 took place an event, which the company had been anticipating for many years. The firm was turned into “Syrena Record Joint-Stock Company” with the capital of one million and two hundred thousand rubles (12 thousand shares at 100 rubles each). Business had been growing and gaining strength. Holding strong position on internal market, the new joint-stock company decided to expend its activity oversees. The first experience of exportation of the records with Polish repertoire to Poznan and Galicia, had a great success. Soon after, Syrena records started appearing in London. In order to penetrate on Ireland and Scotland markets, a technician was sent to Liverpool to record the original see-songs in English language. At the same time they started negotiations with prominent London’s performers. After stabilizing its position in Germany and on the Foggy Albion Islands, Syrena decided to start exporting its rich Russian repertoire to America. For this purpose, the company had established a business relationship with a big wholesaler in Baltimore, to which the numerous record shipments were dispatched every week. But the clouds of the First World War were gathering over Europe...

Since the beginning of the military operations on the East front, Warsaw had become the front city, and shipment of records was difficult. Directors of Syrena J. Feigenbaum and F. Tempel had being visiting Germany at that time, where they were detained like prisoners of war. Another member of administration A. Gershuni barely stayed alive during bombardment by a German bomber-zeppelin. A bomb had exploded on Chmielna Street near the plant, and he was wounded in his hand by a bomb’s fragment. If he were a few steps closer to the office, the result might be much worse. By the twist of fate, the record “On the Waves of Vistula” had a great success in those days. The wonderful melodious waltz was carrying listeners to the river shore that had become a stage of tragic events. Despite the difficult time demand on records was high enough. The most popular were the patriotic repertoire records.

The company had issued a special edition that included “God Save the Czar”, “ The Great Russia”, “Marseillaise”, and others and decided to donate 10% from the sale to the Red Cross. The complicated situation on the front had forced Syrena to relocate their matrices near Moscow, into Aprelevka village, on the “Metropol-Record” plant, which was captured from the German owners. Soon after a new record production was organized. This prompt evacuation had rescued the most part of repertoire because after occupying Warsaw Germans confiscated all cupper and other materials remained on the plant. The loss of such large and well-equipped plant was an irreplaceable deprivation. The war had completed the impact under which Syrena had put itself before the beginning of it by joining the gramophone syndicate of Isserling brothers. This was an unforgivable mistake; the company had lost the most important thing – freedom and independence. Dealers should now apply for the goods not to Warsaw, but to Vilno where the headquarters of syndicate was located. Thus, the largest Russian company had appeared in the same position, as “Zwukopis”, “Stella”, “Metropol” and other small enterprises. The production sharply declined, turnover decreased, and the business came to such a dishonor that under Syrena brand they began to print old matrices of other companies. It seemed that quite recently the company had bathed in its glory, they wrote about it, spoke about it, and suddenly this name became surrounded by silence, emptiness and sadness. The last attempt to revive the glory of Syrena-Record was taken by J. Feigenbaum after his return from German captivity in 1916. For this purpose he managed to buy at wild prices a considerable quantity of raw materials. He even recorded the new numbers. The name of the Label drew attention once again for some period of time, but the market already was occupied by other idols. The trademark of Russian Syrena was lost in the chaos of war and terrible events, but the records with seductive beauties on the label still continued to remind the past glory for the long period of time…

Alexander Tikhonov

Originally published in «Audio Producer», Nr.3, March 2003.

English translation by Ludmila & Yuri Bernikov. Many thanks to Alan Kelly for the consultations.

 

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bernikov | 06.08.2008 12:53
 
 
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