A hand-to-mouth existence, plagued by declining membership and increasing costs, appears to be the lot of many gramophone societies. Burnley, despite being larger than Nelson and Colne combined, had an ailing society for years and now doesn't have one at all. Padiham apparently had a gramophone society at one time (it is recorded that Nelson sold it some unwanted equipment) but has one no longer. Clitheroe, with a large rural catchment area containing many musically-inclined people, maintains a thriving live music society but its gramophone society is tiny.
Compared with these Nelson has been fortunate. Its membership has fluctuated rather than declined. In a typical season we have around 45 members, in 1979 there were 58 - but in 1967 there were a mere 27. Attendances in recent years have averaged somewhere in the low 30s; about the same as when I joined in 1971. This certainly does not indicate a society which is struggling for existence.
It has been alleged that the use of the word "gramophone", redolent as it is of horns, needles, soundboxes and 78s, is in itself a disincentive. The National Federation of Gramophone Societies (NFGS) took this view, changed its own name to Federation of Recorded Music Societies (FRMS), and urged affiliated societies to drop the offending word and rename themselves as Recorded Music Societies. They have a point, but I suspect that most people who are likely to be interested in such an organization do know what a gramophone society is and what it does.
A more probable reason for the decline of such societies is the dramatic fall in the cost of music on record. In the '50s, or even the '60s, collecting records and buying the equipment on which to reproduce them adequately was a costly business. Some hard data: looking through The Gramophone for September 1949 reveals the cheapest 12" record (78 rpm, of course) to cost 5/9 and the dearest 11/6. Let's take 8/- as the typical cost of a record lasting 9 minutes maximum. A G.E.C radiogram of 1951 vintage cost £50-14-10 plus £21-14-2 purchase tax (luxury goods, you see), making a total of £72-9-0. But then who needs a radiogram? Perhaps a Grampian "Grampola S.50" portable record player will fit the bill; a snip at £23-11-0 inclusive. To translate these into present-day prices my usual rule of thumb is to take the 1950 price in shillings and call them pounds. If anything this is an underestimate. (Not convinced? O.K. if you were in paid employment 50 years ago what were your weekly earnings and what would someone in a similar job earn now? What did a pint of beer cost in 1950? Or a typical 3-bedroom semi?)
So let's translate costs. 9 minutes of music on a fragile shellac 78 cost the equivalent of £8. Even a top-price CD, giving about eight times as much music as the 78, costs only twice that price and one can build a more than adequate collection without ever buying a full-price disc. A Naxos CD gives you over 70 minutes of music for 63% of the cost of the old 9-minute 78. The Grampola record player cost the equivalent of £471 and the radiogram a mind-boggling £1449. Today, for as little as £200, you can have equipment which beats the radiogram hollow, let alone the portable. So, while many people 50 years ago could afford few records or perhaps none at all, recorded music at home is within reach of the majority today, which means that the incentive to join a gramophone society is much less than it used to be.
I know many musical people who have collections of recorded music and who spend many hours listening at home, but it would never occur to them to join a gramophone society at their present time of life. Later, when they no longer have a growing family to look after, or perhaps even later when they retire, comes the wish to spend a civilised evening in the company of other music lovers, rather than at home alone. That is when people might start to look with favour on the idea of a gramophone society. We must, I believe, accept that gramophone society members will be of a higher average age than they were 40 or 50 years ago, but that doesn't mean that such societies don't have a future. Will there still be a Nelson Gramophone Society in another 50 years? Perhaps not, but I feel confident that it will be here for many years to come.