Sunday, February 10, 2019

Vanity Record Labels (music)

(c1960 –  c1974)

One trend in the rock era of the 60s was the creation of vanity record labels. These were record companies* created primarily for a single artist, allowing them to keep more creative control of their work. The trend took off when the Beatles founded Apple records, and other major groups of the 70s had their own label. Generally, they also included other artists, most of whom never caught on. 

The labels handled the recording side, but distribution was usually still held by an established record company. This post will talk about some of the better-known groups who had time.

Reprise Records – probably the first. It was founded by Frank Sinatra in 1960. Frank was big enough then to set it up, and he signed many of his friends. Eventually, Warner Brothers bought them and Reprise was a major label into the mid-70s.

A&M Records – something of an exception. The company was founded by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss in order to release Alpert’s single, “The Lonely Bull.”  The song was a major hit, and Alpert’s Tijuana Brass – a group of studio musicians  backing him – was one of the best selling acts of the early 60s. The company branched out and eventually became a major label itself.

Apple Records – The one that really started the trend. The Beatles wanted control of their records and used their clout to get Capitol/EMI to give them their own company. The group also signed other acts, most notably Mary Hopkin, Badfinger, Billy Preston, and James Taylor.**

Once the Beatles broke through, others began to follow.

  • Rolling Stones Records
  • Threshold Records (Moody Blues)
  • Bizarre Records/Straight Records (both by Frank Zappa). Zappa originally wanted to use Bizarre for his less mainstream acts, and Straight for more popular groups. For various reasons, the avant garde (notably Captain Beefheart) acts ended up being released on Straight Records, with Bizarre leaning toward releases from Zappa and the Mothers.
  • DiskReet (also Zappa)
  • Brother Records (The Beach Boys)
  • Grunt Records (Jefferson Airplane)
  • Swan Song Records (Led Zeppelin)
  • Ode Records/Ode 70 Records – these were two labels run by producer Lou Adler. Ode was distributed by Columbia/Epic. Adler switched distributors to A&M in 1970 and the name was changed to Ode 70, which released Carole King’s multiplatinum Tapestry as well as albums by Cheech and Chong. While he was still at Columbia/Epic, he signed Spirit
  • Grateful Dead Records – One of the few to try to handle distribution themselves (at least at first). They had problems because, unlike all other record companies, their albums weren’t fully returnable by record stores.***

The trend faded out in the mid-70s. The issue was that the artists were not really treated like equals: it was a title change, and they could record what they wanted instead of having the record company direct them.  But full control was rare and the original wave of vanity record companies faded out by 1974.****

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*Usually a subsidiary of an established company.

**Taylor, of course, was their greatest long-term success, but that was after he moved on. He recorded one album for them, but ended up recording for Warner Brothers, which released Sweet Baby James, the foundation of his career.

***All records and (later) CDs in stores were fully returnable for credit, a practice also common for bookstores. This allowed the stores to try new artists risk-free. There were a few exceptions:  The Concert for Bangladesh was only 90% returnable:  if you got ten copies, you could only return 9 for credit. Since it was a one-time thing, and the album sold well (and won a Grammy), it wasn’t a deal killer, but the Dead originally wanted 0% returnable, though they quickly ended that policy.

****They started cropping up again in the 90s.

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