Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



The oldest currently active record label name, incorporated 1 January 1889 by Edward E. Easton as the Maryland, Delaware and District of Columbia franchise of Jesse Lippincott's North American Phonograph Company, leasing and servicing graphophones (dictation machines based on Edison's phonograph). When this business failed, Columbia entered the entertainment business and was the only one of Lippincott's 33 franchises to survive, providing records for coin-operated talking machines, the first catalogue listing nearly 200 cylinders in 1891. By the late 1890s it was the biggest record company in the world. The Paris office, opened 1889, became its European headquarters in 1897; a London office was opened in 1900.

Early cylinder players were hand-cranked or used heavy batteries; reliable clockwork motors for home machines were built in 1894 by Eldridge Johnson. Columbia began pressing Emile Berliner's gramophone discs in the USA in 1898, sold only in the UK until 1901, the year Johnson and Berliner formed the Victor Talking Machine Company. An ensuing patent war was resolved in 1902 by forming a pool; Columbia made both discs and cylinders until 1912; when the patents ran out competition and economic recession forced the company to sell its British subsidiary to its London manager Louis Sterling in 1922.

USA Columbia had been milked by speculators and failed in 1923; Sterling bought USA Columbia from the receivers to gain access to Western Electric's new electrical recording method (see Recorded Sound). Now British-based, Columbia expanded world-wide, reorganized in 1925 as Columbia International in London: General Phonograph Co. Inc. (USA), Columbia Nipponophone (Japan), Pathé Frère Pathéphone (France, subsidiaries in Europe and Asia), Carl Lindstrom Organization (Germany; Odeon and Parlophone labels had subsidiaries in Europe and South America), Transoceanic (Netherlands), Columbia labels in 19 countries. Sterling invested in a fledgling US radio network, United Independent Broadcasters, in 1927, and renamed it the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System; he had heard that Victor was going to be taken over by the Radio Corporation of America (NBC), concert promoter Arthur Judson was involved and they wanted to compete with Victor in promoting classical records, but the new venture was not a success, so the radio network was sold in 1929 to a group headed by the young heir to a Philadelphia cigar company, William S. Paley. The word 'phonograph' was dropped and the link between Columbia Records and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was broken for nearly 20 years. Columbia had USA success with Paul Whiteman, Ted Lewis, Bing Crosby, etc but then came the Depression; by 1932 the USA record industry's sales fell to 6 per cent of the 1927 level. The European industry was not as badly hit, but rationalization was essential; in May 1931 the biggest UK record companies, Columbia and HMV, merged under Sir Louis Sterling to form Electric and Musical Industries (EMI), for nearly 50 years the biggest record company in the world, with Columbia its flagship pop label.

The Radio Corporation of America (see RCA) had a substantial stake in EMI; to avoid anti-trust problems EMI sold USA Columbia and its subsidiaries to Grigsby-Grunow, makers of refrigerators and Majestic radios; Grigsby went to the receivers in 1934. The American Record Company had been formed in 1929, merging three companies including the Romeo, Banner, Oriole and Perfect labels, and became part of Consolidated Film Industries in 1930, who added Brunswick, Vocalion and Melotone the next year and operated it as the Brunswick Record Corporation. (The Warner brothers had wanted access to pressing plants to make Vitasound discs for cinemas, but film sound on disc was a dead end, so they leased it all out.) The company then bought Columbia from Grigsby's receivers for $70,000 (nine years earlier it had changed hands for $2.5 million). Meanwhile untapped markets for 'race' and 'hillbilly' records had been discovered; Frank Walker, Art Satherley, Lester Melrose and John Hammond had become talent scouts, field engineers and/or producers, and the new company had an enormous collection of American recordings.

Edward Wallerstein, hired away from RCA to run the company, made a deal with Paley, president of CBS, which acquired control of ARC in 1938 for $700,000. The moribund USA Columbia label was revived in September 1939, the classic label colour changed from black to red, and Columbia soon became the biggest label in the USA (entirely separate from EMI's Columbia in the rest of the world). (The required number of Brunswick and Vocalion records were not being sold, so these label names and pre-'32 recordings reverted to Warner Brothers, who sold them to American Decca for $350,000.) The new USA Columbia's first big hit was Orrin Tucker's 'Oh, Johnny, Oh' '39; classical recording was revived (Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis SO made the first recording of Mahler's First Symphony '40); the price of 12-inch discs was cut in half '40 and RCA forced to follow suit; according to Roland Gelatt, classical sales increased 1,500 per cent in the USA, no doubt briefly. CBS introduced the long-playing record in 1948, supposedly perfected in their labs run by Dr Peter Goldmark (but for the real story, see Goldmark's entry), and dominated the US industry in the 1950s, with Paul Weston and Mitch Miller (both musicians) as staff A&R men, conductors/ arrangers Frank DeVol (b 20 September 1911, Moundsville WV; d 27 October 1999. Lafayette CA) and Percy Faith also making albums and backing vocalists including Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney, Guy Mitchell, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis; in jazz, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and later Thelonious Monk; Satherley was in charge of country music, with Carl Smith, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price etc. Producers included Hammond, Goddard Lieberson, George Avakian; product was leased to the Philips group for European distribution. The label led the industry with Broadway original cast albums and film soundtracks, beginning with the South Pacific original cast album  '49 (available on all three speeds); OC LPs Kiss Me Kate '49, My Fair Lady '56, Flower Drum Song '59 and Camelot '61 were all no. 1 albums; the West Side Story OC album was no. 5 '58, but the soundtrack of the film '61 set a record: no. 1 for 58 weeks, staying in the chart for nearly four years.

Columbia's pop market share fell in the late '50s after Mitch Miller abdicated (see his entry) but Columbia rode high on the '60s boom, with Clive Davis looking after Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel etc, and began to use a CBS label to market its own product outside the USA, taking over Oriole in London as a base (run by Levy's Sound Studios, Oriole had recorded Russ Hamilton, Chas McDevitt, Maxine Daniels etc). Under Davis Columbia became the house of deals (see his entry); scandals and retrenchment during '70s recession left him an obvious target and he was bounced as a sop to critics of the industry. The outrageous hype of the latest John Hammond discovery Bruce Springsteen was initially unsuccessful, but he proved his commercial worth. In the '80s Philip Glass became the first living 'classical' composer to be signed to an exclusive contract since Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland (who were also on Columbia). The legendary OKeh name was used in the USA as an R&B outlet, Harmony (pop) and Odyssey (classical) for budget LPs; Epic was an important subsidiary. Columbia had distributed Gamble and Huff's Philadelphia International product in '70s for success in the black market; then Epic had the best-selling album in history: Michael Jackson's Thriller '82 included seven top ten singles (but was a no. 1 album 17 weeks fewer than West Side Story 20 years earlier). Columbia's 78s had been laminated, more break-resistant than RCA's but higher in surface noise in the '50s; Columbia's 45 singles were made of styrene rather than vinyl for decades: they had exceptionally quiet surfaces initially but wore out more quickly. Custom pressing and distribution for other labels meant that Columbia was pressing the majority of the LPs in the USA c.'70, and the quality control was extremely good. Billboard had been reporting since '65 that the venerable Columbia name would be dropped in USA for a single world-wide CBS logo, but it didn't happen; CBS tried in the early '80s to buy world rights to the Columbia name from EMI, by then not much used in the UK, but failed partly because EMI subsidiaries around the world each owned a piece of the name.

By the late '80s CBS was worried about its broadcasting and limping in the TV ratings; under another lawyer, Walter Yetnikoff (b 11 August 1933, Brooklyn; d 9 August 2011, Bridgeport CT), the record division had been spending huge amounts of money chasing an increasingly elusive pop business and was so badly run that by '87-90 it was being carried by a bubblegum group (New Kids On The Block had huge hits, then disappeared). Among Yetnikoff's misjudgements was talking Mick Jagger into solo albums which were relative flops and interfered with the work of the Rolling Stones, one of the world's biggest acts, then being distributed by Columbia; he managed to lose money on Paul McCartney, not only giving him $20m but the priceless Frank Loesser publishing catalogue. CBS got rid of Columbia, once one of the jewels in its crown; EMI bid for it, but Sony Music Entertainment (Columbia's outlet in Japan) took the prize for $2 billion in 1987, and subsequently bought the name back from EMI for the rest of the world, so that Columbia was once again a wholly-owned trademark and one of the biggest record labels in the world.

Yetnikoff had mentored young Michal Jackson's solo career, and eventually oversaw Thriller in '82, one of the best-selling albums of all time and one of Yetnikoff's few successes (but credit should go to the album's producer, Quincy Jones). For the fourth quarter of '87 (which included the Christmas season) what was still CBS records under Yetnikoff showed no profit at all. Sony finally got rid of the tone-deaf Yetnikoff in September 1990, who had wrecked his own relationships with Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, to say nothing of alienating almost everybody else in the music business. (Yetnikoff published a surprisingly revealing autobiography, Howling At The Moon 2004, written with David Ritz.) One-time popster turned artist manager Tommy Mottola (b 1951) moved up; the same year, Mottola's protégée Mariah Carey became the biggest-selling female artist of the new decade and Mottola soon became President of Sony Music. (She became his second wife; her memoir The Meaning of Maria Carey 2020 revealed what kind of marriage it was.) Sony also bid $3.4 billion for Columbia Pictures Entertainment '89, the fourth largest US film-maker (no previous connection with the record company or the network) which owned over 3,000 films and 2,600 TV shows, and $200m for the Guber-Peters entertainment company to run it (Peter Guber and Jon Peters were the producers of Batman). Already manufacturing the hardware, Sony aimed to become a complete entertainment comglomerate; but a few years later synergy was no longer a buzzword and most of the multinational record companies were struggling.

Columbia in New York was still autonomous and the pop division still chased junk; the CD reissue programme lagged behind others in quality, too much Cedarizing resulting in dull transfers of classic 78s and straight reissues of LPs having short playing times; the enormous catalogue of pre-stereo pop was ignored (e.g. no Percy Faith, despite the world-wide market for light music). But by 1996 pop/jazz reissues were improving and the label was in profit, though the pop schedule still depended on kiddie music. It wasn't until the 21st century that Columbia finally issued decent new transfers of classic pre-WWII tracks by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Count Basie; meanwhile, in the new century, Columbia's classical division, which had once had the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland and the Philadelphia symphony orchestras under contract, had virtually disappeared as far as new recording was concerned, and Peter Gelb, the executive who had presided over its decline, was named 2004 as the new general director of the New York Metropolitan Opera. The same year Sony and BMG merged, bringing the historic rivals Columbia and RCA Victor under one roof; and 80% of the western world's music was in the hands of four companies: Vivendi's Universal, Sony BMG, Warner and EMI.

In July 2005 Sony BMG Entertainment agreed to pay $10 million and to stop paying radio station employees to feature its artists, settling an investigation by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

In August 2008 Sony agreed to buy Bertelsmann AG's half of their Sony BMG Music Entertainment joint venture. The partnership agreement was due to expire in 2009, and each side had the right to bid for the other; Bertelsmann probably wanted out and Sony wanted to try again for synergy with its hardware and content divisions, this time at a bargain price, and this time both Columbia and RCA Victor will be wholly owned by Sony. But meanwhile the music business has changed utterly, forever: the multinational labels had not dealt with the digital revolution until too late and seemed to be losing control of their own industry. They were happy enough to sell compact discs for a decade or so, but were slow to see the implications: Napster, the iPod, iTunes and every other innovation caught the industry flatfooted. Steve Knopper's book, Appetite For Self-Destruction (2008), was a good summary of these problems.

On top of that, executives seemed to be hard to find: over at EMI, Matt Serletic, who produced hits for groups like Matchbox 20 but had never run a label, was hired in 2002 by EMI as chairman of its Virgin Records label, and had to be let go three years later. EMI soon went bankrupt. Sony appointed legendary producer Rick Rubin to run Columbia, and he produced hits, including a Metallica album in 2007 -- for Warner. If the usual power games were going on, Rubin simply didn't seem to want to play. He hired architects to design new offices in Los Angeles for the label’s staff; then the company’s West Coast offices were moved from Santa Monica to a building designed by I.M. Pei in Beverly Hills. Meanwhile, Rubin himself spent much of his time at home in Malibu. In February 2008 Sony made another unorthodox move when it named Amanda Ghost president of Epic Records; she is a singer and songwriter with little management experience, best known for writing 'You’re Beautiful', a hit song for Britain's James Blunt. Sales in the domestic industry shrank more than four billion dollars between 1999 and 2007, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.