Columbia Records is an American record label, owned by Sony Music Entertainment, and operates as an imprint of the Columbia/Epic Label Group. It was founded in 1888, evolving from an earlier enterprise, the American Graphophone Company — successor to the Volta Graphophone Company. Columbia is the oldest brand name in pre-recorded sound, being the first record company to produce pre-recorded records as opposed to blank cylinders. Columbia Records went on to release records by an array of notable singers, instrumentalists and groups. From 1961 to 1990, its recordings were released outside the U.S. and Canada on the CBS Records label before adopting the Columbia name in most of the world.
Until 1989, Columbia Records had no connection to Columbia Pictures, which used various other names for record labels they owned, including Colpix, and later Arista (rather it was connected to CBS - which stood for Columbia Broadcasting System, the former owner). That label is now a sister label to Columbia Records through Sony Music; both are connected to Columbia Pictures through Sony Corporation of America, worldwide parent of both the music and motion picture arms of Sony.
The Columbia Phonograph Company was originally the local company run by Edward Easton, distributing and selling Edison phonographs and phonograph cylinders in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Delaware, and derives its name from the District of Columbia, which was its headquarters. As was the custom of some of the regional phonograph companies, Columbia produced many commercial cylinder recordings of its own, and its catalogue of musical records in 1891 was 10 pages long. Columbia's ties to Edison and the North American Phonograph Company were severed in 1894 with the North American Phonograph Company's breakup, and thereafter sold only records and phonographs of its own manufacture. In 1902, Columbia introduced the "XP" record, a molded brown wax record, to use up old stock. Columbia introduced "black wax" records in 1903, and, according to Tim Gracyk, continued to mold brown waxes until 1904; the highest number known to Gracyk is 32601, Heinie, which is a duet by Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan. According to Gracyk, the molded brown waxes may have been sold to Sears for distribution (possibly under Sears' "Oxford" trademark for Columbia products).
Columbia began selling disc records and phonographs in addition to the cylinder system in 1901, preceded only by their "Toy Graphophone" of 1899, which used small, vertically-cut records. For a decade, Columbia competed with both the Edison Phonograph Company cylinders and the Victor Talking Machine Company disc records as one of the top three names in American recorded sound.
In order to add prestige to its early catalogue of artists, Columbia contracted a number of New York Metropolitan Opera stars to make recordings (from 1903 onwards). These stars included Marcella Sembrich, Lillian Nordica, Antonio Scotti and Edouard de Reszke, but the technical standard of their recordings were not considered to be as high as the results achieved with classical singers during the pre-World War One period by Victor, Edison, England's His Master's Voice or Italy's Fonotipia Records. In 1908, Columbia commenced the mass production of "Double Sided" discs, with the recording grooves stamped into both faces of each disc — not just one. The firm also introduced the internal-horn "Grafonola" to compete with the extremely popular "Victrola" sold by the rival Victor Talking Machine Company.
During this era, Columbia used the famous "Magic Notes" logo — a pair of sixteenth notes (semiquavers) in a circle — both in the United States and overseas (where this particular logo would never substantially change).
Columbia stopped recording and manufacturing wax cylinder records in 1908, after arranging to issue celluloid cylinder records made by the Indestructible Record Company of Albany, New York, as "Columbia Indestructible Records." In July 1912, Columbia decided to concentrate exclusively on disc records and stopped manufacturing cylinder phonographs although they continued selling Indestructible's cylinders under the Columbia name for a year or two more.
In late 1923, Columbia went into receivership. The company was bought by their English subsidiary, the Columbia Graphophone Company in 1925 and the label, record numbering system, and recording process changed (the "New Process" [still acoustic] was used on budget labels until 1930). See more at American Columbia single record cataloging systems. On February 25, 1925, Columbia began recording with the new electric recording process licensed from Western Electric. The new "Viva-tonal" records set a benchmark in tone and clarity unequalled on commercial discs during the "78-rpm" era. The first electrical recordings were made by Art Gillham, the popular "Whispering Pianist." In a secret agreement with Victor, both companies did not make the new recording technology public knowledge for some months, in order not to hurt sales of their existing acoustically recorded catalogue while a new electrically recorded catalogue was being built.
In 1926, Columbia acquired Okeh Records and its growing stable of jazz and blues artists including Louis Armstrong and Clarence Williams. (Columbia has already built an impressive catalog of blues and jazz artists including Bessie Smith). 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 in Johnson City, Tennessee including artists such as Clarence Horton Greene and the legendary fiddler and entertainer, "Fiddlin'" Charlie Bowman. 1929 saw industry legend Ben Selvin signing on as house bandleader and A. & R. director. Other favorites in the Viva-tonal era included Ruth Etting, Fletcher Henderson and Ted Lewis. Columbia kept using acoustic recording for "budget label" pop product well into 1929 on the Harmony, Velvet Tone (both general purpose labels) and Diva (sold exclusively at W.T. Grant stores). 1929 was also the year that Columbia's older rival and former affiliate Edison Records folded to make Columbia the oldest surviving record label.
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 their 33 1/3 "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 8 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 in Oakland, 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.
But 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. Yet, despite this, 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). 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.
Then, 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.
As southern gospel developed, Columbia had astutely sought to record the artists associated with that aspiring genre, being, for example, the first and only company to record Charles Davis Tillman. But 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, in a symbiotic relationship which continued into the 1970s. The Chuck Wagon Gang, a signature group of southern gospel, became Columbia's bestsellers, with at least 37 million records, 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).
In 1938 ARC, including the Columbia label in the USA, was bought by William S. Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System for US$750,000. (Columbia Records had originally co-founded CBS in 1927 along with New York talent agent Arthur Judson, but soon cashed out of the partnership leaving only the name; Paley acquired the fledgling radio network in 1928.) CBS revived the Columbia label in the place of Brunswick and the Okeh label in the place of Vocalion. CBS retained control of all of ARC's past masters, but in a complicated move, the pre-1931 Brunswick and Vocalion masters, as well as trademarks of Brunswick and Vocalion reverted back to Warner Brothers (who had leased their whole recording operation to ARC in early 1932) and Warners sold the lot to Decca Records in 1941.
The Columbia trademark from this point until the late 1950s was two overlapping circles with the Magic Notes in the left circle and a CBS microphone in the right circle. The Royal Blue labels now disappeared in favor of a deep red, which caused RCA Victor to claim infringement on its "Red Seal" trademark. (RCA lost the case.) The blue Columbia label was kept for its classical music Columbia Masterworks Records line until it was later changed to a green label before switching to a gray label in the late 1950s, and then to the bronze that is familiar to owners of its classical and Broadway albums. Columbia Phonograph Company of Canada did not survive the Great Depression, so CBS made a distribution deal with Sparton Records in 1939 to release Columbia records in Canada under the Columbia name.
During the 1940's Columbia had a contract with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra helped boost Columbia in revenue. Sinatra recorded over 200 songs with Columbia which include his most popular songs from his early years.
In 1947, CBS founded its Mexican record company, Discos Columbia de Mexico.