Columbia Records

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Columbia Records
Parent company Sony Music Entertainment
Founded 1887
Distributing label Sony Music Entertainment
Genre Various
Country of origin United States
Official website columbiarecords.com

Columbia Records is an American record label owned by Sony Music Entertainment. It was founded in 1887, after the American Graphophone Company closed its doors, which was the company that had replaced the Volta Graphophone Company. It is the oldest surviving name in the music industry, and was only the second company to start making recorded records.[1] Columbia Records went on to release music by lots of notable singers, instrumental performers, and bands. From 1961 to 1990, its music was released outside the United States and Canada by the CBS Records label before using the Columbia Records name internationally starting in 1990. It is one of Sony Music's three most important record labels along with RCA Records and Epic Records.

Until 1989, Columbia Records had nothing to do with to Columbia Pictures, which had used different names for record labels that they owned, including Colpix RecordsColgems RecordsBell Records and later Arista Records. It actually worked with CBS (which stood for the Columbia Broadcasting System) a broadcasting media company and was co-founded in 1927 by Columbia Records itself and bought the company in 1938. Though Arista Records was sold to BMG, Arista would later become a label that had started out like Columbia Records through its connection to Sony Music. Both Columbia Records and Columbia Pictures are now related to each other because of their ownership by Sony Corporation of America, the owner of both the music and motion picture companies of Sony in the United States.

The artists that have signed to Columbia Records include AdeleA R RahmanBarbra Streisand, BeyoncéBring Me the HorizonBruce SpringsteenCalvin HarrisCeline DionDaft PunkDavid GilmourEarl SweatshirtElectric Light OrchestraElla HendersonJames ArthurJ. ColeJuicy JLittle MixMadeonMKTOOne DirectionPassion PitPharrell WilliamsRachel Plattenthe NeighbourhoodThe ScriptT.I.Train, the casts of Fox's hit TV shows Glee and Empire and others. In 2012, Columbia Records became the label that had the most music played on adult contemporary radio in the US, and was ranked the #1 adult contemporary music centered label that year.[6]

History[change | change source]

Early days[change | change source]

The company was first founded as the Columbia Phonograph Company by Edward Easton (who lived from 1856 to 1915) of New Jersey and other people who had agreed to help provide money and resources for the company. Its name comes from the District of Columbia, where its headquarters was.[7][8] At first it had a strong grip of the sales of Edison phonographs and phonograph cylinders in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Delaware. As it was a tradition of some of the other phonograph companies in the United States, Columbia produced many cylinder recordings of its own, and its catalogue of music in 1891 was about 10 pages long.

Columbia broke up with Thomas Edison's phonograph company and the North American Phonograph Company because the North American Phongraph Companyplit up in 1894. After that, Columbia started selling only its own kinds of records and phonographs they had invented themselves. In 1902, Columbia introduced the "XP" record, a record made of molded brown wax, so they could sell its leftover items. Then, they introduced records made of black wax in 1903. Tim Gracyk said that they continued to make brown wax records until 1904, and he said the last brown wax record that they sold was #32,601, which was a copy of "Heinie", a duet by Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan. He also said the molded brown wax records may have been sold to Sears for them to sell instead (maybe under Sears' "Oxford" name for Columbia's products).[9]

Columbia started selling disc records and phonographs in addition to its cylinder system starting in 1901, which took the place of the "Toy Graphophone" from 1899, which used small, vertically cut records. For the next 10 years, Columbia competed with its rivals, the Edison Phonograph Company cylinder company and the Victor Talking Machine Company disc record company. It was a selling war between the top three names in American music at the time.

Columbia called a number of New York Metropolitan Opera singers to make music starting in 1903 so they could respect its line of artists more, which included Marcella SembrichLillian NordicaAntonio Scotti and Edouard de Reszke. But the technology they used to make their music wasn't thought by people to be as good as the technology that Victor, Edison, England's His Master's Voice of the Victor Talking Machine Company or Italy's Fonotipia Records had used with classical singers before World War II. After a failed attempt in 1904 to start making discs with the grooves of the record stamped into both sides of each disc in 1908, Columbia successfully started mass production of what they called their "Double-Faced" discs, the 10-inch kind initially selling for ¢65 each. They also introduced the inside-horn "Grafonola" to compete with the extremely popular "Victrola" sold by one of its rivals, the Victor Talking Machine Company. During this time, Columbia used the famous "Magic Notes" logo, which was a pair of sixteenth notes (semiquavers) in a circle—both in the United States and worldwide, where this particular logo would never substantially change.

Columbia stopped making wax cylinder records in 1908 in order to to start selling celluloid cylinder records that were made by the Indestructible Record Company of Albany, New York, which were sold as "Columbia Indestructible Records". In July 1912, Columbia decided to concentrate only on disc records and stopped making and selling cylinder phonographs, although they still kept selling Columbia Indestructible Records for a year or two more. Columbia was then split into two companies, one that would make the records and one to make record players. Columbia's phonograph company's headquarters were moved to Connecticut, and Ed Easton went with it, with said company eventually being renamed the Dictaphone Corporation.[7]

In late 1923, Columbia started being held by a reciever. The company was also bought by its division based in England the Columbia Graphophone Company in 1925. The label design, record numbering system and the recording process were also changed. On February 25, 1925, Columbia began recording music with its new electric recording procedure they were given permission to perform from Western Electric. The new "Viva-tonal" records set a new standard in tone and clarity which was unique on commercial discs during the "78-rpm" era. The first electrical recordings were made by Art Gillham, aka the "Whispering Pianist". In a secret agreement with Victor, neither company made the new recording technology public knowledge for some months, in order not to hurt sales of their existing acoustically recorded catalog while a new electrically recorded catalog was being compiled.

In 1926, Columbia acquired Okeh Records and its growing line of jazz and blues artists, including Louis Armstrong and Clarence Williams. Columbia had already built an impressive line of blues and jazz artists itself, which included Bessie Smith in their highly successful 14000-D Race series. Columbia also had a very successful "Hillbilly" series (15000-D). In 1928, Paul Whiteman, the nation's most popular orchestra leader, left Victor to record for Columbia. That same year, Columbia executive Frank Buckley Walker pioneered some of the first country music or "hillbilly" genre recordings with the Johnson City sessions in Tennessee, including artists such as Clarence Horton Greene and the legendary fiddler and entertainer, "Fiddlin'" Charlie Bowman. He followed that with a return to Tennessee the next year, as well as recording sessions in other cities of the South. 1929 saw industry legend Ben Selvin signing on as house bandleader and A. & R. director. Other favorites in the Viva-tonal era included Ruth EttingPaul WhitemanFletcher HendersonIpana Troubadours (a Sam Lanin group), Ben Selvin, and Ted Lewis. Columbia kept using acoustic recording for "budget label" pop product well into 1929 on the labels Harmony, Velvet Tone (both general purpose labels) and Diva (sold exclusively at W.T. Grant stores). 1929 was the year that Columbia's older rival and former affiliateEdison Records folded, leaving Columbia as the oldest surviving record label.

Ownership separation[change | change source]

In 1931, the British Columbia Graphophone Company (itself originally a subsidiary of American Columbia Records, then to become independent, actually went on to purchase its former parent, American Columbia, in late 1929) merged with the Gramophone Company to form Electric & Musical Industries Ltd. (EMI). EMI was forced to sell its American Columbia operations (because of anti-trust concerns) to the Grigsby-Grunow Company, makers of the Majestic Radio. But Majestic soon fell on hard times. An abortive attempt in 1932 (around the same time that Victor was experimenting with its 3313 "program transcriptions") was the "Longer Playing Record", a finer-grooved 10" 78 with 4:30 to 5:00 playing time per side. Columbia issued about eight of these (in the 18000-D series), as well as a short-lived series of double-grooved "Longer Playing Record"s on its Harmony, Clarion and Velvet Tone labels. All of these experiments (and indeed the Harmony, Velvet Tone and Clarion labels) were discontinued by mid-1932.

A longer-lived marketing ploy was the Columbia "Royal Blue Record," a brilliant blue laminated product with matching label. Royal Blue issues, made from late 1932 through 1935, are particularly popular with collectors for their rarity and musical interest. The C.P. MacGregor Company, an independent recording studio inOakland, California, did Columbia's pressings for sale west of the Rockies and continued using the Royal Blue material for these until about mid-1936. It was also used for their own radio-only music library.

With the Great Depression's tightened economic stranglehold on the country, in a day when the phonograph itself had become a passé luxury, nothing slowed Columbia's decline. It was still producing some of the most remarkable records of the day, especially on sessions produced by John Hammond and financed by EMI for overseas release. Grigsby-Grunow went under in 1934 and was forced to sell Columbia for a mere $70,000 to the American Record Corporation (ARC).[11] This combine already included Brunswick as its premium label so Columbia was relegated to slower sellers such as the Hawaiian music of Andy Iona, the Irving Mills stable of artists and songs and the still unknown Benny Goodman. By late 1936, pop releases were discontinued, leaving the label essentially defunct.

In 1935, Herbert M. Greenspon, an 18-year-old shipping clerk, led a committee to organize the first trade union shop at the main manufacturing factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Elected as president of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) local, Greenspon negotiated the first contract between factory workers and Columbia management. In a career with Columbia that lasted 30 years, Greenspon retired after achieving the position of executive vice president of the company. The former Columbia Records factory in Bridgeport (which closed in 1964)[12] has been converted into an apartment building called Columbia Towers.[13]

As southern gospel developed, Columbia had astutely sought to record the artists associated with that aspiring genre; for example, Columbia was the only company to record Charles Davis Tillman. Most fortuitously for Columbia in its Depression Era financial woes, in 1936 the company entered into an exclusive recording contract with the Chuck Wagon Gang, a symbiotic relationship which continued into the 1970s. A signature group of southern gospel, the Chuck Wagon Gang became Columbia's bestsellers with at least 37 million records,[14] many of them through the aegis of the Mull Singing Convention of the Air sponsored on radio (and later television) by southern gospel broadcaster J. Bazzel Mull (1914–2006).

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