By presenting the “Vinyl Collection,” the Bertelsmann Corporate Archive is making parts of its vast record collection accessible to the general public for the first time. This collection provides a unique documentation of the music history of the Bertelsmann Clubs, which distributed an important and popular record program for their members between 1956 and 1992.
During a joint indexing project with the Bertelsmann Club in the summer of 2005, the Corporate Archive took over an inventory of around 40,000 vinyl records. It was created by the Bertelsmann Schallplattenring’s Program department in the 1950s and was continued by subsequent responsible departments over five decades. In a first step, all the items in the collection were photographed, and their metadata indexed and transferred to the archive database. In the course of a further acquisition, the Corporate Archive received numerous bound Labelcopies (Matrizenpässe) for the records sold in the Clubs and Club centers, which now made it possible to clearly separate them from the rest of the inventory. Using the matrix passes, and by comparing them with the Club catalogues stored in the Corporate Archive, the publication date of many Club editions could be reconstructed for the first time, and added to the database. Besides the group of vinyl records that were part of the actual club assortment, it was now possible to identify further separate collections within the collection: Original and promotional editions by many record companies, which played a role solely in planning the Clubs’ various quarterly programs, and which were not considered for the “Vinyl Collection.” The collection also included other groups of records that were not part of the actual club assortment but could be used to document the early days of the Bertelsmann Schallplattenring. These non-current recordings are included in the “Vinyl Collection” with a corresponding tag (Altablage).
At the beginning of the 1950s, when shellac records, which dominated the market until then, were replaced by vinyl record technology, the new recording medium quickly triggered a huge upturn in the German music business. Influenced by the success of the Bertelsmann Lesering, founded in 1950, which had grown to over a million members within four years, Bertelsmann's moved ahead with initial plans to introduce a select assortment of music as a harmonious supplement to its book program. Besides, compared to the fragile shellac disks, the robust plastic records were ideally suited for mailing, a premise on which the Club business depended. Bertelsmann launched an initial trial period in 1955: Lesering members were able to purchase a selection of records from the Orbis and Diamant labels at low prices through Versandhaus Heim und Buch, a mail-order company owned by the book club. In the Vinyl Collection, these records are tagged with the note “Altbestand Versandhaus Heim und Buch.” The test run showed that Lesering members were very interested in records as well. On July 1, 1956, the Bertelsmann Schallplattenring officially began operations. It took over the Heim und Buch range and began by presenting some 150 classical music and entertainment records, which were advertised in a separate catalog, the “Schallplattenring-Illustrierte”. However, the extensive experience from the work of the Lesering could not be transferred to the Schallplattenring as hoped. To begin with, the major record labels were not prepared to transfer licenses from their repertoire to the Club. Apart from Lale Andersen, Zarah Leander and the pianist Alexander Jenner, hardly any other revenue-generating artists could be exclusively signed through Bertelsmann's own Club production. So in 1958, Bertelsmann founded its own record company, Ariola GmbH, which took over the artist contracts from the Schallplattenring, and set out to supply it, in close mutual coordination, with own and licensed productions. In the third quarter of 1958, the serial numbers of earlier Schallplattenring releases were uniformly converted to the Ariola system. Ariola was supported by the Sonopress record-pressing plant founded in the same year, which from then on handled the technical production of the vinyls.
Having Ariola and Sonopress improved the Club's negotiating position with the major record labels. Ariola landed its first No. 1 hit "Am Tag als der Regen kam" with the singer Dalida just one year after its establishment. From a technology point of view, Sonopress was one of Europe’s most state-of-the-art record-pressing plants. The music industry was impressed. In 1959, after long negotiations, a license agreement was finally concluded with Deutsche Grammophon – the largest German record company at the time. The other major record labels also began to see the Club, which was aimed at the “mainstream” market, more as partner than competitor. With the founding of Europaring in 1961, Bertelsmann established another book and music club, which extended its business activities to the entire German-speaking region. The Club business expanded. Takeovers of the Ring der Musikfreunde and the Stuttgart-based companies Europäische Bildungsgemeinschaft and Europäischer Buch- und Phonoklub followed. The latter was Germany’s oldest record club and had an important repertoire of classical music productions, which it distributed under its own Opera label. The Ring der Musikfreunde was owned by the Cologne record company P. P. Kelen, which whom there had already been a collaboration during the founding phase of the Schallplattenring. This club also owned numerous rights to classical productions, which it released in Germany under its Orbis and Parnass labels. The repertoire of both clubs was integrated into the classical label Eurodisc founded by Bertelsmann in late 1962, while the repertoire of Orbis and Parnass remained with the Club. The handed-down inventories of both clubs were transferred into the “Vinyl Collection” and tagged accordingly. The release year of numerous records has been reconstructed in many cases using these clubs’ historic catalogs.
In 1964, the founding of Ariola-Eurodisc GmbH led to a structural realignment of Bertelsmann's music business, which also had an impact on the Clubs. In the course of this realignment, the record company relocated its music production from Gütersloh to Munich, whereby the rather close ties between Club and Ariola were now to some extent relaxed. This decision resulted from the fact that the Schallplattenring had now solved its repertoire problem through licensing agreements with the leading record companies. Meanwhile, at its new location Ariola finally found the conditions that would enable it to grow in the music market in future. An old Ariola collection from its “Gütersloh” era is the last of the above-mentioned groups to have been incorporated into the “Vinyl Collection” with the corresponding tags.
From Munich, Ariola-Eurodisc set out on its path to become a leading German record company, and within a few years had developed into a global player. The music clubs naturally also benefited from the great successes of the national and international repertoire. Artists like Udo Jürgens, Peter Alexander, Canned Heat and Status Quo, which were produced or distributed by Ariola-Eurodisc, fueled a membership boom at Schallplattenring, pushing it well over the million-mark in 1968. Moreover, the introduction of “Club labels,” whose releases were sold to members only, ensured exclusivity in the program. Furthermore, Lesering and Europaring started to offer the Schallplattenring’s full line to their 3 million members. This resulted in a new identity for the Clubs. They had grown into important players in the German music business. Besides a high-quality classical and operetta program, which accounted for around 30% of the total product range, the pop/rock genre in particular developed into the real growth engine in these years. Club editions, such as the Boney M. classic “Nightflight to Venus” sold more than 250,000 copies, and the album “Elvis – 20 Fantastic Hits” went platinum after selling more than half a million copies in the Club. It was the Club's golden decade of records. The market launch of the compact disc heralded the slow demise of the record. In 1985, the Clubs – in the meantime merged under the new common brand Bertelsmann Club - started selling CDs as well. Here as in the retail sector, this led to a continuous decline in demand for vinyl, while CD sales increased tenfold by 1991. The analog record could no longer keep pace with the digital recording medium. As a consequence of this development, after 36 years the Club finally stopped selling records in the second quarter of 1992.