Seven years later, Edison severed his ties with the company and started a new one that focused solely on the phonograph industry and his passion which was inventing. After 130 years Columbia is the oldest record label although their parent company is now Sony Entertainment.
Recording and playing back sound was one of our world’s greatest inventions but the trick was creating a market for it. Columbia had to record music that would be captivating enough to where people would want to buy a phonograph for their business or home. The phonographs initially cost over $100 dollars which would be around $2,900 in today’s dollars so not too many people could afford it.
People who owned phonographs were often entertaining in their homes because everyone was so astonished by the invention and had to hear it. This isn’t unlike the prestige that the first people who owned televisions had.
The price dropped in half after a little more than 10 years but it was still a huge expenditure for something that wasn’t a necessity. Keep in mind the mentality back then was way more about needs than wants so people didn’t do a lot of discretionary spending; my how things have changed.
By 1908, Columbia came out with a double-sided record that costs $.65 cents ($17 in today’s dollars). Their major problem was getting recording artists in that the masses would want to hear. They tried all kinds of music including opera but nothing was taking off. It took about 18 years before they started selling a good amount of records as Blues and Jazz became popular in large markets like Chicago and New York City.
Around 1930 they began recording a lot of country/folk/hillbilly music and it created a lot of excitement in the south, the problem was that southern states weren’t then or now, known as the place where the money is so less homes as a percentage had phonographs/record players.
They were in a unique situation because one division of Columbia Records sold phonographs and the other sold records. The record division’s success was tied to getting more record players sold so they put a lot of pressure on their counterparts in the production division to get the costs down which they eventually did.
Southern gospel music took off around the 30’s and Columbia pretty much owned the segment by proactively searching out all the best artists and signing them to their label. They remained “the” recording company for gospel musicians through the 1970’s but then good competition came in with record labels who only focused on the Gospel genre.
In the 1940’s, Columbia signed Frank Sinatra and he of course became a huge star. They also signed Doris Day, Johnny Cash, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, and Carl Perkins around this time so Columbia Records was a major success. They almost signed Elvis but his manager Colonel Tom Parker, blew the deal so he went to RCA Victor Records instead.
The 60’s brought Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel to Columbia Records along with several great bands from Britain (The Britain Invasion), like Paul Revere and the Raiders and The Byrds, so record sales kept soaring.
Their momentum kept building in the 70’s by signing mega-stars like: Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson, and the musical group Boston.
Things were going fantastic for Columbia then an ugly part of the industry reared its head. Companies began buying up a massive amount of radio stations and they used the leverage they created to demand money from music artists and record labels to play records on their radio stations.
One example of this taking place backfired on one of the radio station conglomerates when Pink Floyd and Columbia Records released the phenomenal hit: Another Brick in the Wall and the Los Angeles radio market hadn’t played the song on their radio stations because Columbia wouldn’t pay them money to do it. Even though they refused to play this hit record, Pink Floyd’s concerts were sold out in the LA area and they reached Number One on Billboard’s Top 100 for several weeks. This is when many radio listeners first found out about what some of these companies who owned radio stations were doing and they were livid.
In this case the network of stations in the Los Angeles market made fools of themselves because the record became a big hit without their help and fans began calling the stations forcing them to play it, but the ugly truth was that in most cases without support from the radio stations playing the songs, it’s hard to sell records.
A record industry analyst around this same time conducted research and said that what the radio stations were doing cost the music industry around $80 million dollars and that consumers would end up eating the costs. I naively thought radio stations just made money off of advertising, I had no idea there was this profitable revenue stream where they charged money to play records.
So pretty much the only reason certain investors thought it would be a real money-maker to buy radio stations is that they knew they could use their broad market leverage to squeeze record labels and recording artists for money. Seems shady to me but apparently it is legal.
I could write a book on Columbia Records so I need to wrap up. I love it when a company has this type of longevity. Columbia has been associated with some amazing artists beyond what I’ve already shared like: AC/DC, Adele, Aerosmith, The Bangles, Ray Charles, Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Alicia Keys, Miranda Lambert, John Legend, Barry Manilo, Queen, Willie Nelson, One Direction, Dolly Parton, One Republic, Katy Perry, Prince, Carly Simon, and Pharrell Williams. Wow!
They currently have around 85 recording artists which is far more than any other record label although there’s a lot of specializing taking place now so a smaller recording label might have fewer artists but offer greater focus and expertise in a particular genre of music. There’s no doubt that a lot of exceptional artists would have never been heard if it weren’t for smaller record labels taking a chance on them so we as listeners certainly benefit from these smaller players.