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The Primer - Know Your Label Part 2 - February 12, 2007

HitQuarters is proud to present an introductory who's who of the world's top record labels: Part 2: The Top Players

picture Following our introduction of the 'Big Four' - the giant conglomerates who dominate the global music market - we take a look on some of the record labels which emerged independently and from as far apart places as Jamaica and South Africa, and sooner or later were absorbed by the giants.

Interscope Records

Interscope Records is a major US record label based in Santa Monica, California. It is a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group.

Interscope Records was founded in 1990 as a small alternative label. Founders Jimmy Iovine, a successful producer, and Ted Field, were assisted in their venture by Atlantic Records, who provided both financial assistance and, in their subsidiary East West Records, an initial distributor. In return, Atlantic were given a 50% share of the fledgling label.

The modest enterprise quickly grew in prominence; the following year saw the label launch a string of successful releases and Warner Music Group purchase a 50% stake. 1991 also witnessed such influential acts as No Doubt, 2Pac and Nine Inch Nails added to their talent roster.

Nevertheless, despite its varied genre mix, it was with hip-hop that Interscope would become inextricably linked; firstly as a purveyor of critically-scorned ‘cookie-cutter’ mainstream hip-hop, and then, at the opposite extreme, as a key force in the rise of Death Row Records.

Suge Knight and Dr Dre founded Death Row Records in 1992, whilst Iovine provided financial assistance and arranged its distribution deal through Interscope. Death Row rapidly became a major force in the burgeoning – and massively controversial – Gangsta Rap genre, with hugely successful debut releases from Dr Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. As a result, Interscope’s power and influence soared.

Nevertheless, Interscope was not powerful enough to rise above the furore that its protégé soon sparked. Time Warner, keen to disassociate itself from the Gangsta Rap image that its subsidiary was seeing to promote, vetoed the next Death Row record, a June 1995 release by Tha Dogg Pound.

And then in late 1995 Warner sold its entire stake in the label to MCA Music Entertainment (later the Universal Music Group or UMG). The new owners were no more welcoming of Gangsta Rap and so too refused to distribute many of Interscope’s Death Row releases. These outlawed releases had to be released by alternative labels such as Island.

This period in the mid-90s also saw Interscope begin to venture more outside of its familiar hip hop bracket, a direction that it would continue to follow and lead to them enjoying success with artists from a wide range of genres.

Death Row began to break apart in 1996 following the death of Tupac Shakur, the departure of Dr Dre and the incarceration of boss Suge Knight. In August of 1997, pressure from UMG finally forced Interscope to sell off its entire share in the label.

After UMG acquired PolyGram in 1998, it then merged Geffen Records and A&M Records together into Interscope, thereby creating one of its most powerful and formidable units.

In 2005, Interscope launched a new imprint, Cherrytree Records, for emerging artists.

Arista Records/J Records

J Records and Arista Records are two US record labels that operate under the banner of the RCA Records Group as part of Sony BMG Music Entertainment.

In 1974, after being fired as the president of CBS Records, Columbia Pictures offered Clive Jay Davis the presidency of their record division, Bell Records. As an enticement, Columbia offered Davis a 50% stake in the record company. 1975 saw the birth of Arista Records when Davis renamed the label after his New York City secondary school honour society.

The label made an immediate impact with a number-one hit from Barry Manilow and would continue its ascent through into the ‘80s, peaking with the record-breaking debut of Whitney Houston in 1985.

In 1979, a financially troubled Columbia Pictures was forced to sell Arista to German-based Ariola Records.

In 1986, Arista’s parent company Ariola purchased General Electric’s RCA Records and subsequently renamed itself the Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG).

In 1989, Arista entered into a joint venture with Antonio ‘L.A.’ Reid and Babyface to create LaFace Records, a label it would later take over completely. Four years later Arista joined forces with Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs to create Bad Boy Records.

Arista’s track record was tarnished in the early 1990s by the Milli Vanilli scandal, when the massive multiple platinum selling, Grammy-award winning act were discovered to have not sung on their records.

As Arista celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2000, president and CEO Clive Davis was ousted from his perch by BMG - allegedly because of disagreements over their retirement plan - and replaced by L.A. Reid.

As recompense, Davis accepted a deal from BMG that gave him a 50% stake in a new independent label. J Records (J after Davis’ middle name) was founded in October, and with several key Arista artists onboard, a backroom staff of top Arista executives and BMG providing distribution and a reported $150 million investment, it was no average record company start-up.

In 2002 BMG bought a majority stake in J Records, and then shifted its operations into the RCA Records Group, before appointing Davis as the president and CEO of the group.

Meanwhile, under the supervision of Reid, Arista continued to prosper. Nevertheless, BMG thought Reid’s excessive spending to be enough of an issue to dismiss him during their corporate reconstruction of 2004.

The move led to the label being demoted to operate under the banner of the new RCA Records Group, and therefore back under the control of the excised Clive Davis.

In August 2005 the operations of J Records were merged with those of Arista, although their individual imprints have been retained.

Def Jam Recordings

Def Jam Recordings is a US based hip-hop record label. It currently operates under the banner of the Island Def Jam Music Group as part of the Universal Music Group.

Def Jam was officially founded in New York in 1984 when aspiring producer Rick Rubin and concert promoter/artist manager Russell Simmons issued LL Cool J’s ‘I Need A Beat’. The success of this and singles by the Beastie Boys led to a distribution deal with Columbia/CBS records the following year.

Simmons and Rubin’s pioneering years together came to an end in 1988, when disagreements about label direction led to a power struggle that Rubin lost.

The result was that Def Jam stayed in the hands of Simmons, with Lyor Cohen - Simmons right-hand man in his Rush Communications corporation - becoming label president, and Rick Rubin leaving for Los Angeles to found Def American.

Meanwhile CBS Records was sold to electronics giant Sony - which evolved into Sony Music Entertainment in 1991 - who thereby inherited a 50% stake in Def Jam.

Cohen ushered in a new era for Def Jam in the ‘90s, by expanding their artist roster into other musical genres. Nevertheless despite recent multi-platinum success with artists such as Public Enemy and LL Cool J, Def Jam found itself in financial crisis and close to ruin. In 1994, its saviour appeared in the guise of PolyGram, when they purchased Sony’s stake in Def Jam.

Under the supervision of PolyGram - who meanwhile increased their ownership of the label to 60% - a revived Def Jam released a string of major successes, which included artists Warren G and Foxy Brown.

They followed this with the announcement of a new hugely profitable distribution deal with Jay Z and Damon Dash’s Roc-A-Fella Records, who with their central star Jay Z would take Def Jam to unparalleled heights as the century drew to a close.

In 1998 PolyGram was bought out by Seagram, who then absorbed it into its Universal Music Group and in so doing created the largest music label in the world.

The following year Universal Music Group purchased the remaining holdings in Def Jam - with Simmons selling his stake for a reported $100 million - before merging it with Island Records to form The Island Def Jam Music Group. Despite the collective title, Island and Def Jam continued their operations independent from one another.

Roc-A-Fella Records was sold to Def Jam by Dash, Burke and Jay-Z in 2004, upon the latter’s step down from the label.

Island Records

Island Records is a record label currently operating in the US under the Island Def Jam Music Group banner as part of the Universal Music Group.

Island Records was founded in Jamaica in 1959 by producer Chris Blackwell and Graeme Goodall with an initial investment of $1000. In May 1962, after two albums and 26 singles of popular Jamaican music issued with the Island imprint, Blackwell moved his operations to the UK.

Although Island found almost immediate success with the niche market of Jamaican music in Britain, the ‘60s saw the label slowly branch out into rock music.

In 1971 Blackwell signed Bob Marley to Island, a move which effectively turned the reggae talent into a superstar icon and the label into the most widely recognised reggae label in the world.

Island's overseas licensing arrangements often meant that whilst Island was marketed as the primary label, with Island's label designs appearing prominently on the discs, a different company was actually responsible for the records' manufacture, distribution and marketing.

The late 1970s and early ‘80s saw the company facing financial hardship, a situation neither helped by the death of label figurehead Bob Marley in 1981 nor by Blackwell’s decision in 1983 to fund a new film production and distribution company, Island Alive, using the label assets.

By the mid-80s, Blackwell was forced to accept a loan from recent Island-successes U2 in order to help keep the company afloat.

In July 1989, Blackwell sold Island Records and Island Music to PolyGram UK Group for a reported £272 million. Island’s reign as the world’s biggest independent record label was over. Nevertheless PolyGram continued to market the Island brand, and Blackwell stayed on as CEO of PolyGram's Island Entertainment division.

PolyGram’s acquisition of Island prompted a massive programme of CD reissuing of its catalogue, and overhaul of its worldwide manufacture and distribution network, but also led to an unremarkable decade of contemporary music operations.

In November 1997 Blackwell resigned from Island Entertainment and went on to found Palm Pictures the following year.

In December 1998, Seagram purchased PolyGram and merged it into Universal Music Group.

In late 1998/early ‘99, Universal Music Group put the Island brand in the charge of three divisions; Island Mercury Group in the UK, Island Mercury Label group in Germany and in the US, Mercury dissolved, and Island and Def Jam Recordings merged to become the Island Def Jam Music Group.

In 2002, Island Mercury Group became Island Records Group.

Jive Records

Jive Records is a US record label operating under the banner of the Zomba Music Group, as part of Sony BMG.

The roots of Jive Records can be traced back to South Africa in 1971, when local musicians Clive Calder and Ralph Simon formed a new business to release records, promote concerts, and publish music. In 1975 the pair took their operations to London, where they named their company Zomba.

In 1978 the company expanded its reach to New York City, and three years later Zomba formed the record label, Jive - named after the African style of music called ‘township jive’.

During this period the company had its first hits with singer Billy Ocean, synth-poppers A Flock of Seagulls, and early rappers Whodini.

Up until 1987 distribution was handled by Arista Records, but the founding of BMG prompted the switch in Jive’s distribution to RCA Records. The then head of Arista, Clive Davis, was strongly opposed to rap music, but now outside of Arista’s authority, Jive was free to develop strong ties to the hip-hop community.

For the next ten years Jive became known as a pioneering label first for pop-rap and then for lesser known cult rap artists, crafting a legacy second only to Def Jam. The label was respected for its open-minded attitude to its stable of artists, allowing them complete creative control of their projects.

The start of the 1990s saw EMI’s attempt to buy Jive fail, and Simon sell his share of Zomba to Calder, after the pair fell out.

In autumn 1996, Zomba sold BMG a minority 20% stake in its record division, which included Jive along with Silvertone and others.

As the millennium drew to a close Jive’s successes mushroomed when it became the era-defining record label in US mainstream music, pivotal in bringing the teen pop revolution to North America, Europe and Asia.

Jive was the home of three of world’s highest grossing acts- Britney Spears, N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys. In 2001 Jive reaped an estimated $300 million in profits on $1 billion in sales, making it the world’s largest independent label.

This reign ended on June 11, 2002, when Calder finally sold BMG complete control of Zomba for an estimated $1.8 billion. The following year saw Jive, along with So So Def and LaFace Records, absorbed into the new Zomba Music Group.

The 2004 Sony BMG merger meant that Zomba and Jive became part of Sony BMG Music Entertainment.

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Next week: Interview with Jeff Fenster

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