Whatever the culture, whatever the society, wherever there are people, there is music.
Throughout most of history, music could only be heard by those immediately around the musician. Music was a live, transient art form.Then, just before the turn of the nineteenth century, everything changed…….
In 1887, Emile Berliner, invented his ‘Gramophone’ method of recording and reproducing sound using discs, a process that would revolutionise the way music was heard and experienced. EMI’s history starts at one of the companies that Berliner formed: The Gramophone Company in London. Established in 1897, it took the lead in bringing together the new sound recording machines and musicians.
Initially, the medium was largely shunned by established stars, as many saw it as something of a gimmick. The Gramophone Company however realised that these artists were the key to introducing recorded music to wider audiences. Through forging relationships with these stars, within a few years its roster of artists included Adelina Patti, Nellie Melba and, perhaps most significantly, the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Over the course of his career, The Gramophone Company released some 240 Caruso records, and his substantial sales and resultant fame around the world – not to mention his significant royalty earnings – persuaded many other artists to embrace the new technology.
The Gramophone Company was internationally-minded right from the start. Within a year of being formed, subsidiaries were established across much of Europe and just a few years later the company was operating across Europe, Russia and the Middle East as well as in Australia, India, China and parts of Africa. By 1906, less than 10 years after starting up, over 60 per cent of the company’s revenues came from outside the UK.
The Gramophone Company wasn’t the only music company formed in London in 1897. In the same year The Columbia Phonograph Company, EMI’s other genealogical thread, opened for business. Established by the American Columbia Phonograph Company General, Columbia traded in cylinder records and the ‘graphophones’ that played them. For the first few years of the music industry these cylinders outsold Berliner’s flat gramophone records before the tide began to turn in favour of discs towards the end of the century’s first decade. Columbia too expanded rapidly oversees, doing business across Europe and in Egypt by 1903.
By 1914 The Gramophone Company was selling nearly four million records a year, but the outbreak of the First World War that year caused serious disruption to its Columbia’s business as their factories were largely turned over to the manufacture of munitions. By the end of the war The Gramophone Company had lost its sizeable German business and was unable to regain control of it (it is still operating today as the classical label Deutsche Grammophon). The company had also lost all of its operations in Russia due to the war and the Russian Revolution.
By the 1920s, the music industry was back on track and was soon booming as consumers bought more and more music. Columbia had recording contracts with some of the top conductors of the day including Sir Thomas Beecham, whilst over at The Gramophone Company, their leading artist of the time was the British composer and conductor Sir Edward Elgar. The company also produced recordings from the great orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.
In 1926, The Gramophone Company released its first million seller: O For The Wings of a Dove from Mendelssohn’s Hear My Prayer, sung by 14-year-old Ernest Lough on the HMV label.
During the decade, Columbia expanded through a number of acquisitions of record companies in Europe, including Odeon in Germany, Pathe in France and, in 1926, the Parlophone label in London, which had a roster of classical artists including one of the leading tenors of the time, Richard Tauber, and which today is still one of EMI’s most important labels.
The technology of recording and producing records was also improving. During the mid-1920s the Gramophone Company began releasing double-sided discs and in 1926 electrical recording was introduced with consequent dramatic improvements in quality.
Everything was on a steady upward curve for the Gramophone Company and Columbia until the 1930s when the Great Depression hit. Before the decade was out, sales of records had plummeted by over 80%. In response to this new business climate, in 1931 The Gramophone Company and The Columbia Graphophone Company agreed to a merger. The new company was called Electric and Musical Industries, or EMI as it became known.
Both The Gramophone Company and Columbia had their own research and development departments, and not long after the formation of EMI, Alan Blumlein, a remarkable EMI scientist who had joined the company from Columbia, developed the world’s first system for recording and playing stereo sound, although given the depressed nature of the market, stereo recordings would not be widely commercially available for another 25 years. As well as stereo technology, under the genius of Blumlein the EMI labs also gave birth to electrical television (allowing the UK to be the first country in the world to launch a public television service) and radar, which would be of great benefit to the Allied effort during World War II.
After the end of the war, further technological developments were introduced into the industry. For the first time magnetic tape recorders became available for studios, allowing artists to perform several takes of any given song instead of having to make the recording all in one go as before. Tape also made live performances outside the studio much easier to record. EMI’s research labs were very involved in the development of tape and the company started designing and selling its own models.
Another key development came in 1948 when the first vinyl 33rpm LP was released in the US. Together with the new 45rpm singles, these formats were cheaper, lighter and more durable than the old 78rpm shellac records. An LP could also hold 25 minutes of music on each side, much more than a 78. Both were instantly popular and dramatically expanded the market for music.
At this time, EMI was the licensee for the major record companies RCA Victor and Columbia Records (the US-based descendant of the original parent company of Columbia Graphophone) outside of North and South America. Among the artists on RCA was a young singer from Mississippi called Elvis Presley. His first records outside the Americas, starting with Heartbreak Hotel in 1956, were released by EMI on its HMV Pop label. Over the next two years EMI released a dozen or so of the first Elvis hits including Blue Suede Shoes, Love Me Tender, Hound Dog and his first UK number one, All Shook Up. However the license agreement between EMI and RCA ended in 1957 when RCA established its own office in London.
Columbia had similarly decided to self-market its releases itself internationally and ended its agreement with EMI in 1952. Together Columbia and RCA supplied most of EMI’s US music, so in response EMI went looking for American artists of its own. In 1955 it bought one of the largest US record companies, Capitol Records. Capitol, based on the West Coast of America, had an impressive roster of artists including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Les Paul and Gene Vincent.
As well as developing its roster of American artists, EMI increased its investment in UK talent such that within a decade EMI releases accounted for about 40 per cent of the UK pop music chart. Artists signed to EMI in the 1950s included Adam Faith Shirley Bassey, Frankie Vaughan, Max Bygraves and Alma Cogan, all of whom enjoyed considerable success and were leaders of a British pop explosion. And there was the most successful of them all, Cliff Richard. After his first record, Move It, was released by EMI in 1958, Cliff Richard would go on to become one of the most successful and enduring artists in British pop music.
If the 1950s saw British pop music grow, in the 1960s it exploded. And EMI was right at the forefront, not least due to a new band that had just signed to the company’s Parlophone label.
Although The Beatles first single, Love Me Do, only reached number 17 in the UK charts, it didn’t take British record buyers long to realise what they were missing. The follow-up, Please, Please Me, went to number two and the world of popular music has never been the same since. Before the year was out The Beatles released From Me To You, She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand. All three went to number one – the first of their 17 UK number ones. In addition to The Beatles, Epstein also brought other ‘Merseybeaters’, including Gerry and the Pacemakers and Cilla Black to EMI. In one year, 1963, EMI releases accounted for 15 out of the 19 number one singles. The following year eight EMI artists held the number one position in the British singles chart for a total of 41 weeks.
This success was also mirrored in the US, where in addition to Capitol Records signing The Beach Boys, EMI concluded a license deal with Tamla Motown. The company’s roster during the 1960s and 1970s was simply incredible – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson Five, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, the list goes on. By the 1970s, EMI could rely on two out of every three Motown releases being a hit, an unheard of success ratio in the music business.
EMI had always been a very international company with offices all over the world, but it had mostly been the company’s classical records that had sold overseas. The huge explosion in pop music led by The Beatles and the other British (mostly EMI-signed) bands who followed in their wake changed all that and gave the company an unprecedented global outlook.
In the late 1960s, a new kind of music began to emerge – ‘progressive’ rock. EMI established ‘Harvest’, a dedicated label to cater specifically for this more left field style of music. By the early 1970s their roster included Deep Purple and The Pink Floyd. The year before Pink Floyd’s seminal Dark Side of the Moon, EMI signed their first deal with Queen. With their intricately written songs and Mercury’s outrageous flamboyance, Queen sold millions of records and firmly established a reputation as one of the best live acts in the world.
On the business side, the 1970s saw EMI acquire the cream of UK music publishing. The company already had a small publishing operation called Ardmore and Beechwood which began expanding with the acquisition of the Keith Prowse and Central Songs catalogues in 1969 and the Affiliated Music Publishers group in 1973. Renamed EMI Music Publishing in 1974, the division expanded further in 1976 with the purchase of the Screen Gems and Colgems libraries from Hollywood studio Columbia Pictures, giving EMI a major presence in film music.
In 1979, US record label Liberty/United Artists was acquired by EMI. The company included the storied Blue Note Records. From its unrivalled roster to its photography and design, Blue Note is a musical icon. Established in 1939, the Blue Note catalogue includes jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
By the start of the 1980s, the record industry was suffering from a severe sales decline. Together with the end of the disco phenomenon, this left the field wide open for new genres to emerge.
One of the first heavy metal bands to make an impression on the charts was the EMI-signed London five-piece Iron Maiden. Over twenty years later, the band are still recording for EMI, still tour relentlessly, and are leading a new generation of rockers all over the world. Other genres of music emerging at this time were electronic and sample-based, such as house and techno and hip-hop. Arguably the most influential band for all these is Kraftwerk, who began experimenting with computers and electronic music in the 1970s. Other successful artists for EMI at the start of the 1980s included Kate Bush and Duran Duran.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a period of huge change for EMI. Having released its first recordings on the new CD format in 1983, the silver shiny discs accounted for the majority of albums sold by EMI by the 1990s.
Around this time EMI also embarked on a series of business deals that would transform the company. In 1989 SBK Entertainment World, a music publishing company whose catalogue included Singin’ In The Rain, Wizard of Oz and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, was acquired, making EMI Music Publishing the undisputed world leader. In the same year, EMI acquired a 50% stake in Chrysalis Records. Formed in 1969, Chrysalis Records was the company behind artists ranging from Jethro Tull to Blondie. Then in 1990 EMI Music Publishing was expanded again with the acquisition of the Filmtrax catalogue which further extended EMI’s leadership in music publishing, and the following year EMI bought the remaining 50% of Chrysalis Records, taking full ownership of the label.
1992 was a year of huge change for EMI as it was in this year that the company bought the Virgin Music Group, at the time the largest independent music company in the world with a roster of artists that included the Rolling Stones. This series of deals in the 1990s completely transformed and re-energised EMI, and the company headed into the decade with new momentum.
There were a number of key signings as many of today’s best known artists, including Radiohead and Blur, started their careers. From Cliff Richard onwards, EMI has been the home to the UK’s top music stars, a tradition that has continued over the last decade with the most successful British pop band, the Spice Girls, and the country’s biggest male artist, Robbie Williams.
EMI continued to grow and bring successful companies and entrepreneurs into the Group. In 1996, 50% of the Jobete music publishing catalogue, which was established by Motown founder Berry Gordy and includes over 15,000 classic Motown songs, was acquired. EMI purchased the remaining stake in 2003 and 2004. EMI Music Publishing expanded further in 1999 with the acquisition of 40,000 song copyrights from the Windswept Pacific catalogue and a majority stake in UK publisher Hit & Run.
Given that the roots of EMI stretch right back to the very start of recorded sound and that the company invented stereo recording, it’s hardly surprising that EMI has stayed at the forefront of technological change in the industry. EMI’s first websites went live in 1993 and 1994 and EMI was the first company to release a digital album download, David Bowie’s Hours, back in 1999. EMI also launched the first internet video single, Lenny Kravitz’s Dig In in 2001 and in 2002 was the first major music company to make new music available digitally at the same time as it is on the radio.