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Space Age Music Maker

D. L. Miller

AKA Dave Miller, David L. Miller, Dick L. Miller, and Leo Muller

  • Born David Leonard Miller, 4 July 1923, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Died 24 May 1985, London, England

Considering his impact on the record-buying behavior of North American and European consumers for a good part of the last half century, it's remarkable how little is known about D.L. Miller.

D.L. Miller's name appears on the back of the millions of 101 Strings albums that flooded the American market between 1957 and 1964, when Miller sold his Somerset Records label. More than anyone else, he was responsible for the creation of budget records and the flood of cheaply packaged and pressed albums that poured forth from labels such as Wyncote, Design, Pickwick, Golden Award, Custom, Crown, and others. Having set the standard with Somerset, he then refined the business model with the Europa label, based out of Hamburg, Germany, which generated its own flood of cheap records and its own crop of imitators. In fact, you could say that Miller is responsible for more of the records cluttering up thrift stores, charity shops, and flea markets than any other single person--and that includes Andy Williams.

Miller's history and business practices remind me a great deal of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' notorious manager. Both men were notoriously tough-minded businessmen who never gave in inch when negotiating a deal. Both found ways to cut-out middlemen and extend their control over the production, distribution, and sales chains. And both kept a tight grip on every investment, making sure to work every possible angle for revenue.

It's been claimed elsewhere that Miller was born in Germany as Leo Kleiber and changed his name when he emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s. In reality, Miller was born in Philadelphia, the second of five children. He and his brother Paul served with distinction in the U.S. Navy in World War Two, and after the war, they founded their first venture into the record business. Palda Records was started with money Paul and Dave made during the war, along with a contribution from their father, Albert (Paul-Albert-David). In 1952, Paul and Dave bought out their father's share. Palda was a regional label, selling into the mid-Atlantic and New York City markets. While it was running, it released a few 45 RPM singles by the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Four Aces, and a handful of now-forgotten groups.

Within a year or so after that, Miller had formed another company, Essex Records. Essex left a more lasting mark in musical history, because in early 1952, it released a single of one of the stronger contenders for the title of "First Rock and Roll Record," Bill Haley's "Rock the Joint." Cleveland radio DJ Alan Freed received a copy of the disc and gave it heavy airplay, and is alleged to have taken the term "rock and roll" from the song's reprise. Haley soon attracted the attention of a major label, Decca, but that didn't prevent Miller from continuing to release Haley's Essex recordings cleverly packaged to capitalize on the success of "Rock Around the Clock." Haley sued Miller in 1955 to attempt to stop this practice, citing the "inferior quality" of Miller's recordings.

By that time, however, Miller had already moved on to another label, Trans-World, on which he proceeded to reissue Haley's singles, along with much of the rest of Essex's catalog. Trans-World didn't last much longer than Palda, and was followed in 1957 by the label that would make his fortune: Somerset.

Miller launched Somerset based on a shrewd assessment of the record market. He combined two fairly recent developments in recording technology--stereophonic recording and the long-play record--with a ruthless cost-cutting production approach, with the goal of finding the lowest possible price at which he could sell records and still make a profit.

To slash production costs, Miller focused in three areas. Although he initially used the Capitol Records plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he soon established his own plant to avoid Capitol's fee and control his supply and quality standards. As a comparison of Somerset albums from different years will show, he continued to reduce the quality of vinyl and grade of cardboard until he found the minimum acceptable level.

Second, he eliminated royalty charges by using public domain material, augmented with a small in-house staff of composers. As was common practice in those days, he even insisted on getting credit for every tune penned by Robert Lowden and Joseph Kuhn, his two main writers. It's thanks to this and the BMI and ASCAP repertoire databases that we're able to determine that David Kleiber and Leo Muller were two of Miller's pseudonyms. Miller also set up his own publishing company, Chesdel Music, to manage the rights to the ever-growing catalog of Somerset originals.

Finally, Miller saved money on his recordings by using the cheapest musicians available. Rather than deal with union-scale players in the U.S., he quickly figured out that armies of hungry classically-trained musicians were just a transatlantic flight away. So it is that the orchestra proudly displayed on the cover of the very first 101 Strings album is the Orchester des Nordwestdeutschen Rundfunks Hamburg, or the NDRO for short, sitting in the Hamburger Musikhalle. Miller and Wilhelm Stephan, the NDRO's conductor, would collaborate on hundreds of albums over the next seven years.

All these factors allowed Miller to offer Somerset albums for the suggested retail price of $1.98, which was about two bucks under what Columbia and other labels were selling theirs for. Now the approach itself wasn't entirely new: the Bihari brothers and others selling to R&B and country buyers had been doing this for years. But Miller was the first to take it into the mainstream of the American record market, and to cut his costs without resorting to tricks like using recycled vinyl (or ashtrays, as some collectors joke of labels like Crown and Wyncote). And since, as Mencken famously remarked, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public," Somerset's low budget easy listening albums flew out of the stores. No wonder Miller was recognized with a special award at the 1959 convention of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM).

Miller did eventually resort to the use of copyrighted material and union musicians, cutting a number of albums in LA with Pete Candoli, Pete Jolly, Skip Martin, and an ensemble led by Alvino Rey that went by the name of the Surfmen. And he expanded Somerset's catalog, releasing country albums (by such pseudonymous artists as "Reb Allen," a clone of the better-known Rex Allen, and Ray King).

In 1963, Miller sold Somerset, along with shares of his other music enterprises, to Al Sherman, a Los Angeles-based rack jobber (biz lingo for record distributor). Sherman carried on in Miller's tradition, latching onto each new wave of pop music with releases by "Haircut and the Impossibles" (after the Beatles), "The Mustang" (organist Paul Griffin, after "Mustang Sally" and other soul hits), and "Paul Murad" (after Paul Mauriat's success with "Love is Blue"). Sherman changed the name of the label to Alshire soon after the sale, although the company released new Somerset records intermittently after that. Sherman sold Alshire, its catalog, and its various publishing companies (Chesdel, Cordova, Daval, Hasal) to Madacy Entertainment in 1995, and Madacy has since begun to release on CD some of the thousands of 101 Strings tracks made by Miller and Sherman.

The sale to Sherman didn't mean Miller's days in the recording business were over, though. Sherman kept him on contract as a producer. Within a year, Miller had found Miller International Schallplatten GmbH, based in Hamburg, and had invested in a brand-new record plant. Miller and his German partners formed Europa Records and applied to the European market the same formula he'd perfected in the U.S.. Or, as the European Commission put it more soberly in a 1975 anti-trust ruling against the firm,

Miller's goods are exclusively in the so-called bargain range, currently retailing at up to DM 12. The low price is made possible by the fact that Miller's recordings are of relatively unknown artists. Miller does not use international stars or well-known artists in the production of its recordings, but produces "cover" versions, that is to say identical copies by unknown artists, to whom Miller pays a single fee.
Europa albums slid into German sales racks with price tags as low as 8 Deutsch Marks, once again substantially undercutting EMI and other major labels. Miller never pretended he was anything but a hard-nosed businessman. Sven Kirsten, author of The Book of Tiki, whose father was Europa's general manager, recalls Miller boasting, "We are not in the recording business, we are in the plastics business!"

Miller followed Europa with Golden Award and several other budget labels. He tended to target a market and flood it with cheap product: children's records, cowboy music (very popular in Germany), rock music, and disco. As with Somerset, he hired hungry musicians and had them cut cheap imitations of popular groups, such as "The Purple Fox," the group credited with the "Tribute to Jimi Hendrix" LP.

As with Somerset, Miller avoided royalty payments or took the publication credit (usually as Leo Muller) wherever possible. Over the next twenty years, his Damil Music company built up a substantial repertoire that probably would have largely gone untapped had not a new music technology--sampling--popped up in the 1990s and developed a ravenous appetite for rare beats and riffs.

Which led to a bit of posthumous notoriety for Miller. Norman Cook, better known as Fatboy Slim, tapped into some of the Golden Award catalog for his source material and found himself taken to court by Damil and Miller's daughter, Patricia, for using samples from "Acid Test," a funky organ number to which "Leo Muller" held the copyrights. Cook settled the suit for a paltry 400 pounds, and even endorsed a subsequent compilation, A Break from the Norm, that included the original "Acid Test."

One wonders what clever formula for capitalizing on the current rage for MP3 file sharing Miller would manage to conjure up if he were still alive today.

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