Demise of Masterworks 78s

What were the circumstances that brought about the premature demise of the 78rpm Columbia Masterworks series? 1

The simple answer was the introduction of the microgroove formats of the LP and EP.

Columbia had; as early as 1939; experimented with the long play format. Development of a system for home-use was perfected by 1947 and was introduced to the market in June 1948. The introduction of the LP format at the height of the 78rpm era brought about a fundamental shift in policy at Columbia. In order to maximize the introduction of the new format – it was decided by Columbia to phase out the 78 format for classical, operatic and most larger-styled productions; which for many years; had been limited by the 78rpm process.

By early 1948, Columbia Masterworks was approximately at MM 920 and MX 350 in their Masterworks label sequence. By Mid 1952, they had all but ceased issuing sets in 78 form. Instead, Columbia released the majority of Masterwork 78rpm records at the time for their LP and EP equivalents.

Clearly, this meant the end of the 78rpm format for this label. This could be clearly seen in the 1952 catalog. The 1952 catalog lists only 1- 78rpm format symphonic work and only 1 – 78rpm sonata set available. Approximately 80 sonatas were listed at same time in the LP format.

Quick take-up by the American record buying public also fed the trend for LP release of compositions over the 78rpm format. Take-up of the LP format for ‘classical’ recordings was particularly advanced by late 1952 in the American, Australian and European markets. To cater for this, Columbia released record catalogues featuring only LPs as early as 1949. The LP format had also quickly become the accepted standard format preferred by reviewers, radio broadcasters and the discerning consumer.

These factors led to the early ‘death’ of the Masterworks 78rpm album as it was known. It seems that by mid 1952, the ‘MM’ series was all but finished and only limited sets were published as 78s. Only a handful of MM and MX sets were available in the 1952-1953 Columbia Catalog. The ‘MX’ series, it appears, had ceased by this time – and what 2-record sets were issued – seem to have been released under the ‘MM’ prefix instead. See MM-1034 for an example.

Other factors pointing to the demise of the 78rpm format of the Masterworks label included the advantages of LP over 78rpm format. Space saving of LPs over 78rpms as well as weight differences were promoted heavily by Columbia at the time. For example, their 1948 record catalog states “A collection of 100 conventional records in standard albums require approximately 253 3/4 inches of space; the same music can now be heard on 18 LP records, requiring only 4 1/2 inches of storage space.” 2

From approximately MM 1000 and MX 350, Columbia released masterwork recordings on LP and EP formats. Some masterwork albums were released as EPs under the 45rpm “A” series. See A-1009 for an example.

1. This topic is briefly discussed in the introduction of this discography – See Introduction

2. Columbia Record Catalog; 1948; CBS Publications; Page 1

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