Zonophone (early on also rendered as Zon-O-Phone) was a record label founded in 1899 in Camden, New Jersey, by Frank Seaman. The Zonophone name was not that of the company but was applied to records and machines sold by Seaman from 1899–1903. The name was acquired by Columbia Records, Victor Talking Machine Company, and finally the Gramophone Company/EMI Records. It has been used for a number of record publishing labels by these companies.

Universal Talking Machine Company
IndustryRecording industry
SuccessorVictor Talking Machine Company (immediate)
EMI (1931–2013)
Warner Music Group (2013–present)
FounderFrank Seaman
ProductsPhonographs, phonograph records
OwnerSeaman, Eldridge R. Johnson, EMI, then Warner Music Group


Emile Berliner, the inventor of the lateral-groove disc record and the Gramophone; Eldridge Reeves Johnson, the machinist who had improved Berliner's Gramophone to the point of marketability; and former typewriter promoter Frank Seaman formed a partnership. Berliner was to hold the patents; Johnson had manufacturing rights; and Seaman had selling rights.

Seaman's contract contained a clause stating that if he could produce a Gramophone that was cheaper to manufacture, the board of directors would be compelled to assess it. Seaman complained that Johnson's version was too expensive, but Johnson wasn't interested in a redesign since he was already heavily invested producing the existing model. Seaman hired Louis Valiquet to design a less-expensive-to-manufacture version of Johnson's Gramophone. Valiquet's design was not only less expensive, but more rugged and more attractive. The Berliner board refused to consider Seaman's design, likely due to complicity between Berliner and Johnson. Seaman then began producing Valiquet's design as the Zonophone, and he marketed against the other machine he was promoting, the Gramophone.

Berliner and Johnson sued Seaman for contract violations and patent infringement, and Seaman counter-sued. With the help of lawyer Philip Mauro, Seaman arranged for an alliance with Columbia Records (then manufacturing only cylinder records and machines), arguing that the patents held by Columbia concerning cylinders applied to any type of recording where a stylus 'floated' on the surface of a recording, and that Zon-o-Phone would pay royalties if Columbia helped him drive Berliner out of business. In 1900 Seaman and Mauro succeeded in getting a judge to file an injunction that Berliner and Johnson stop making their products.

Johnson and Berliner counter-sued. Johnson first formed the Consolidated Talking Machine Company in order to continue in business as the Berliner name had been enjoined. Johnson formed another company, the Eldridge R. Johnson Talking Machine Company, to evade continuing injunctions as the cases proceeded through the courts, and the following year emerged victorious in court, prompting the name of their new combined company, the Victor Talking Machine Company.

Further legal actions dragged on until 1903, when all of the United States and Latin American assets of Zon-o-Phone were turned over to Victor, and the European and British Commonwealth assets to the Gramophone & Typewriter Company (which would later become the Gramophone Company and launch the His Master's Voice record label).

The Victor Talking Machine continued use of the Zonophone name to market cheaper records, which were not of the technical standard of the Victor label, until retiring the label in the U.S. in 1912. In the United Kingdom, Australia, and other British colonies, Zonophone was the cheaper label for Gramophone Company issues. Issue under the cheaper label appears to have been an arbitrary choice. For example, from the same session in 1905 the matrices of singer Victoria Monks were either issued on full priced Gramophone Company recordings or the much cheaper Zonophone label—with no technical differences (or indeed popularity of song). In 1911 single-sided Zonophones were withdrawn—existing titles were doubled under the Zonophone Twin label. This made the price difference between the still single-sided Gramophone Company issues and the Zonophones even greater. Ten-inch Zonophone Twins sold as 2s.6d. (£0.125) while single-sided Gramo. issues (black label) sold at 4s.6d. (£0.225). In 1913 the Gramophone Company issued an even cheaper label (Cinch) which sold at 1s.1d. (£0.06) while keeping many of the titles for sale under the Zonophone label at 2s.6d.

Some Zonophone recordings were marked with early End User License Agreements (EULAs), as demonstrated by the sample label. The label EULA reads, "This patented record is licensed for sale and use only when sold at retail at a price not less than the price marked upon this record, and only for the purpose of producing sound directly from this record, and for no other purpose. The patents covering this record, and under which it is made, among others, are U.S. patents NO 534,543, dated Feb. 19, 1895, NO 548,623 dated Oct 29, 1895...This license is valid only so long as this label remains on this record, unaltered and undefaced. A purchase is an acceptance of these terms. Universal Talking Machine MFG CO, May 1, 1911."


In the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, the Gramophone Company continued to use the Zonophone label until 1931. When the company merged with the Columbia Graphophone Company to form Electrical and Musical Industries, Ltd. (EMI), the lower-priced labels of the two firms were merged also as Regal Zonophone.

After World War II, Regal Zonophone was largely dormant in Britain until 1964, when the label was revived with a few beat group offerings but became primarily known for hosting the Salvation Army-affiliated band the Joystrings, who had a brace of chart placings and released several 45s, EPs, and LPs through the end of the 1960s. The Joystrings' appearance on the label hearkened back to the 1930s and 1940s when Regal Zonophone regularly released Salvation Army brass band recordings. Regal Zonophone was also widely used as a catchall EMI label in foreign territories, and often in regions or nations where the main EMI Columbia and HMV logos and trademarks were disputed or held by competitors.

In West Africa (primarily today's Ghana and Nigeria) Zonophone was used as a label to record and produce Sakara, Juju and Apala music on 78 rpm discs from 1928 to the early 1950s.[1][2]

In 1967 Regal Zonophone was revived again as an EMI label, featuring acts signed to music publisher David Platz's independent production group, Straight Ahead, several of which had seen chart action on Deram Records. Chief among these were Procol Harum (with their label the inspiration for their "Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)"), and the Move, joined by Tyrannosaurus Rex and Joe Cocker. This new impetus was largely dissipated by 1970, when many of the Straight Ahead acts moved to the Fly and Cube labels, although new releases as well as reissues were issued on the Regal Zonophone label through the late 1970s.


In the early 1980s, Zonophone was revived by EMI to produce punk artists such as Angelic Upstarts, the Barracudas, the Cockney Rejects, and compilations such as the Oi! album. By the mid-1980s the Zonophone imprint had disappeared again.

Zonophone reappeared in the 1990s as a home for back catalogue artists and the odd one-off single. Zonophone has now become the home to the Cramps' Illegal Records recordings in the UK, albums by David McCallum, Lord Sitar, Cilla Black, and compilations of Capitol-era material from musicians such as Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry.

In 2007, the Zonophone label was re-launched again with the release of cult, hard to find, or unreleased material from EMI's back catalogue either as CDs, digital downloads, or both.

As part of Universal Music's takeover of EMI, the label was sold to Warner Music Group as part of Parlophone to comply with international regulators.

See also


  1. PAUL VERNON. Savannaphone. FolkRoots No.122.
  2. John Collins. Musicmakers of West Africa. Lynne Rienner Publishers (1985) ISBN 0-89410-075-0
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