Top Three Major Pop Record Labels

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A record label is the brand name for a music release. Record labels are responsible for the manufacture, distribution and promotion of a particular recording. The major labels today are all three media conglomerates that operate a number of specific label imprints - the actual company logo stamped on the recording. Consolidations brought the number of major labels down from six in 1999 to three today. Major labels account for 69% of music sales by recent estimates.

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Universal Music Group

Universal Music Group logo
Courtesy Universal Music Group

Universal Music's history dates back to the 1930s when it was part of the Universal Pictures movie studio. Universal Pictures goes back even earlier to 1912. It is recognized as the oldest movie studio in the U.S. The Universal Music Group also has its roots in Decca Records US, founded in 1934, which was purchased by MCA Inc., a talent agency and TV production company, in 1962.

The full name Universal Music Group first appeared in 1996 when the MCA Music Entertainment Group was renamed Universal Music Group. Polygram was merged with the Universal Music Group in 1999. In 2006 the Universal Music Group became fully owned by the French corporation Vivendi. In 2012, the Universal Music Group completed the acquisition of EMI Recordings, formerly one of the big four labels. That purchase reduced the number of major record labels to three. The Parlophone Music Group portion of EMI was sold to the Warner Music Group in 2013. With the purchase of EMI, as of 2012 the Universal Music Group controlled nearly 40% of music sales.

In 2014, the Universal Music Group announced it was breaking apart the Island Def Jam Music group. Island Records and Def Jam once again became separate labels. Motown Records, formerly part of the Island Def Jam group, began operating as a subsidiary of Capitol Records. 

The Universal Music Group entered film and TV production in 2014 when they purchased Eagle Rock Entertainment. It is a production company that focuses on concert films and documentaries about musicians. The company's 2009 documentary about the Doors "When You're Strange" won a Grammy Award for Best Long Form Video. 

The Universal Music Group announced in 2017 that it would create three new TV series "27," "Melody Island," and "Mixtape." They also purchased the back catalogs of Stiff Records and ZTT Records from the group owned by pop music producer Trevor Horn. Those catalogs give the Universal Music Group rights to landmark new wave recordings by Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Art of Noise, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Grace Jones among others.

Individual labels in the Universal Music Group include:

  • A&M
  • Capitol
  • Cash Money
  • Decca
  • Def Jam
  • Geffen
  • Interscope
  • Island
  • Mercury
  • Motown
  • Republic
  • Verve

Key artists include:

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Sony Music Entertainment

Sony Music logo
Courtesy Sony Music

Sony Music Entertainment is an American corporation that is part of the Sony Corporation of America, a subsidiary of Japan-based Sony Corporation. The Sony Corporation was formed in Japan in the late 1940s and built Japan's first tape recorder. In 1958 the name Sony was adopted as a mix of the Latin word Sonus for sound and the American slang "Sonny."

The music label's roots go back to the American Record Corporation (ARC) founded in 1929. It was created when several smaller companies merged. In 1934, during the Great Depression, ARC purchased the Columbia Phonograph Company. It was a company founded in 1887 and is the oldest still operational brand name in recorded music

In 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) bought ARC. The Columbia Phonograph Company was once part of CBS in the 1920s, but they separated before ARC purchased the record label. The 1938 purchase brought them back together. Columbia soon became perhaps the most celebrated record label in history. Among the legendary record labels that operated under the Columbia umbrella were Epic, Mercury, and Clive Davis' Arista. 

The Sony Corporation of America bought CBS Records in 1987. The record company was renamed Sony Music Entertainment. In 2004 Sony created the joint Sony BMG Music Entertainment with the Bertelsmann Music Group. It brought the labels Columbia, Epic, and RCA under the same ownership. In 2008 the name returned to Sony Music Entertainment. In 2012 Sony Music Entertainment controlled just over 30% of music sales.

In 2017 Sony announced that they would begin producing vinyl records in-house for the first time since 1989. The move took place in recognition of the continued growth of vinyl sales and global revenue expected to reach $1 billion for 2017. Sony also announced the launch of a video game label called Unties.

Sony merged most of its independent record label distribution and marketing efforts, including their RED distribution network under a company called The Orchard in 2017. Among the imprints distributed through The Orchard are Cleopatra, Daptone, Blind Pig, and Sesame Street.

Individual labels in Sony Music Entertainment:

  • Columbia
  • Epic
  • RCA

Key artists include:

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Warner Music Group

Warner Music Group logo
Courtesy Warner Music Group

The Warner Music Group dates back to the founding of Warner Bros. Records as a division of the film company Warner Bros. Pictures in 1958. One of the movie studio's contracted actors Tab Hunter recorded a hit song "Young Love" for Dot Records in 1957. The label was a division of film rival Paramount Pictures. The film studio created Warner Bros. Records in 1958 to prevent any other actors from recording for rival studios. 

n 1963 Warner Bros. Records purchased Reprise Records which was founded by Frank Sinatra in 1960 to allow more creative freedom. Atlantic Records was purchased in 1967 making it the oldest label in the Warner family. In 1969 the Kinney National Company, which changed its name to Warner Communications, led the labels through a period of unprecedented success into the 1990s. Among other successful labels purchased during this time were Elektra Records and David Geffen's Asylum Records. The subisidary label Sire made Warner Communications a leader in punk and new wave music in the early 1980s.

A 1990 merger with Time Inc. created the conglomerate Time Warner, the largest media company in the world. In 2004 Time Warner sold the Warner Music Group to a group of investors. The Warner Music Group was sold to Access Industries in 2011. In 2012 the Warner Music Group controlled just under 20% of music sales. Through its ownership of Fueled By Ramen, Warner Music Group once again established itself as a major player in the punk and alternative music field.

In 2014, as part of a deal with independent record labels, the Warner Music Group sold over $200 million in the rights to back catalogs of recording artists. One of the most significant was the sale of the catalog of the celebrated band Radiohead to XL Recordings. They also sold the catalog of the Chrysalis Records label to Blue Raincoat Music, a company operated by Chrysalis co-founder Chris Wright.

In 2017, the Warner Music Group announced the relaunch of Asylum Records, one of its legendary labels. They first purchased Asylum from founder David Geffen in 1972. Among the artists on the label were the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne.

Individual labels in the Warner Music Group:

  • Atlantic
  • Elektra
  • Fueled By Ramen
  • Maverick
  • Nonesuch
  • Reprise
  • Rhino 
  • Warner Bros.

Key artists include: