Record labels that rocked our world

It's not all platinum discs and private jets. As executives at EMI discovered to their cost this week, the record industry can be a cruel mistress. But what of the other labels that made musical history? Rock's back catalogue is full of hits and misses... announced plans for 2,000 job losses. Does the digital revolution spell doom for the record labels that built rock 'n' roll?


EMI

From relatively small beginnings, the quintessential British recording company has gone on to buy some of the most illustrious labels in music history. As a result, its back catalogue now contains many of pop music's greatest releases.

Nonetheless, EMI's recent takeover by a private equity firm, and the subsequent shedding of thousands of staff has shockwaves through the global record industry and – according to some pundits, at least – sparked a crisis that heralds the beginning of the end of the record label in its traditional form.

The history of the firm has, from its earliest days, been intrinsically linked to the development of technology surrounding popular music; it is this that has allowed it to become the key player in the global music business. In 1887, German-born American Emile Berliner (right) – who had developed the microphone for Alexander Graham Bell's telephone – invented his "gramophone" method of recording and reproducing sound using discs; soon after, The Gramophone Company was formed.

The firm became Electric and Musical Industries in 1931, and from then on the company steadily grew into a conglomerate, taking over smaller labels. EMI's subsidiary Parlophone signed The Beatles, and others under its umbrella have included Pink Floyd, Queen, Robbie Williams and Radiohead, and Gorillaz.

Essential listening

Ernest Lough – "O For The Wings of a Dove" (1926) (by The Gramophone Company on the HMV label)

The Beatles – The White Album (1968)

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

Virgin

The year was 1972. Bell bottoms were big. But 22-year-old student Richard Branson's confidence was even bigger. Despite having no experience in the record business other than working in a shop called Virgin Records and Tapes, Branson (inset) set up his own label with his chums Simon Draper and Nik Powell. Although Branson had already had some business success at the age of 15, publishing a magazine, Virgin Records was his first major venture, and propelled him on his journey to billionairedom.

Operating out of cramped offices (and using a phone box for calls, if you believe the stories), the label's first year had a big success: Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. In 1977, Virgin signed the Sex Pistols (above), who'd been shown the door by EMI and A&M. Soon afterwards, their shop was raided by police, who objected to a window display of the album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. Culture Club, the Human League, Simple Minds and Genesis joined soon after.

In 1992, Branson sold the label to Thorn EMI for a reported £1bn, with a clause preventing him from setting up another record company for five years. Success continued with Massive Attack, Blur and the Spice Girls – but not with Mariah Carey, who signed an $80m deal in 2001 but was given the elbow after appalling album sales. In 2006, Virgin merged with Capitol Records to create Capitol Music Group.

Essential listening

Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells (1973)

Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (1977)

Blur – Parklife (1994)

Spice Girls – "Wannabe" (1996)

Blue Note

The quintessential jazz label, Blue Note was founded in 1939 in New York by a German immigrant called Alfred Lion, and went on to become one of the most prolific labels in music history. It has set down on vinyl (and beyond) most of jazz's inspirational characters, from Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis (below) to John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock.

In the 1940s its management was joined by Francis Wolff, a childhood friend of Lion's, a young photographer who was the mastermind behind the label's sleeves, which featured a highly distinctive typography and moody photography.

Blue Note's golden age was in the 1950s and 1960s, when it released records by the cream of US jazz musicians and composers: trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Sonny Clark and tenor sax player Dexter Gordon. In the 1970s it stretched its boundaries towards "funk", signing up artists such as trumpeter Donald Byrd and jazz flautist Bobbi Humphrey.

Blue Note was purchased by Liberty Records in 1965 and, through a series of takeovers, EMI in 1979. It's fair to say that the label's glory days are behind it, but it continues to try to sign fresh young talent. Lion died in 1987.

Essential listening

Thelonious Monk – Genius of Modern Music: Volume 2 (1952)

John Coltrane – Blue Train (1957)

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Moanin' (1958)

Atlantic

We know all about Atlantic's history, thanks to Led Zeppelin's recent reunion concert to raise money for a charity launched in memory of its founder, Ahmet Ertegü* (right). The son of a Turkish ambassador to the United States, Ertegü* and his buddy Herb Abramson set up Atlantic in New York in 1947, and turned it into one of America's most important independent labels.

Initially, Atlantic focused on jazz and R&B, signing Ray Charles, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. But it broadened its approach when Jerry Wexler, a writer for Billboard who coined the term "rhythm and blues", became a partner in 1953. The Drifters joined in 1954, the same year the label had a monster hit with Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll". Despite missing out on signing Elvis in 1955, Atlantic championed Otis Redding and Bobby Darin, and by the 1960s was awash with mainstream pop signings, including Sonny and Cher and Aretha Franklin.

In 1967 Ertegü* sold Atlantic for $17.5m to Warner Seven Arts Corporation. Led Zeppelin (below) first appeared on the Atlantic roster in 1968, along with Cream, the Bee Gees and, in 1971, the Rolling Stones. Today, Atlantic has a mind-bendingly varied number of artists, including Missy Elliott, Genesis, Metallica and Kid Rock. Its early independence, however, is but a memory: it's part of the WEA "family" along with Warner Bros and Elektra, and is owned by the giant Time Warner conglomerate.

Essential listening

Big Joe Turner – "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (1954)

Aretha Franklin – "Respect" (1967)

Otis Redding – "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" (1968)

Led Zeppelin – "Whole Lotta Love" (1969)

Def Jam

This legendary rap and hip-hop label was set up in a New York dorm room by hip-hop fans Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons and still operates under the motto "Respecting DJs since 1984".

LL Cool J's "I Need a Beat" and the Beastie Boys' "Rock Hard" were early successes, along with the controversial output of Public Enemy (above). In the late 1980s, Def Jam signed a distribution deal with CBS Records, which later went on to become Sony Music Entertainment.

Despite healthy record sales, the label suffered a cash-flow crisis in the early 1990s, but was saved from bankruptcy in 1994 by PolyGram, which bought Sony's 50 per cent share in the label. Soon after, Def Jam released Warren G's Regulate... G Funk Era, which sold 2.7 million copies.

In 1999, Simmons sold his own remaining stake in Def Jam for a reported $100m, and following a series of mergers the label was renamed the Island Def Jam Music Group. Jay-Z, who had joined as an artist in the late 1990s, became the group's CEO in 2004. Under his management, business boomed, and the group became one of the most powerful institutions in contemporary music. More recent successes include Kanye West and the brolly-wielding Rihanna, but Jay-Z's recent announcement of his retirement as CEO means the label's future is once more unclear.

Rubin, meanwhile, has become one of the world's most celebrated record producers, and was responsible for career-transforming releases by Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Diamond, and the late, great Johnny Cash.

Essential listening

Public Enemy – "Don't Believe the Hype" (1988)

Kanye West – Late Registration (2005)

LL Cool J – Mr Smith (1995)

Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003)

Rough Trade

Rough Trade began life as a shop. Legend has it that, in 1976, founder Geoff Travis returned to Notting Hill from a trip across America and needed somewhere to keep his record collection, mainly US and Jamaican imports.

The store became a home for the burgeoning punk scene and anyone wanting to trade new-wave music and fanzines. Buoyed by this success, Travis founded a record label with the same name two years after the store opened. The label's first release was "Paris Marquis" by the French punksters Metal Urbain. Rough Trade went on to sign post-punk acts that redefined British music, most notably the Smiths, who released their first record, "Hand in Glove", on Rough Trade in May 1983 and were soon picked up Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

The Rough Trade brand suffered a slight blip in 1991 when it ceased trading after its sister distribution company went bust. But Travis relaunched it in 2000, and after a short period spent collaborating with a major label, it is now back to being resolutely independent. Its recent successes have been immense: Arcade Fire, the Strokes (below) and the Libertines, to name just three.

Essential listening

The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (1986)

The Strokes – Is This It? (2001)

The Libertines – Up the Bracket (2002)

Sub Pop

Sub Pop is the Seattle label behind the "grunge" movement of the early 1990s, whose founders, Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, launched the careers of Soundgarden and Nirvana. Pavitt coined the name Sub Pop for a fanzine in 1979, and resurrected it seven years later for the low-key release of a compilation LP, Sub Pop 100.

The label's first proper release was a 1987 EP by Green River, stalwarts of the Seattle scene, with a line-up that included two future members of Pearl Jam. Soon afterwards, Pavitt joined forces with Poneman to release Soundgarden's first EP, Screaming Life. Sub Pop also boasted a hugely influential Singles Club, which sent subscribers new singles by independent bands from the Pacific Northwest.

In June 1989, the label released Nirvana's debut, Bleach, which remains its sole platinum title. Kurt Cobain and his bandmates decamped to Geffen before Nevermind was released in 1991. Another potential cash-cow, Soundgarden, never released an LP with the label. However, Sub Pop had made its name, and will be forever synonymous with the Seattle scene. It remains defiantly independent, and has a roster with some of the best-loved alternative acts in the US, such as Iron and Wine, Low, The Postal Service and The Shins, as well as CSS (above) and The Go! Team.

Essential listening

Nirvana – Bleach (1989)

The Postal Service – "Such Great Heights" (2003)

Low – The Great Destroyer (2005)

Sun

In 1956, four years after the launch of his Memphis-based label Sun Records, Sam Phillips (above left) made the kind of business decision which, with hindsight, would cause any entrepreneur to wince. In order to balance his books, Phillips sold the recording contract of the young Elvis Presley (above, second right) to RCA Victor. While the deal netted Sun Records $35,000, it meant that the royalties generated by the King's march to global domination went elsewhere.

Fortunately, Presley wasn't the only star in Sun's sky – Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all launched their careers there, under Phillips and Jack Clement, the producer and engineer who discovered – and recorded – Jerry Lee Lewis.

The firm's first national hit came in 1953, with Rufus Thomas's "Bear Cat" (although thanks to the song's similarity to Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog", profits were eaten up by litigation costs). In 1969, Phillips' reign came to an end and Sun Records was bought by Mercury Records' producer Shelby Singleton. He named the company Sun International Corporation and it still exists today – now called Sun Entertainment Corporation – selling classic recordings and so-called collectibles.

Essential listening

Elvis Presley – "That's Alright (Mama)" (1954)

Jerry Lee Lewis – "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (1957)

Johnny Cash – "I Walk the Line" (1956)

Chess

The label began in post-war Chicago after two Jewish immigrants from Poland, Leonard and Phil Chess, bought and renamed a modestly-successful local label called Aristocrat. The brothers inherited an artist named McKinley Morganfield – better known as Muddy Waters – and turned him into their first global star. Howlin' Wolf joined in the early Fifties and went on to become one of the most influential, and best loved, blues singer in history.

In 1955 Chuck Berry (below) auditioned for Chess with a song called "Ida Red". The brothers changed the name of the tune to "Maybellene" and it became the first of Berry's many top 40 hits, followed by rock'*'roll anthems such as "Roll over Beethoven" and "Johnny B Goode". Etta James and Bo Diddley were also members of the stable and the label was the first company to record Aretha Franklin.

In 1969 Leonard and Phil sold the company to General Recorded Tape (GRT) for $6m. Later that year Leonard died and by 1972 the company's Chicago offices were empty.

Essential listening

Chuck Berry – "Roll Over Beethoven" (1956)

Howlin' Wolf – "Smokestack Lightning" (1956)

Etta James – At Last (1961)

Creation

Though synonymous with the mid-1990s Britpop movement, Creation Records was actually founded in 1983 by the Glaswegian guitarist Alan McGee, who initially signed some of the most influential indie bands of the 1980s, such as Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub.

In 1991, Creation released two seminal guitar albums: Primal Scream's Screamadelica, a re-interpretation of acid house following the so-called "second summer of love", and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, the two-year recording of which cost £250,000 and came close to bankrupting the label altogether.

Both albums were critically lauded and influenced countless other bands – but neither flew off the shelves, and in 1992 McGee was forced to surrender his independent status by selling half of Creation to Sony.

The label seemed in danger of disappearing without trace, until one evening in May 1993, when McGee made a visit to King Tut's Wah Wah Hut in his native Glasgow to see Creation band 18 Wheeler. Opening for them was a young act that hadn't made it on to the setlist. McGee was so impressed by their performance that he signed Oasis (above) on the spot. Their debut, Definitely Maybe, sold close to eight million copies, while follow-up (What's the Story) Morning Glory? managed almost 20 million.

McGee closed down Creation in 1999 in frustration. He now runs a label called Poptones.

Essential listening

Primal Scream – Screamadelica (1991)

My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)

Oasis – Definitely Maybe (1994)

Apple

The granny Smith apple, logo of Apple Corps (a somewhat workmanlike pun on apple-core) is worthy of mention for one band, and one band alone: The Beatles.

Founded in 1968 as part of the Fab Four's brand expansion and to save on tax, the label's commercial success came through some of that band's bestselling albums. However, it also experimented with power pop, signing the likes of Badfinger and Jackie Lomax.

When the Fab Four folded in 1970, there was some doubt that Apple could continue, but the solo work of Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon and the feminist songs of Yoko Ono kept it going well into the 1980s.

Today, Apple still exists, although it is perhaps better-known for high-profile legal disputes than ground-breaking artists.

In 2006 Apple Corps took Apple Computer to the High Court over alleged trademark infringement, accusing the computer company of breaking an arrangement that only allowed it to also use an apple logo, provided that it didn't venture into the music business. Apple Corps has now settled its legal dispute with Apple Computer, and a further dispute between Apple Corps and The Beatles' record company EMI has also been resolved, but various legal wrangles still prevent the Fab Four's music being sold on iTunes.

Essential listening

George Harrison – All Things Must Pass (1970)

The Beatles – Love (2006)

Polydor

Polydor began in 1946 in Germany as the popular music arm of the long-established Deutsche Grammophon label; the British wing was established 10 years later. It focused at first on releasing continental-made recordings, which turned out to be very lucrative: in August 1961, German Polydor released "My Bonnie" by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Boys. The backing group was called The Beatles – whose association with Polydor continued throughout their career. (The label acted as distributor for The Beatles' own record company, Apple.)

In the 1960s, Polydor's famously sharp talent scouts brought in a raft of influential artists, including The Who, Jimi Hendrix (left), The Bee Gees and Cream. Polydor also fostered its US connections, allowing it to adopt the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

In the 1980s, Polydor diversified into dance-funk, with outfits such as Level 42 and Style Council. Its current roster continues to mix styles, with artists such as Ronan Keating and Daniel Bedingfield complementing hipper acts such as Snow Patrol, The Hives, and Ms Dynamite.

Essential listening

Cream – Fresh Cream (1966)

The Who – Tommy (1969)

Ms Dynamite – A Little Deeper (2002)

Stax

The Capitol Theatre in Memphis not only helped to create the unique sound of the Stax label and define the spirit of Memphis in the 1960s; it arguably gave the world soul music itself.

It was from here, with a help from Booker T & the MGs, that the label's founders, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, unleashed a dazzling array of talent, including Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and Sam and Dave. Stax benefited from a reciprocal arrangement with New York's Atlantic Records, trading stars such as Wilson Pickett.

Stax was hit hard by the acquisition of Atlantic by Warner in 1967, losing control of the master tapes of its top artists. There was also the loss of Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays in a plane crash. But the hits continued, helped by Isaac Hayes's successful transformation to solo artist and his blaxploitation anthem from the movie Shaft. Efforts to cement the label's ties with the African-American community gave rise to the 1972 event Wattstax, billed as the black Woodstock, but it failed to stem the tide and Stewart was forced into bankruptcy in 1975.

Essential listening

Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – King & Queen (1967)

Isaac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul (1969)

Stiff

The original and (arguably) best indie record label ever drove the DIY punk and New Wave bandwagon in the late 1970s. The label's slogan – If it ain't Stiff, it Ain't Worth a Fuck – encapsulated the label's sod-you attitude as it haemorrhaged cash with a series of hilarious tours and costly cover art.

In the early years, its "stable of stars" were largely written off by the majors, and Stiff was banking on Nick Lowe to give it a big break. But The Damned's "New Rose" (1976) established Stiff at the forefront of the emerging scene. Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and The Blockheads and Madness provided hits into the 1980s.

Stiff was effectively bought out by Island in 1983. By 1987 Stiff was dead.

Essential listening

Ian Dury &The Blockheads – New Boots and Panties!! (1977)

The Damned – Damned Damned Damned (1977)

Tamla Motown

Think of any American soul star of the late 20th century, and the chances are that at some point they were signed to Motown. Set up in 1959 with a $800 loan by the Big Daddy of black music, Berry Gordy Jr (right), the label launched the careers of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson.

Gordy's first signed act was The Matadors, a group for which he had written and produced records (their lead singer was one Smokey Robinson). Gordy pioneered a distinctive "sound" – featuring a prominent bass line played on an electric guitar – that was often copied but never bettered.

Motown became the first "black" label to dominate America's charts: in the 1960s, it had 110 Top 10 hits, from the likes of Diana Ross & The Supremes (top) and Stevie Wonder. Later, it notched up hits by Lionel Richie, The Commodores and many others. Boyz II Men's 1992 album Cooleyhighharmony sold a cool six million copies.

The label was bought out by Universal Music Group in 1998, with Gordy selling his interests for $61m. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Essential listening

The Four Tops – Reach Out (1967)

Jackson 5 – ABC (1970)

Lionel Richie – Dancing on the Ceiling (1986)

Island

With £100 and a helpful proximity to some of world's most talented reggae artists, Chris Blackwell, a white Jamaican, started Island Records from a tiny office in Kingston in 1959.

It quickly became the biggest label promoting Jamaican music in the UK market. In fact, by the early 1960s, it was doing so well that the British government invited Blackwell to relocate to London, even funding the label for a time – apparently, plying the Jamaican expatriate community with reggae music was deemed a good way to keep new immigrants happy.

For a time, Island struggled. But from the moment Bob Marley and The Wailers (right) were signed in 1972, money started to roll in, and its finances became secure. In 1967, Island stood accused of neglecting its roots, after deciding to shift reggae artists onto spin-off label called Trojan Records and concentrate on commercial music.

But, with a new direction, it went on to dominate the 1970s and 1980s charts, bringing the world artists like Cat Stevens, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Fairport Convention. Once it signed U2, profits soared.

After running into financial difficulty in the late 1980s, the label was swallowed up by Polygram, now part of the Universal Music Group. Yet it bowed out with perhaps the most enviable back-catalogue of any independent record label.

Essential listening

Bob Marley – Exodus (1977)

U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)

Frankie Goes to Hollywood – "Relax" (1983)

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