< The Major Record Companies

The Major Record Companies

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A company was termed a major when it owned their own manufacturing plants and directly controlled their distribution outlets in addition to simply producing records. By this definition there were six major companies in the fifties: Columbia, RCA, Decca, Capitol, MGM and Mercury
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Columbia and RCA were the were the leaders and after 1950 and acted as the industry's spokesman. Columbia and RCA were far more powerful than the others because they had the backing of the Columbia Broadcasting System and the RCA Corporation of America behind them.

Columbia became the leading label in the early fifties. It was the most successful company in the pop field and stayed there until  the resurgence of RCA in the sixties. Not as strong as RCA in the classical field, but as the record audience changed from less elite, CBS's  pop orientation became a strong advantage. Their stars were France Laine,  Johnnie Ray, Jimmy Boyd, Guy Mitchell and assortment of woman singers that included Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day and Jill Stafford

Columbia Records
In 1938, ARC including the Columbia label was bought by William S. Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System for $750,000. Columbia Records had originally co-founded CBS in 1927 along with New York talent agent Arthur Judson, but soon cashed out of the partnership leaving only the name; Paley acquired the fledgling radio network in 1928. CBS revived the Columbia label in place of Brunswick and the Okeh label in place of Vocalion. CBS renamed the company Columbia Recording Corporation and retained control of all of ARC's past masters, but in a complicated move, the pre-1931 Brunswick and Vocalion masters, as well as trademarks of Brunswick and Vocalion, reverted to Warner Bros. (which had leased its whole recording operation to ARC in early 1932) and Warners sold it all to Decca Records in 1941.

During the 1940s Columbia had a contract with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra helped boost Columbia in revenue. Sinatra recorded over 200 songs with Columbia which include his most popular songs from his early years. Other popular artists on Columbia included Benny Goodman (signed from RCA Victor), Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford (both signed from Decca), Eddy Duchin, Ray Noble (both moved to Columbia from Brunswick), Kate Smith, Mildred Bailey, and Will Bradley.

In 1947, the company was renamed Columbia Records Inc.Columbia's 33 rpm format quickly spelled the death of the classical 78 rpm record and for the first time in nearly fifty years, gave Columbia a commanding lead over RCA Victor Red Seal.

Columbia became the most successful non-rock record company in the 1950s after it lured producer and bandleader Mitch Miller away from the Mercury label in 1950. Despite its many successes, Columbia remained largely uninvolved in the teenage rock'n'roll market until the mid-1960s, despite a handful of crossover hits, largely because of Miller's loathing of rock'n'roll. Miller quickly signed up Mercury's biggest artist at the time, Frankie Laine, and discovered several of the decade's biggest recording stars including Tony Bennett, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Boyd, Guy Mitchell , Johnnie Ray, The Four Lads, Rosemary Clooney, Ray Conniff, Jerry Vale and Johnny Mathis. He also oversaw many of the early singles by the label's top female recording star of the decade, Doris Day.

RCA  Victor Records
RCA like Columbia was willing to take chances in order to monopolizes the profit on new innovations, but wasn't as successful. The company spent so much money and energy developing and promoting the 45 rpm record in the late forties that it lost out to Columbia's LP in audience interest. By the end of 1953 RCA was doing well again with a series of pop hits. RCA had the resources that enabled them to bounced back from a series of wrong decisions. A prime example would be the buying of Elvis Presley's contract in 1955 in order to promote stable sales. It also had corporate ties with RCA's NBC television network to set up long term deals. Artist like Vaughn Monroe and Perry Como were given twenty-five year contracts with RCA-Victor and NBC.

Besides manufacturing records for themselves, RCA Victor operated RCA Custom which was the leading record manufacturer for independent record labels.

From 1942 to 1944, RCA Victor was seriously impacted by the American Federation of Musicians recording ban. Virtually all union musicians in the US and Canada were forbidden from making recordings during the period.

Besides manufacturing records for themselves, RCA Victor operated RCA Custom which was the leading record manufacturer for independent record labels.

RCA sold its interest in EMI in 1935, but EMI continued to distribute RCA Victor recordings in the UK and its territories on the HMV label until the late 1950s. RCA also manufactured and distributed HMV recordings on the RCA Victor and custom HMV labels in North America.[9]

From 1942 to 1944, RCA Victor was seriously impacted by the American Federation of Musicians recording ban. Virtually all union musicians in the US and Canada were forbidden from making recordings during the period.

In the spring of 1946, "RCA Victor" replaced "Victor" on labels for shellac 78 rpm singles. In 1949, RCA Victor introduced the 7-inch 45 rpm micro-grooved vinylite record, marketed simply as the "45". The new format, which had been under development for several years, was originally intended to replace 78 rpm discs. By the time RCA Victor belatedly unveiled it, the 45 was now competing with the 10-inch and 12-inch 33 rpm microgroove vinyl "LP" (Long Play) discs
introduced by arch-rival Columbia Records in the early summer of 1948. In heavy promotion, RCA Victor sold compact, inexpensive add-on and stand-alone units that played the 45 rpm format exclusively. The first 45 rpm record manufactured was "PeeWee the Piccolo"  pressed December 7, 1948 at the Sherman Avenue plant in Indianapolis.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
RCA Victor marketed the 45 as a direct replacement for 10-inch and 12-inch 78 rpm records, which typically played for about three and four minutes per side respectively. Thanks in large degree to RCA Victor's massive five million dollar advertising campaign, the 45 became the preferred speed for pop music singles, overtaking U.S. sales of the same material on 78s by 1954, but Columbia's LP prevailed as the format for classical music and convenient one-disc "album" collections of eight or more pop songs. RCA Victor finally bowed to the inevitable and announced its intention to issue LPs in January, 1950.

Decca Records
Decca was more loosely run under Milt Rachmil than RCA and Columbia were. It did not influence the industry much until 1954 with Bill Haley and His Comets and 1957 as the distributor for Buddy Holly records.

Decca Records is a British major record label established in 1929 by Edward Lewis. Its U.S. label was established in late 1934 by Lewis, along with American Decca's first president Jack Kapp and later American Decca president Milton Rackmil. In 1937, anticipating Nazi aggression leading to World War II, Lewis sold American Decca and the link between the UK and U.S. Decca labels was broken for several decades.

Decca throughout the 1930s and early to mid-1940s was a leading label of blues and jump music with such best selling artists as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Louis Jordan (who was the best selling R&B artist of the 1940s). In 1954, American Decca released "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & His Comets. Produced by Milt Gabler, the recording was initially only moderately successful, but when it was used as the theme song for the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, it became the first international rock and roll hit, and the first such recording to go to No. 1 on the American musical charts. Due to management and promotion decisions, Decca lost its place as a major hit label on the US R&B and Pop charts as Bill Haley's popularity started to fade, in the late 1950s. Decca's strong country catalogue did very well throughout this period and they had a number of crossover-to-pop hits, as well as the blockbuster success of Brenda Lee, but many R&B and rock music artists passed through Decca with little success (The Flamingos, Billy Ward and his Dominoes, Bobby Darin, The Shirelles, etc.)

In 1934, Jack Kapp established a country & western line for the new Decca label by signing Frank Luther, Sons of the Pioneers, Stuart Hamblen, The Ranch Boys, and other popular acts based in both New York and Los Angeles. Louisiana singer/composer Jimmie Davis began recording for Decca the same year, joined by western vocalists Jimmy Wakely and Roy Rogers in 1940. From the late 1940s on, the US arm of Decca had a sizeable roster of country artists,
including Kitty Wells, Johnny Wright, Moon Mullican, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, and Red Foley. The main architect of Decca's success in country music was Owen Bradley, who joined Decca in 1947 and was promoted to Vice-President and head of A&R for the Nashville operations in 1958. Decca quickly became the main rival of RCA Records as the top label for American country music.

As part of a licensing agreement with 4 Star Records, Patsy Cline joined the Decca roster in 1956 (after releasing three singles on Decca's Coral Records subsidiary, under the same agreement, beginning in 1955). While Cline's contract was held by 4 Star, the deal allowed Decca complete control of the recording sessions, including choice of Producer and musicians. However, it also restricted the choice of material available for Cline to record to only songs published by 4
Star. This proved to be a stipulation which hampered her career for several years. Between 1955 and 1960, Cline recorded one album and multiple singles under the agreement, but saw limited chart success and very little money. In 1960, she signed directly with Decca. No longer bound by the restrictions of the 4 Star agreement, Cline went on to achieve tremendous success on both the Country and Pop charts. She recorded two more albums, and released numerous singles, before her untimely death in a 1963 plane crash. A number of posthumous singles and albums appeared in the years following.

Capitol Records
Capitol  was the first new company after Decca to make an impact. Founded in 1942 by singer/songwriter Johnny Mercer, Glen Wallichs, owner of Wallichs Music City and songwriter/film producer Buddy de Sylva of Paramount Pictures.  It was originally incorporated in March 27, 1942, as Liberty Records. In May 1942, the application was amended to change the label's name to Capitol Records.

Its original investment of $10,000 was quickly made back by two hits Ella Mae Morse's "Cow Cow Boogie" and Mercer's "Strip Polka." Capitol grossed $195,000 in it's first six months. Capitol quickly branched out moving into country and rhythm and blues. They also recorded at different times Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Stan Kenton, Ferlin Huskey and Tex Ritter

By the mid-1950s, Capitol had become a huge label that concentrated on popular music. The label's roster included the Andrews Sisters, Ray Anthony, Shirley Bassey, June Christy, Tommy Duncan, Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Four Freshmen, the Four Knights, the Four Preps, Jane Froman, Judy Garland, Jackie Gleason, Andy Griffith, Dick Haymes, Harry James, the Kingston Trio, the Louvin Brothers, Dean Martin, Al Martino, Skeets McDonald, Louis Prima, Nelson Riddle, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, and Keely Smith.

Capitol began recording rock and roll acts such as The Jodimars and Gene Vincent. By 1955, they were the third or fourth largest company with sales of over $17 million

MGM Records
MGM Records was formed in Hollywood in 1946 as a division of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film company. Although it was intended to be an outlet for movie sound tracks it soon expanded into other types of music. MGM Records' first president Frank Walker discovered and signed Hank Williams who became the linchpin of MGM Records' country music operations. Hank Williams recorded eleven records for MGM that sold a million or more copies between 1949 and 1953. Other notable MGM artists of this genre included Conway Twitty, Marvin Rainwater, Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, and Roy Acuff.  

In the early 1950s, MGM Records was considered one of the "major" record companies (besides Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca/Coral, Capitol and Mercury) due to owning its own manufacturing facilities at Bloomfield, New Jersey. MGM also pressed records for for other companies, including Atlantic Records.

MGM moved successfully into the rock and roll era with many hit records by Connie Francis, Herman's Hermits, the Animals, the Cowsills, Lou Christie, the Osmonds, and Cub-subsidiary singer Jimmy Jones, whose hits were on MGM in the UK. Pre-rock pop singer Joni James and country singer Conway Twitty also scored hits on the rock and roll charts.

Mercury Records
The Mercury Recording Corporation was started in Chicago 1n 1947. The company was formed by Berle Adams, a manager and booking agent and Irving Green, the son of Al Green, a plastics maker who had started National Records to give himself a product to manufacture. Except for its size and that it owned a pressing plant, Mercury was more like the new independents. Mercury limited itself at first to polka and rhythm and blues.

They were a major force in jazz and blues, classical music, rock and roll, and country music recordings. Early in the label's history, Mercury opened two pressing plants, one in Chicago and the other in St. Louis, Missouri. With the use of automatic presses and providing 24-hour turnaround, they went into direct  competition with Columbia, Decca, Capitol and RCA Victor.

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In the forties the major record companies decided to abandon the black artists, race records and their black audience for the following reasons:

  1. They felt that Blacks disposable income was such they could not afford to buy many records
  2. The high overhead for talent scouts, who had little knowledge or expertise of black tastes.
  3. Racial bias.

The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots and Nat "King" Cole were exceptions as they had consistently shown an ability to appeal to whites.

This void would be filled by hundreds of small independent companies. The most important were New York's Atlantic Records, Chicago's Chess Records, Cincinnati's King Records, Los Angeles Specialty Records and Memphis' Sun Records.

It wouldn't be until the mid-fifties that the Majors would discover the error of their ways.

Founding,  Subsidiaries, Executives, Artists, etc

ASCAP and BMI

The  large publishing houses "Tin Pan Alley" allied   with ASCAP ( American Society of Composers and Publishers) in 1914. ASCAP's function was to institute and  administer the collection of a royalty each time a licensed song was played.  Most of  ASCAP's revenue originally came from sheet music, variety shows, dance band programs, etc. that aired on radio. However, this changed and radio stations became the largest income source when they began playing prerecorded music. The radio stations felt that they shouldn't have to pay.  It was felt their playing of the music amounted to free advertising that would generated larger sales. ASCAP also, chose not to license race (R&B) or hillbilly music (country.).

ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Publishers) was founded in 1914. ASCAP's function was to institute and  administer the collection of a royalty each time a licensed song was played.  Most of  ASCAP's revenue originally came from sheet music, variety shows, dance band programs, etc. that aired on radio. However, this changed and radio stations became the largest income source when they began playing prerecorded music. The radio stations felt that they shouldn't have to pay.  It was felt their playing of the music amounted to free advertising that would generated larger sales. ASCAP also, chose not to license race (R&B) or hillbilly music (country.).

Enter BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated). BMI was formed in 1940 as an alternative for radio broadcasters tried of ASCAP high fees charged for playing any song they licensed, which nearly all the popular songs were. BMI licensed rhythm and blues, country and eventually rock and roll.

ASCAP began demanding a 100% income increase from publishing fees in 1950. The radio  stations bulked and many completely banned ASCAP recordings. BMI now no longer had any competition and won by default. Eventually ASCAP settled for less than original fees and now found BMI  to a full fledged competitor that by the mid-fifties would have the lions share of popular recordings.

ASCAP was horrified at state of music and attempted to damage BMI. by accusing it and members of various illegalities of payola. They felt that the only reason that rock and roll had become a force to be reckoned with was because of payola. It was at ASCAP's urgings that the House Oversight Subcommittee held hearings to look into "payola."

By the end of decade differences were  negligible as ASCAP by necessity pursued and nurtured new material and BMI continued as it had been doing.

W.W.II and the Music Industry

The Big Bands died because of the following

  1. Bands were depleted as members entered the service.
  2. The American Federation of Musicians, headed by James C. Petrillo, went on strike July 31, 1942.
  3. Touring became impossible due to rationing of tires, gas, shellac and other materials.
  4. Wartime taxes caused many clubs to close.
  5. Large bands became impractical.
  6. Recording ban in 1942 and 1943 because of  the "threat" of juke box and pre-recorded radio
  7. Musicians wanting more independence

The result of the above was club owners put in tables and chairs, precipitating jazz's estrangement from popular audiences, and the music splintered into subgenera. Instrumental jazz evolved into a modern concert music you sat and listened to.

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