These stoies are ones I lived through, I am documentiing it now from memory. They are also a view from the bottom rung of the industry in a medium sized, very wet city on the Pacific coast of North America. So some of these time lines may not be exactly right but they are as nearly as I can remember them. If you have information or more detail about any of these facts, please let me know... I will fill in blanks and mkae sure inaccuracies are corrented as best I can. df.
This is a good quesiton. In the recording industry the term label is used extremely loosely. In the strictest sense of the word a "Label" is the label stuck on a recorded object like a 78, 45 or 33.3 RPM vinyl disc or printed on a Compact Disc or on an pre-recorded audio tape. This holds information about what is on the disc. More importantly for this definition, it has printed on it the name of the company under who's direction and control the disc was produced. So, a recorded object with RCA on the label is produced at the direction of the RCA Victor Company or what ever they happen to be. Usually these companies are pretty small by todays standards. However, a recording label does not usualy do its own distribution. This is left to distribution companies who more often than not, distribute multple labels.
Still confused? Its little wonder, because some record labels have the same name (or almost) as one of the labels they distribute. An example of this is Warner. There is a record label by that name. But there is also a distribution company by that name. Of course you will all know the name Warner Bros. becuase you watched Bugs Bunny cartoons! Yes, Warner Bros. is also a Hollywood Movie prodction company. The distrubtor known as Warner was formed to distribute Warner Bros. Movies to theatres. They also handled the distribution of television product to TV stations. It was a very small leap to also form a record label by that name, as well as distribute the product. Warner is atypical in that it began life as a Movie Production Studio. Columbia is another motion picture company that had a similarly named recording label. It subsequently changed its name to CBS, then was purchased by Sony.
Still confused? If you are still confused, its a good sign. It means you are getting the picture that this is an industry that has skewed its image in the pubic mind so that they cannot tell up from down or right from wrong. I don't believe the creation of this illusion was accidental. It has been promoted because otherwise you might see more clearly how full of smoke and mirrors the whole business really is. You can scarcely untangle the web or corportate ownership which had lead to the existance of these multi-media conglomerates.
In truth REAL record labels are very small specialty businesses. Most are formed to produce and record a very few artists in a specific genre. In some cases a label is formed by the musicans themselves so they have something unique to put on their product. Labels are small and fragile, every production is a huge risk. They risk bankruptcy at every turn. It takes a special kind of genius to run one. Keeping artistic integrity and running a good business is difficult at the best of times. In the business as it is now (and has been for decades) it is a feat requiring superhuman powers. At some point they are sold because of financial difficulies, or other problems and some larger corporate entity purchases them and their assets (including the artists and their contracts!). In some cases this has been fortunate, in others it has been disasterous.
In truth the use of the word label is at best a misnomer and at worst, an insult to the REAL business of producing and recording music. Much of the time, the larger company is wise enough to leave the record label itself intact with its original vision in place, in others it is simply dismantled and its assets mergered with others. In fact these Distributors know nothing about the producing, directing engineering nor do they know anythign about the music itself. Its about Money, pure and simple, greed and waste follow them where ever they lead.
Lets take a look at some specific instances. Originally, London (in North America, Decca in the UK), Phillips, and Deutches Gramophon were separate companies. In the late 70's Deustches Gramophon was purchased by Polygram, a large distributor of pop music in Europe. Shortly there after they also purchased London/Decca and Phillips. The classical world was aghast... this was a major portion of the classical catalogue in the hands of one owner. Polygram assured its consumers that each company wouldl retain its own identity and mission, simplly ownership and distribution had changed. PolyGram, for the most part were true to their word and the three labels remained major players in classical music production.
The story doesn't end there however. In the last decade of the last centruy, Edgar Bronfmann Jr. announced that he wanted to be in the Enteretainment Business a.k.a. the Movie business and purchased Universal. (Mom and Dad's money came in handy for that!). A while later, Universal announced it had purchased MCA (which had a motion picture branch and a recording branch as well and also owned the rights to the cataloge and name Decca in North America). Hang on to your seats. Meanwhile PolyGram purchased Verve, Riverside and the Fantasy and GRP label putting it squarely in control of major portions of the jazz catelogue. Within a few months, Universal announced the purchase of PolyGram and within one decade, Universal now controls most of the classical catelogue, most of the Jazz catelogue and large portions of the popular music catelogue. Forgive me if i do not have exact numbers. If they do not control most of these catelogues, they certainly control major protions of it.
So, as you can see, litterally dozens of small labels have been swallowed lock stock and barrel by another corporate entity. Universal isn't really a label at all. They simpley own catelogue and distribution rights, and by virtue of that, tehy also control the artists who record for them.
The point of all this is to make clear that the usage of the word label is really not correct. We should be calling them Distributors. Do not confuse the two. A record label usualy is run by people who truly care about the music, the artist, the consumer and the recording industry itself. The same is not true of the Dsitributors. By in large, they care only about the bottom line. returning a profit for their shsareholders. At the end of the day that is the only thing that is important to them. Mostly, human beings are lost in the shuffle and are a mere inconvenience for these huge coroporate behemouths.
By and large, real recording labels are not in the business of distributing recroded music, it is a completely different kind of business. True Recording Labels do not usualy do their own distribution. Many labels were aquired by outside business interests and turned into what they are now. Warner Brothers bought Atlantic Records and Elektra and formed a company which was known as WEA (Warner, Elektra, Atalantic) for distribution purposes in Canada. (ed. I notice that the Wikipedia sometimes doesn't distinguish a label from a distributor!)
RCA Victor used to be a separtate entity but was purchased in the 1980's by a large muisc publishing house called Bertlesman, this became knwon as the Bertelsman Music Group or BMG. The tales of these companies is long and convoluted and usualy only remembered by insiders int he businsess. Classical Music lovers will know that London, Phillips and Deutsche Gramophon all used to be completely independant companies until they were bought by PolyGram. PolyGram purhased Telarc and GRP Recordings in the late 1980's. In the late 1990's PolyGram was bought by Universal which had itself recently been purchased by Edgar Bronfmann Jr. He proceeded to buy lock stock and barrel MCA (label and distributor), A&M Records (itself a distributor in Canada but not in the U.S.), Verve and Riverside went next .. .owned by Universal. Universal now owns the major portion fo the jazz and classical recording industry.
The pace in the 90's was dizzying; the black limousines drove up to many Distribution offies in Canada with instantaneous firings of Music Distrubution Exectutives. It took only a few years to rewrote the music distribution businesss map. In 1985 there were seven Major Distributors of recorded music product, at the present moment there are only four. Not only were there major changes in the industry worldwide, but I believe the industry saw the writing on the wall when they saw the problems the book publishing industry was in. They also remembered the fiasco of the A&A Records and Tapes IPO and subsequent bankruptcy. This nearly broke the back of most of the major distributors. Had not the retailers in Canada stood with the distributors the whole industry would have failed.
Each and everyone of those labels I just mentioned has a long and distinguished (for the most part) history behind it, and its they're all now owned by a very few companies.
So most of what are normally called "labels" aren't really labels at all, they are large powerful distribution and sales networks owned and opperated for the profit and benefit of shareholders, NOT for the benefit of the artists or the consumer.
It has been of great benefit for these multinational corporations to have this bit of misinformation planted in the public's mind. This has enabled them to wrap themseles in the mantra that they are taking care of the artists rights when they sue consumers for downloading music. In actual fact, they care little for the artists themselves, and are only concerned with the recordings and the profit they squeeze from the public by seeling overpriced copies of inferior quality like they did during the vinyl erra. Now they are just over priced. And if we're lucky we can hear the improved quality. This has never changed since I started collecting and reading about music in the 1960's.
Understanding the music business is much easier when you weed out the disinformation created by the publicity these distribution networks generate.