There are thousands of record labels around the world putting out music every day – too many to keep track of.
Big or small, record labels are an important part of the music industry’s ecosystem.
They fund recordings, market them, distribute them, develop artists and disseminate music.
Most labels are small operations putting out local releases.
That’s not to say that they are unsuccessful – these little labels can have surprising clout, especially here in 2019.
As you move up the ladder of independent labels, you’ll find that most of the independent labels are either distributed or owned at least in part by just three labels.
Many artists end up signed to either one of the three major labels or a subsidiary.
For example, you could be signed to Sony, but you could also be signed to Columbia Records, which is a subsidiary of Sony.
In this guide, I want to give a quick overview of the major labels.
That means starting off with “The Big Three” – three labels that make up almost 80% of the music market.
I’ll also cover a few other labels that are big enough to be called major labels.
Let’s start with the big three.
The Big Three Major Record Labels
The Big Three are what’s left of what used to be a larger group of major labels.
Things have changed a lot in the music industry in the preceding 25 years or so because of the internet.
Let’s get into it.
Universal Music Group
Their history dates back to the 1930s, when they were a part of Universal Pictures movie studio, which itself dates back to 1912.
Universal Music Group acquired EMI in 2012, and The Big Four became The Big Three.
Universal Music Group now controls around 40% of music sales.
Yes, 40% of all music sales.
Universal Music Group owns many massive labels that you’ll almost certainly know.
A&M, Capitol, Cash Mondy, Decca, Def Jam, Interscope, Island, Mercury, Motown, Republic and many more.
They distribute hundreds of independent labels as well.
Universal has ties with too many major artists to mention, but Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Lady Gaga are among them.
Sony Music Entertainment
Sony Music Entertainment is an old and storied company.
They are an American Corporation that is a subsidiary of the Japanese Sony Corporation.
But the label’s roots are not in Japan.
They go back to the ARC, the American Recording Company, who purchased the Columbia Phonograph Company during the Great Depression.
Columbia quickly became one of the most celebrated labels in history, and had legendary labels such as Epic, Mercury and Arista operating under it.
The company was only renamed Sony Music Entertainment in 1987 when it was bought by the Sony Corporation of America.
Columbia, Epic, RCA and all of the other labels under CBS were bought to Sony.
In 2012, Sony controls around 30% of music sales.
Sony is also known for their video game label, their vinyl production and their massive distribution operation.
Sony’s distribution network is run by The Orchard.
They distribute labels big and small and put out everything from BTS (the Korean boy-band) to the Raconteurs.
Again, Sony has too many legendary artists to mention, but here’s a small sample:
Kelly Clarkson, Shakira, Ricky Martin, Britney Spears, Bruce Springsteen and Barbara Streisand.
Warner Music Group
Warner Music Group, like Universal, dates backs to the founding of a film company – Warner Bros. Pictures.
The label was apparently founded when one of Warner Bros. contracted actors Tab Hunter recorded the hit song “Young Love” for Dot Records.
Dot Records was owned by the Warner Bros. rival, Paramount Pictures.
So, Warner Bros. Records was created to prevent other actors from working for rival studios.
The label grew throughout the 50s and 60s, buying Reprise Records (Frank Sinatra’s label) and the legendary Atlantic Records in the process.
In 1990, Warner Bros. Music merged with Time Inc. to create Time Warner, the largest media company in the world.
In 2004, Time Warner sold the music portion of the company, Warner Music Group, to a group of investors.
In 2011, Warner Music Group was sold to Access Industries.
Although Warner appeared to be struggling for a while, it owned several successful labels releasing punk and alternative music, such as Fueled By Ramen.
It has since established itself as a major player, owning around 20% of music sales around the world.
Some of the legendary labels that operate under the Warner Music Group umbrella include Atlantic, Elektra, Asylum, Nonesuch, Fueled by Ramen and Elektra.
Warner is home to some of the world’s biggest acts: Michael Buble, Coldplay, Madonna, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran and many more.
Other Major Record Labels
There are many massive and influential labels that aren’t one of the big three, but most of them are owned by Universal, Sony or Warner.
We aren’t covering independent labels in this guide, so I’ll focus on a few of the other major labels you may have heard about or are wondering about.
Virgin Records is a British label founded by business magnate Richard Branson, Simon Draper, Nik Powell and Tom Newman in 1972.
Over time, the label grew into a worldwide phenomenon, releasing music by some of the world’s most popular artists.
George Michael, Janet Jackson, Roy Orbison, Devo, Genesis, Lenny Kravitz, Gorillaz and the Spice Girls were some of Virgin’s main exports.
Virgin was also on the mainstream of punk during the punk rock era.
They signed The Sex Pistols after they had been dropped by EMI and A&M, and then became a new-wave outpost.
As you might expect, Virgin Records was acquired by EMI, and then acquired by Universal Music Group when they bought EMI in 2012.
Atlantic Records is an essential label in the history of American music.
Founded in 1947, they earned their cred launching jazz, R&B and soul by artists like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.
Atlantic became a part of the Warner Music Group in 1967.
Atlantic’s sister label Elektra was also an important label, lunching the careers of hundreds of artists including Aphex Twin, Bjork, Brandi Carlile, The Eagles, fun. and many more.
In 2004, Atlantic and Elektra merged, but more recently, Elektra was revived as its own fully staffed standalone label.
As you may have guessed, they are now owned by Universal Music Group.
To this day, they remain one of the world’s most important labels, releasing music by Hozier, Demi Lovato, The Killers, U2, Mumford & Sons, Amy Winehouse, Shawn Mendes and others.
The label started out in 1959 and grew steadily throughout the 60s.
They released music by King Crimson, Traffic, Roxy Music, Steve Winwood and more.
Eventually, they were acquired by Polygram – a major player at the time.
In 1998, Polygram was acquired by UMG and the rest is history.
Island Records is still a major label that consistently churns out worldwide hits.
Sub Pop Records
Sub Pop Records was founded in 1986 and achieved success in the late 80s by signing Seattle bands like Nirvana and Soungarden.
They became one of the central players in the grunge movement of the 90s, making them one of the central players in the music scene at the time.
To this day, Sub Pop is an influential label for alternative and indie music.
Some of their artists include Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes, The Postal Service and The Shins.
All huge bands.
In 1995, Sub Pop sold 49% of their label to Warner Music Group.
What You Need To Know About Big Major Labels (Final Thoughts)
The truth is, almost every successful label is owned by one of the three major labels.
As soon as an independent label does well, they get snapped up by a major.
Frankly, this isn’t always a bad move for indie labels.
Often, they get to retain the brand they’ve built, but have access to more resources and better distribution.
It’s just worth knowing that there are three main major labels.
And, that’s it.