Sirena-Rekord Story

The story of Sirena - the label of Belf - begins as most Russian recording companies does, with a pirate label. As Intona Records, prior to 1908, it issued unlicensed copies of other companies' records. This gave them three years to accumulate capital, prior to the enactment of a copyright law for sound recordings in Russia, was adopted in March 1911. Much profit was made from the huge hit «На сопках Маньчжурии» (Na Sopkakh Manzhurii - On The Hills of Manchuria). [This tune is once again being used as a cash cow, now by Andre Rieu who presents it as "Waltz №2".] [There was an ASCAP like organization meant to protect author's rights - Агентство музыкальных прав русских авторов (АМПРА). In 1911 Sirena was sued in Moscow over royalties, and was forced to pay 15 kopecks on each disk. But most could not sue...]

So here begins the legal Sirena-Rekord. In a few short years, they would dominate the recording industry in the Russian Empire - only to come crashing down with the war. Although the label would survive until 1939, its period of dominance matches exactly the years of the Belf issues, 1911-1914.

Our cast of characters starts with the flamboyant Julius Feigenbaum, Executive Director, who established the first pressing plant at 33 Piękna Street in Warsaw.

His cohort was Fabian Tempel. Feigenbaum worked the office and schmoozed the artists and financiers, but Tempel as Managing Director did the leg work. This included A&R, finding talents worth recording and pressing, arranging to hire musicians, organizing the recordings. If Belf's Rumanian Orchestra existed as a real entity - either under the stated name or as an alter-ego of another "national" kapelye of some kind, it was most likely Tempel who made the arrangements for these limited market "ethnic" recordings.

However, if Tempel invented Belf on his own, it perhaps would have fallen to Music Director J Hirschfeld to create Belf's Orchestra. Just as in the US (see for example Hankus Netsky's PhD thesis which outlines the day to day work of Jewish musicians in Philadelphia), a working musician could play in various national and popular styles as needed. It would have been a simple matter to poll his staff musicians for abilities for various "national musics", and as an officer in the Warsaw Philharmonic Society, there would have been plenty of other session musicians to be found as needed.

The other member of the upper management was Gershuni, who was the Technical Director. Gershuni set up the studios, arranged for the presses, arranged for the technical details of recording.

In the first year of open production, Sirena pressed an astounding 2.5 million discs. They opened a modern, new facility at 66 Chmielna Street, with the most advanced recording and pressing equipment available.

Sirena had a reputation for paying exorbitant fees to the artists, and Feigenbaum was famous for wining and dining the classical and popular stars of the day. One reason was to get the top musicians - who still didn't trust the recording process to do them justice - to take time to do as many takes as needed to get a perfect recording.

This seems starkly at odds with the quality of the Belf records, where obvious train wrecks appear from time to time. They were obviously done in a single take. The piano player going to the head instead of taking the repeat was no reason to shave a wax.

However, as in America, the "ethnic" market was smaller and more fragmented. Thankfully it wasn't as small as America's, where there probably would not have been ethnic recordings if they weren't needed to sell the phonographs and gramophones in the ethnic neighborhoods. For Sirena, it was no doubt part of the strategy to take over the industry - to fill the niche as well as the mainstream demand.

Another ethnic line from Sirena was Polish music, which were shipped to Galacia for sale to feed the nostalgia of the ethnic Poles, just as Romanian-Jewish sound of BRO fed the memories (real or imagined) of the Southern Jews living in Warsaw or other parts of Russia.

Within the year, Sirena was the largest record company in the Russian Empire, surpassing Zonophone by 50%. At the same time, Zonophone moved their Russian warehouse from Moscow to Riga. Sirena swooped in and filled the warehouse, and soon dominated record sales in Moscow, St Petersburg, and even Siberia. A warehouse was also opened in the heart of Kiev on Kreschiatic Street, to further expand sales in the Ukrainian areas of European Russia.

In 1913 the firm went public as “Sirena Record Joint-Stock Company”, and expanded sales into England, Ireland, and Scotland, and sent staff to Liverpool to record English sea-chanties to begin offering more folk recordings in English. In early 1914 they struck a deal with a Baltimore wholesaler and were ready to begin shipping to the US.

In August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. Russian Warsaw was attacked. At the time, Feigenbaum and Tempel were in Germany on business. They were arrested there and held as prisoners for nearly two years.

Warsaw was one of the front cities of the war, a place where the Austrian and Russian empires met. Chmielna Street was zeppelin-bombed. Gershuni was injured, and the factory and offices damaged. Record sales remained strong because of the strong catalog of nationalist offerings.

In Aprelevka, near Moscow, the Metropol Record plant had been confiscated from German owners. Gershuni and remaining staff relocated their matrices there. I have no information as to whether the Belf matrices were relocated. Whatever was left in Warsaw was seized by the Germans, and any copper found was recycled.

I also have no information as to Belf, should he or his orchestra existed as anything other than a brand name for the studio band. The name Belf - which anglicizes as "Wolff" - wasn't uncommon in the Western Ukrainian areas that the music is associated with. Belf was also the name of a major publisher and seller of Jewish and other books in Vienna for at least a century before World War II. None of this is terribly conclusive.

Another point to research is the fate of the matrices that were moved to Aprelevka. It seems very unlikely they would have survived the second world war, assuming they lasted that long. But lets get back to Sirena.

Control of distribution had always been part of Sirena's success, but now in distress they turned to Isserling Brothers in Vilna for distribution. This made Sirena "just another company". The top two men were imprisoned in Germany. Much of their market was now in hostile territory, and much of the Russian market was now more concerned with survival than buying records. The Warsaw artistic circles were totally disrupted. The label survive but no longer as the Russian Columbia or Victor. Now they were just another label. Production declined, and eventually they returned to their roots - printing other companies' matrices on the Sirena label.

Feigenbaum was released in 1916 and attempted a resuscitation. He paid wartime prices for materials and recorded some new music. But the market belonged to others by then, and although the name survived until 1939, the great Sirena-Rekord was finally just another casualty of the Great War.

I have no facts to back my feeling that the Belf matrices are long gone, but with the two world wars and the Russian revolution intervening, I have my doubts. Its unlikely they were a priority for rescue from Warsaw in 1914. I'm still looking into the fate of the company after the Revolution, which occurred within a year of Feigenbaum and Tempel's return to Russian territory. Assuming the local cadre did not destroy the matrices while reforming property notions, we also would need to hope that Stalin didn't have them destroyed - although if they are preserved it would perhaps be Stalin who did so! We then have World War II in which the Soviet Union's people and material assets were suffered so greatly. There are additional resources I'm following up on.

Much of this material is from my translation from the Russian of Alexander Tikhonov's articles Рекорд "Сирены" ('Sirena' Record) in «Звукорежиссер» 2003 №3 and Столетняя война - Из истории музыкального пиратства в России (History of Musical Piracy in Russia) serialized in «Звукорежиссер» 2002 №s 2,4, and 5.