The Sound of the Hound #16: William Barry Owen

With these episodes focusing on the life and work of the mighty Fred Gaisberg, we may have given the impression that he was his own boss. That would be wrong. Working for The Gramophone Company in London, Fred was answerable to a man called William Barry Owen.

In this episode we tell Owen’s story. It was his business acumen and vision that saw The Gramophone Company go from a pipe dream to a reality. We look at the Company through the prism of this fascinating man’s stewardship.

Despite his Welsh-sounding name, William Barry was actually from Massachusetts. A lawyer, an opportunist and a gambler, he sailed for London in 1897 to raise investment funds for the European arm of The Gramophone Company on behalf of Emile Berliner. He was, in effect, rolling the pitch for the music industry’s arrival on this side of the world.

When he arrived in London, William Barry hired one of the most opulent rooms at the Hotel Cecil on the Strand for business meetings, giving the impression that he meant business. It worked. Within a matter of weeks he had assembled a small syndicate of likely investors, chief among them being a London solicitor called Trevor Williams. 

The group acquired the European rights to Berliner’s gramophone but, in a move that would prove decisive for the future of recorded music, the investors forced William Barry to commit to a strategy of recording European musicians rather than simply import records from America, which was what he was proposing. It was this change in tack that led to the arrival in London from the States of a certain Mr Fred Gaisberg. 

As Fred was weaving his sonic magic in Maiden Lane, William Barry (Managing Director) and Trevor Williams (Chairman) took care of business. William Barry didn’t always get things right. When the gramophone initially failed to take off, he diversified the company into typewriters, a move that didn’t work. And by the time that the company had moved into larger premises on City Road in 1902, it had already grown too big for the building. But in William Barry, we have one of the original and most often overlooked recording pioneers. So who was this man? What made him tick? And what did he do after he left the company in 1906? Dave and James find out, and play some cracking tunes along the way.

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