American Recording Pioneers
Cal Stewart’s Recording Contracts
By Allan Sutton
Cal Stewart's impact on the early recording industry went far beyond the success of his "Uncle Josh" records. His insistence on being paid royalties, at a time when other studio artists accepted modest flat rates as a matter of course, was revolutionary for its day.
As one of the most popular early recording comedians, Cal Stewart found his services in great demand, and in late 1903 Columbia signed him to an exclusive three-year contract. There is no indication, however, that the Columbia contract offered Stewart anything more than the usual flat-rate per selection, as was standard practice at the time. Royalties on record sales, when offered at all, usually were reserved for the most renowned concert and operatic celebrities.
welcomed Stewart back in its February 1907 supplement, attributing his
Stewart returned to Victor in late 1906, and to Edison in 1908. In an August 1908 memo from Walter Miller to other Edison staff members, Miller reported,
Stewart's new Edison records sold well — so well, apparently, that in 1911 Stewart made an unprecedented demand of the Edison company. Miller reported on May 4, 1911,
After some internal discussion and additional negotiations with Stewart, the Edison contract was signed on May 16, 1911. In the course of negotiations, Stewart agreed to accept only ½¢ per record, in exchange for which he was to record exclusively for Edison for five years. The contract also stipulated that Stewart produce a minimum of four acceptable titles per year, a quota he never fulfilled. In fact, Stewart did not produce acceptable recordings under his new contract until May 1915, at which point it appears likely that Edison terminated the agreement. Stewart was back at Columbia on June 2, 1915, nearly a year before his Edison contract was due to expire, and was soon freelancing for other labels once again.
Although Stewart's insistence on royalties probably served neither party well, it set a precedent. In July 1920, Billy Murray was finally granted royalties by Victor, followed by Henry Burr and other popular studio performers.
1 Miller, Walter H. Memorandum to Messrs. Dyer, Wilson, and Dolbeer. West Orange, NJ: August 2, 1908 (Edison National Historic Site).
2 Miller Walter H. Memorandum to Messrs. Dyer, Wilson, and Dolbeer. West Orange, NJ: May 4, 1908 (Edison National Historic Site).
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