Herbert Berline in at his factory in Montreal
Herbert Berline in at his factory in Montreal

Canada's First Indie Label Was Founded A Century Ago

A number of Canadian indie label milestones were acknowledged during the 4th annual CIMA Celebration and Awards Gala last Monday evening including the 25th anniversary of Sonic Unyon, the 15th for Open Road Recordings and the 10th for MDM Recordings. Also acknowledged was the Compo Company, which was founded in Montréal a century ago, in 1918, by Herbert Samuel Berliner. 

Herbert was the son of Emile Berliner, who was born in Hanover, Germany and emigrated to the U.S. in 1870. He was a born inventor who eventually became interested in audio technology as it related to the telephone and sound recording, the latter becoming a crowded field in the late 19th century.

Thomas Alva Edison, scion of a Canadian family, had his “Phonograph,” a machine initially with a tin-foil cylinder with two diaphragm-and-stylus units, one for recording and the other for playback. Alexander Graham Bell, known primarily for his work with the telephone, his cousin Chichester Bell, a chemical engineer, and English scientist and instrument maker Charles Sumner Tainter, developed a wax cylinder player with a floating sapphire-point stylus instead of a rigid needle, called the “Graphophone.” Emile Berliner had his “Gramophone,” which utilized zinc discs instead of wax-covered cylinders. The Berliner Gramophone Company would subsequently market the first commercial flat disc recordings. The company also revolutionized the recording industry by introducing an electroplating process by which their wax-coated zinc discs could be mass-produced using a “stamper” which, when pressed into a ball of vulcanite (hard rubber), could produce final recordings in large numbers.

As the century came to a close, Emile began to expand internationally, opening the U.K. branch of The Gramophone Co. in London (later EMI) with record executive William Barry Owen in charge and, with his brother Joseph, established Deutsche Grammophon in his birthplace of Hanover, Germany to produce disc records. During this same period, in part due to the increasingly litigious environment in the U.S. amongst competitors Berliner, Edison and Columbia, Emile divested himself of his American patents in an arrangement with Eldridge Johnson and moved his operations to Canada (Montréal). Johnson would later found the Victor Talking Machine Company in the U.S.

By 1900, Emile had set up the company E. Berliner, Montréal and, by the end of the year, the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Co. – this spelling now popularized – had placed an ad in the French-language newspaper, La Patrie, in Québec informing readers that the company was producing French records. [Herbert Berliner, who would be appointed Vice President and General Manager of his father’s company in 1909, later introduced the HMV 216000 series devoted to Canadian recordings and would subsequently designate the HMV 263000 series exclusively for French-Canadian recordings.]

Emile Berliner had previously received a Canadian patent for the gramophone and rubber discs but, to meet the legal requirements, he had to establish production in Canada.  He subsequently set up manufacturing facilities in the Bell Telephone factory at 367-371 Aqueduct Street (now Lucien L’Allier) in Montréal and a retail outlet at 2315-2316 Ste-Catherine Street. Reportedly the company sold 2000 records during its first year of operation and over 2 million in the second year (1901)

In the U.S., Eldridge Johnson’s Consolidated Talking Machine Co. became the Victor Talking Machine Co. with Johnson holding 60 percent of the company and Emile Berliner, 40 percent. Victor began marketing “Improved Gram-o-Phone Records,” claiming an improved sound quality. The company’s recordings were pressed and distributed in Canada by Berliner.

In 1906, the Victor Talking Machine Co. of New Jersey began marketing the first Victrola, a gramophone with a speaker in the cabinet. The machine’s popularity helped standardize disc speed at 78 rpm. When Berliner significantly expanded its Montréal factory with a four-storey annex during this period, they put a large billboard on top of it with a picture of Nipper [see side bar story] and the proclamation, “Home of the Victrola.”

In 1918, Herbert Berliner established The Compo Company Ltd. in Lachine, Québec, which initially manufactured and distributed other labels. Three years later, he resigned from the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company to take on heading up that enterprise full time.

The company made one of its first historic marks in 1925 when it issued the first electronically-recorded discs on its Apex label using a process initially developed in 1920 by two former Royal Air Force officers, Lionel Guest, a former aide to the Canadian Governor General, and Hamilton, Ontario-native Horace Owen Merriman, who had been experimenting with electrical recording by microphone and, in 1920, had recorded the ceremony of the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.

In 1924, Victor purchased the Berliner Gram-o-Phone Co. and formed the Victor Talking Machine Co. of Canada. Emile died in August of 1929, the same year that Victor, including the Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada, was purchased by David Sarnoff`s Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and the RCA Victor Co. Ltd. was formed.

That year, Herbert Berliner’s Compo Company began producing experimental recordings at 33 1/3 rpm and, in 1935, signed Decca Records, one of the hottest labels in the world at the time, for manufacturing and distribution in Canada. 15 years later, in April of 1950, Herbert would sell the Compo Company to Decca after undergoing surgery. Reportedly, he was convinced that he had a terminal disease and that was his motivation. He nonetheless remained president of the company until his death in 1966. The Compo Company’s impact is felt to this day as Decca evolved to MCA Records Canada and then to Universal Music Canada.

In 2006, Herbert Samuel Berliner was the recipient of the Legacy Award as he was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF). The Berliner legacy is preserved at Musee des ondes Emile Berliner located at 1001 Lenoir St., Suite E-206 in Montreal.



At the turn of the century, Emile Berliner discovered a piece of art that was destined to become one of the most recognizable trademarks in history. During a visit to London, Berliner chanced upon a painting that William Owen had bought which was gathering dust in a storage cupboard. Titled "His Master's Voice" and painted by English artist Francis Burraud, the painting portrayed his brother’s dog Nipper, a terrier, which had been born in Bristol, England in 1884, looking down the horn of a phonograph. In February of 1899, Burraud had registered the painting as “Dog looking at and listening to a phonograph” – later retouched to make it a disc-playing gramophone.

Berliner immediately went to Burraud and bought the rights to the painting and registered it as a trademark by an act of Canadian parliament on May 28, 1900. The image would be used by the Victor Talking Machine Co. two years later and by the British Gramophone Co. in 1909. The painting ultimately inspired the name of His Master's Voice records and subsequently the HMV record retail store chain.

The trademark first appeared in Montreal on the back of the record “Hello My Baby” by Frank Bata. Nipper died in 1895 and was buried in a small park surrounded by magnolia trees on Clarence Street in Kingston-upon-Thames, England. A branch of Lloyd’s Bank later occupied the spot but, on March 10, 2010, a road close to his resting place was renamed Nipper Alley.

- Photos courtesy of Collections Canada and Phonothèque québécoise.

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