Billy Murray’s Victor Recording Contracts:
A Case Study

By Allan Sutton

Related Article: Billy Murray's Recording Contracts: The Complete Texts

Billy Murray 1920 Victor contract announcement

Announcement of Murray's exclusive
1920 Victor contract, from the
Talking Machine World
for July 15, 1920

Billy Murray’s Victor recording contracts provide a deeper understanding of his recording career, as well as a glimpse into the legal workings of the early American recording industry.

Murray’s major Victor contracts are those of 1909–10 and 1920–25, which underwent annual amendments and renewals. In addition, various riders were signed over the years covering Murray's radio and touring work. Victor’s copies of these contracts, archived at Sony-BMG in New York, are not accessible to the public. Fortunately, complete copies of the 1909 and 1920 Victor contracts, as well as the 1912 Victor renewal, survive in several private collections and thus are available to researchers.

Much misinformation concerning these contracts has circulated in hobbyists’ writings and web pages, based on incomplete reports in The Talking Machine World 1 and questionable details that were recalled by an aging Murray in interviews with researcher Jim Walsh and others in the 1940s.

Understandably, Murray’s memory was not entirely accurate three or more decades after the fact. He reported some details incorrectly, while overlooking several key provisions of the contracts.

There are no real surprises in Murray’s first Victor contract, which was signed on January 1, 1909 (as “Billy,” rather than the more formal “William” used in 1920), and expired on January 1, 1911. 2 Contrary to many published sources, this was not a “joint” contract with Edison, which would indicate that the two companies had a single agreement with Murray. The Edison and Victor contracts are distinct documents, signed at different times and each containing different terms. (The first of Murray's various Edison agreements was signed in 1905, and beginning in 1908 he was put on a monthly retainer, from evidence in the Edison studio cash books.) Murray’s 1909 Victor contract originally stipulated that he would do no “work” for any other company than the National Phonograph Company [Edison]. This was amended by hand to “recording work” before signing.

Victor recording dates were to be set “at the convenience of the National Phonograph Company, with the distinct understanding that Mr. Murray shall give not less than two days each month to the Victor Company for the purpose of making records of his voice.” 3 It is interesting to note that at the time of the 1909 contract, Victor was obviously unaware of the secret disc experiments Edison was conducting. Thus, nothing in the Victor contract forbade Murray from making discs for Edison.

Murray was required to “be prepared to make [4] records... when called upon” each month, and failure to meet that quota would constitute a breach of contract. In the event that Murray failed to meet his quota in any given month, Victor reserved the right to cancel his contract. The contract also stipulated that no second-class work would be tolerated: “Said selections must be fully up to the standard of the selections which the said Mr. Murray has heretofore submitted to the Victor Company.” 4 In reality, there was very little danger of a seasoned professional like Murray failing to meet these obligations.

Section 5 of the 1909 contract dealt with Murray’s required participation in duet or concerted numbers. Murray was required to “sing in any combination with other singers and will make records of any song of selection which the Victor Company may ask him to do....” Thus, the way was paved for Murray to be assigned to sessions with the American Quartet, the Victor Light Opera Company, and any other group, as Victor’s studio managers saw fit.

The vast majority of Murray’s records under the 1909 contract were recorded in the Camden, New Jersey, studio. The New York studio at that time was being used largely for ethnic and classical performers and groups who did not require backing by Victor’s studio orchestra, which was then based in Camden. Victor reimbursed Murray for his train fare from New York and allowed him $2 per night for hotel expenses when he was required to stay overnight in Camden. 5

The penalties for refusing to sing an assigned selection “without just cause,” or for straying to another company other than Edison, were severe. In the case of either event, Victor retained the right to cancel Murray’s contract and fine him $500.

For agreeing to these terms, Murray received an annual retainer of $1,750, to be paid in monthly installments of $145.90. There were no provisions for royalties. While the 1909 contract may seem somewhat draconian, it at least provided Murray with a guaranteed annual income amounting to approximately $35 per solo. Given that Edison’s going rate at the time averaged $25–$30 per solo for studio performers of Murray’s caliber, 6 the Victor contract was rather generous. Murray's new 1909 Edison contract, effective beginning March of that year, was somewhat less so, paying an annual retainer of $1550 in $129.17 monthly installments. However, the cash books show occasional large payments designated "over," suggesting that Murray was also compensated for additional work, probably bringing his total yearly Edison take in line with Victor, or likely even exceeding it. 6a

Victor amended and renewed Murray's original two-year contract at various times after 1910. A 1912 amendment letter, previously unreported by Walsh and other biographers, was recently located in a private collection. The basic 1909 terms remained in effect, but Victor now agreed to pay Murray small bonuses for any work above and beyond the quotas originally set by that agreement. Among several other new provisions, the 1912 renewal stated that Murray would now be paid $25 per session for his work “in connection with the Victor Light Opera Company or other engagements of a similar nature.” 7

Victor did not renew Billy Murray as an exclusive artist on January 1, 1919. Eventually, in October of that year, it offered Murray a non-exclusive contract, which was to run through 1922. In addition to a rather modest yearly retainer of $5,000, Murray was to receive a flat rate of $100 per usable solo — the same rate that Edison was paying him at the time. The contract is reproduced in its entirety below, courtesy of Murray expert Dick Carty:

Billy Murray non-exclusive Victor recording contract, 1919

It is unclear whether Victor or Murray made the decision to end their exclusive relationship in early 1919, but Columbia was waiting in the wings and lost no time in announcing that Murray would soon be recording for them again. 8 Within months of this announcement, Murray was freelancing for many major and minor labels, while still recording prolifically for Victor and, to lesser extent, Edison. To this day, Murray’s records as a group remain among the most common of the immediate postwar period, and if the vast number of surviving copies are any indication, sales of his records peaked during 1919–20. Victor executives, alarmed that they were beginning to lose popular artists to Columbia as well as to newer competitors like Brunswick and Emerson, approached Murray with a lucrative exclusive contract offer in the summer of 1920.

Murray’s new Victor contract — superseding the 1919 non-exclsuive agreement, and signed on July 1, 1920 — made headlines in the trade press. The Talking Machine World opined that “The sales of [Murray’s] records have undoubtedly been as large or larger than those of any popular recording artist at the present time.... He is an ‘old timer,’ but is today going stronger than ever.” 9

The five-page 1920 contract was a far more complex document than the two-page 1909 agreement. It was a five-year agreement (not eight, as has often been stated), terminating on July 1, 1925. 10

In contrast to the 1909 agreement, the 1920 contract clearly recognized Murray’s status as a star. Murray was now required to come to the Victor studios at least six days per month, but at “mutually convenient times.” He was required to record no fewer than fifty, but no more than 180, selections annually, to be chosen by a Victor representative, which could include solos, duets, and concerted numbers. The contract stipulated a complex schedule of releases and quotas, with which Murray obviously had no trouble complying. Murray also assigned Victor all rights to his name and likeness for marketing purposes. This clause would soon prove valuable to Victor, enabling it to challenge the small Lyric label when its producer issued records credited to “Billy Murray’s Merry Melody Men” — a dance band with which Murray had no affiliation — in 1920. (Some recently discovered evidence suggests that the "Billy Murray" in question was a New York music-store owner, but that remains to be confirmed.)

Under the 1920 contract, Murray received compensation at a level that until now had been unheard of for a studio performer. He was to be paid a guaranteed annual salary of $15,000, but more importantly, he was to receive royalties on sales. The initial offer was 1¢ per solo sold, but at some point prior to signing, this was amended by hand to ¾¢. For duets and concerted numbers he was to be paid ½¢ per record sold. At a time when most studio performers were still working for flat rates per side, Victor’s offer was a generous one. Royalties were to be paid annually, with deductions for returned or exchanged records. 11

Victor was careful to maintain contractual control Murray’s public appearances. Under Section 5 of the 1920 contract, Murray could not “appear in concert or permit himself to be advertised in any way except as an exclusive artist.” The same section set severe penalties in the event that Murray recorded for any other company. In what today would be termed a “golden handcuffs” clause, Victor stipulated that all royalty payments would cease immediately should Murray record for any other company, although the company would still retain the right to sell his existing Victor records. 12 This stipulation routinely appeared in other Victor contracts as well; not even Enrico Caruso was immune. As we will see shortly, this clause may well explain Murray’s reluctance to leave Victor even after the company was no longer actively employing him as a recording artist.

Victor had the wisdom to foresee that a glut of Murray recordings would likely result under the 1920 contract, and that some issues would inevitably be poor sellers. Consequently, the contract specified that any Murray record selling less than sixty copies per month for three consecutive months could be withdrawn from sale as “not a good record.” This provision facilitated the wholesale deletion of older titles from the postwar catalogs, and no doubt also explains the relative scarcity of certain Murray recordings made in the early and mid 1920s.

Upon expiration of the 1920 contract on July 1, 1925, it appears that Murray was renewed on a year-to-year basis. Copies of these renewals have not been located, but clearly they no longer specified the large quotes that were stipulated in the 1920 agreement.

By the end of 1926, Murray’s chief value to Victor was no longer as a recording artist. Collectors have long puzzled over why Murray remained with a company that was not recording him with any frequency (or, conversely, why Victor continued to retain an artist who was not selling many records). The answer most likely lies in Murray’s value as a member of the Eight Famous Victor Artists, a promotional troupe that was jointly underwritten by the Victor Talking Machine Company and its dealers. As ongoing research by Anna-Maria Manuel demonstrates, the Eight Popular Victor Artists spent much of each year on the road in the later 1920s, performing from coast to coast.

Conventional wisdom holds that Victor used Murray with decreasing frequency in the later 1920s because he supposedly was unable to adapt his style to electrical recording. This may be an overly simplistic answer to the riddle of Murray’s declining record output, and probably overstates any difficulties Murray might have experienced with the microphone. Murray, after all, functioned successfully in the microphone-dependent media of radio and film from the later 1920s into the 1930s. A more likely answer is that Murray fell victim to a major change in Victor management and corporate mission beginning in 1926. In that year, the Victor Talking Machine Company was sold to a banking consortium, and Edward Shumaker took over the presidency of the company from the very conservative Eldridge R. Johnson. Shumaker set out to quickly modernize the Victor catalog, recruiting new stars from the stage, radio, and "talkies," and expanding into the race-record, country music, and other markets. His strategy left little room for old-timers like Murray.

Murray’s end as an exclusive Victor artist came in July 1928. Once again, it is not clear whether Murray left Victor of his own accord. However, he now had little to lose under the “golden handcuffs” clause. By the end of 1928, only a handful of Murray titles remained in the Victor catalog. Most were duets or concerted numbers, qualifying only for the ½¢ royalty rate, and none of them were large sellers. The small royalty income he would have earned from any further sales of those titles was probably insignificant compared to the potential earnings to be had as a free-lancer for Edison, Brunswick, the American Record Corporation, and other companies. Murray soon reunited with his old protégée, Walter Van Brunt (alias Walter Scanlan) and began to make the rounds of the radio and recording studios.

Murray returned to Victor twice in 1929, as a freelancer. He recorded two titles with Van Brunt on May 23, and two more with Aileen Stanley on June 13. Two of the four (“Oh, Baby, What a Night” with Van Brunt and “Katie, Keep Your Feet on the Ground” with Stanley) were issued on Victor 22040, his last recording issued under the Victor Talking Machine Company imprint. He would not record for a Victor label again until 1940, when he made several sides for RCA’s Bluebird.


1    “‘Billy’ Murray Now ‘Exclusive.’” Talking Machine World (7/15/1920), p. 134.
2    Child, Calvin G. “Agreement Between the Victor Talking Machine Company... and Mr. Billy Murray...” (1/1/1909)
3    Ibid.
4    Ibid.
5    Ibid.
6    Edison Studio Cash Books, 1908–1912 (NPS Cat. #1416, 1417). Edison National Historic Site, Orange, NJ.
6a    Edison Studio Cash Book, 1908–1910 (NPS Cat. #1416). Edison National Historic Site, Orange, NJ.
7    Child, Calvin G. Letter to Billy Murray [contract amendment] (1/1/1912).
8    “Billy Murray with Columbia Co.” Talking Machine World (1/1/1919), p. 103.
9    “‘Billy’ Murray Now ‘Exclusive,’” op. cit.
10  Ewan, Edward (John S. Macdonald, witness). “An Agreement... Between Victor Talking Machine Company... and William Murray (Professionally Known as Billy Murray)...” (7/1/1920).
11  Ibid.
12  Ibid.

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