Famous Record Labels: A Guide to the Major Labels
It’s common knowledge: the music industry isn’t what she used to be. Gone are the days of high-rollin’ record execs, giant advances for up-and-coming artists, and all powerful major labels. There’s still a lot to be said for the majors, though, in terms of the influence they exert, the resources they can provide for their signees, their name recognition, and — due to their sheer size and diverse holdings — the employment opportunities they offer for workers at any level in their career.
Whether you want to work at a major or you’re proudly DIY till you die, when you’re trying to build a career in the music business, it’s a good idea to be thoroughly educated on the ins and outs of the industry. That’s why we’re sharing this primer on the “Big Three” major record labels. It’s info you should know, whether you’re an artist or an aspiring A&R/Concert Promoter/Music Journalist/what-have-you, especially since the major labels count for around 80% of record sales. From Interns to Campus Rep jobs, thousands of people in all areas of the business have learned the ropes of the record biz thanks to work experience programs hosted by the majors. You might even be surprised by the diverse range of sublabels that fall under the umbrella of the majors. (Hint: many of your favorite indies get a little help from the big guys.)
What do we mean when we refer to a “major label”? To start with, a major is owned by a big international media group — in some cases, this media group is dedicated exclusively to entertainment offerings, in others, it could include entertainment companies alongside tech or energy companies. Although today we have the Big Three — Universal, Sony, and Warner — as the music industry has changed, these labels have acquired a few record companies previously referred to as majors that are basically now subsidiaries of the parent companies. From the late ‘80s to the late ‘90s, prior to the revolutions caused by pirating and then streaming, the industry was dominated by the Big Six: Warner Music, Sony Music, EMI, BMG, Universal Music, and Polygram. In 1998, Polygram was sold to Universal, leaving us with the Big Five. Then, in 2004, BMG formed a joint venture with Sony, narrowing the playing field down even further, with the majors being Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony BMG, and Universal Music Group. Eventually, BMG was wholly subsumed by the Sony. In 2012, EMI went up for sale and the remaining Big Three companies all got into the action; UMG absorbed most of EMI’s recorded music offerings, Sony took on EMI Music Publishing, and WMG snapped up former EMI subsidiaries Parlophone and EMI/Virgin Classics. Let’s take a look at today’s major players and what they’ve got going on.
Universal Music Group
The largest of the Big Three record companies, UMG traces its roots back to 1934, when the American branch of Decca Records was founded. The name Universal derives from the label’s early attachment to Universal Pictures. In 2004, the movie studio was acquired by General Electric and by 2006, the record label had been fully acquired by French corporation Vivendi. Universal’s current Chairman and CEO is Lucian Grainge, an industry rock star who has held the number one position on Billboard’s Power 100 list as the most powerful person in the music business for the years 2013, 2015, and 2016.
In recent years, artists affiliated with the label have included Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Carly Rae Jepsen, Arianna Grande and Maroon 5. ABBA, Johnny Cash, Bjork, Bob Marley, The Cure, Desiigner, Florence and the Machine, Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, Madonna, Taylor Swift, Queens of the Stone Age, and U2 are also affiliated with Universal and its various sublabels.
In the US, Universal owns or possesses a joint share in the following record labels: Interscope, Geffen, A&M, Capitol Music Group, Republic Records, Island Records, Def Jam Recordings, Caroline, Universal Music Group Nashville, Universal Music Latin Entertainment, the Verve Label Group, Universal Music Enterprises, and Eagle Rock Entertainment. Under each of these bigger labels are dozens of smaller labels, including (but definitely not limited to) Aftermath Entertainment, Blue Note Records, Motown Records, ANTI-, Decca Records, and Deutsche Grammophon. Of course, under the umbrella of the Universal name fall Universal Music France, Japan, Sweden, Australia, and many others.
“The thing that I’ve learned the most from the two or three people who I’ve respected the most is that music, A&R people—the people that create music, that can spark, identify . . . bring things that sell—that’s the king.” — Lucian Grainge,UMG
Considering UMG’s beginning as part of Universal Pictures, it’s fitting that the company has strong West Coast roots. UMG headquarters are located in Santa Monica, CA. Within the larger Los Angeles metropolitan area, Universal also has the Capitol Music Group, headquartered in Hollywood, Universal Music Latin Entertainment in Woodland Hills, and Universal Music Group Distribution in Universal City. Several labels owned by Universal are headquartered in New York City, as are much of the label’s marketing, finance, and IT departments. London, Berlin, Warsaw, Philadelphia, and Nashville also are home to major offices. Universal Music Group hasn’t recently released hard numbers on how many people are employed, but on LinkedIn they state the number ranges from 5,001-10,000. Job openings can be perused here.
Universal does not submit unsolicited demos, but they do have some decent and succinct advice on how to get your music into the hands of professionals who may have an in with UMG’s various labels on their Contact FAQ. This is a good place to find info on Spinnup, a UMG-owned site that offers digital distribution and has a network of A&R scouts affiliated with UMG labels.
The company that would become Sony was founded in 1929 as the American Record Corporation, renamed Columbia Recording Corporation in 1938, CBS Records in 1966, and Sony Music Entertainment in 1991 after its 1987 acquisition by the Sony Corporation. In 2004, Sony and German multinational corporation Bertelsmann joined forces to establish a 50-50 joint venture called Sony BMG Music Entertainment; although the group’s name later reverted to Sony Music Entertainment, the merger brought Arista, BMG, Ariola, and RCA Records into the fold. Sony is the second-largest member of the Big Three. The label’s CEO is British-born Rob Stringer, who assumed the position this year after serving as Chairman and CEO of the Columbia label, a Sony subsidiary.
Sony family labels’ recent success stories include Adele’s 25, David Bowie’s Blackstar, and Beyonce’s Lemonade, all occurring under Stringer’s watch at Columbia. Other major stars and interesting names on the larger Sony roster have included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Daft Punk, John Legend, Calvin Harris, Alicia Keys, Earl Sweatshirt, Ennio Morricone, Katy Perry, Kesha, MGMT, Outkast, Pitbull, Passion Pit, Pink Floyd, Future, DJ Khaled, Meghan Trainor, Paul McCartney, Rage Against the Machine, Skrillex, Slayer, Tori Amos, Tyler the Creator, Taylor Swift, and Johnny Cash. In addition to those previously mentioned, other labels that fall under the larger Sony umbrella include Epic, Provident Label Group, RED Distribution, Odd Future Records, and the Independent Online Distribution Alliance/The Orchard, which covers labels such as Relapse, Metal Blade, and Glassnote.
“Music isn’t a commodity. It’s not something that fills pipes. Songs by Led Zeppelin or Andra Day are unique works of art. Irreplaceable moments in culture, where only the real thing will do. Our industry is made up of two words. Music. Business. I’m good enough at the business side that I see it as my job to create an environment where the creatives can work their magic and the music can flourish.” — Stephen Cooper, Warner Music Group
Sony HQ is located on Madison Avenue in New York City. The company has offices and label branches in over forty countries, including Korea, the UK, Japan, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, and Taiwan. In the US, Sony Music Latin is based in Miami; Sony, Columbia, Arista, and RCA all have distinct country labels headquartered in Nashville; and Epic Records recently announced a move to the Los Angeles area, where they’re now located on the Sony Pictures Entertainment studio lot in Culver City. As of March 31, 2016, Sony Music employed 7,900 people. If you want to become 7,901, you can find their careers page here.
Sony does not accept unsolicited demos. (Noticing a pattern yet?) Like Universal, they recommend going through an established Music Attorney, Personal Manager, Record Producer, Music or Program Director, Agent, a label artist, or a tastemaker such as Music Blogger or Journalist.
Warner Music Group
The third largest company in the global music industry, Warner Music Group traces its roots back to 1929, when Warner Bros. Pictures president Jack Warner founded Music Publishers Holding Company to get the right price on music for his films. In 1958, Warner Bros. Records was founded to release film soundtracks and music by actors in the studio’s films. Five years later, Warner purchased Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records and the label kept growing. Today Warner Music Group is the parent company of Atlantic, Parlophone, and Warner Bros. Records. Under each of these labels are many smaller labels, including Elektra, Fueled by Ramen, Nonesuch, Sire, and Rhino. Warner also owns the Alternative Distribution Alliance, which handles full-service distribution for some of the biggest American indie labels, including Barsuk, Beggars Group, Domino, Epitaph, Fearless, Matador, Merge, Relapse, Rhymesayers, Saddle Creek, Sub Pop, and Vice. Warner/Chappell Music, a branch of WMG, is one of the largest music publishing companies in the world, representing artists such as Tove Lo, Jay-Z, Led Zeppelin, Rihanna, Beyonce, and Green Day.
WMG’s current CEO Stephen Cooper who, unlikes his peers at UMG and Sony, comes from a background in finance instead of entertainment. He assumed this position in 2011. Under his watch, WMG became the first major label to announce streaming had become its primary source of revenue, a major milestone in the industry. Artists affiliated with WMG at certain points over the course of their careers include Coldplay, Avenged Sevenfold, Bjork, the Black Keys, Bruno Mars, Johnny Cash (yes, again), David Bowie, Death Cab for Cutie, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Eat World, Mastodon, Missy Elliot, Morrissey, Nina Simone, Nine Inch Nails, Paramore, Prince, The Ramones, Skrillex, The Smiths, Tegan & Sara, and Weezer.
WMG is headquartered in New York but has a large Nashville office, a Latin music office in Miami, and a West Coast office in downtown Los Angeles. Warner Music International (fka WEA International) is the distributor and international copyright holder for label artists in territories outside the US; Warner Music International has divisions in the UK, Australia, Japan, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Mexico, South Africa, and throughout East Asia and Europe. Warner Music employs approximately 4,445 people. To find current job openings, check out their careers page.
You guessed it: Warner also will not accept your unsolicited demos! They recommend finding an industry professional to give the label a nod regarding your tunes; if this sounds like something you want to do, take a look at our contact lists for Attorneys and record label/A&R people.
Daily Music Career Info! Follow Us.
Jobs. Career Articles. Quality Blog Posts. School Info, & More.