In a nutshell:
Columbia was one of the very first record labels (and the greatest … if you ask its very biased employees), so its long history is also pretty much the history of the recording industry.
The world’s oldest surviving record label, Columbia was founded in 1889 by Edward D. Easton, a stenographer by trade, in the District of Columbia, which gave the company its name.
In its infancy, Columbia had an exclusive contract for selling and servicing Thomas Edison’s namesake brand of phonographs and music cylinders, but by 1901 they had adopted rival RCA Victor’s patented “Disc Records” and, by 1908, introduced their own so-called “Double-Faced” 10-inch discs.
During the first quarter of the 20th Century, Columbia (now based in New York) generated most of its sales from opera stars associated with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but the company didn’t hesitate to record most every available musical genre: from homegrown American styles like jazz, blues, country, and folk, to ethnic and foreign traditions, the better to supply its fast-growing overseas operations.
By the time America’s recording industry was rocked by the crippling effects of the Great Depression and the advent of free radio transmissions (shrinking to 1/10th its prior revenues between 1929 and ‘31), Columbia had weathered numerous ups and downs, separated from their U.K. division (which became EMI), and had been sold for a pittance to the American Record Corporation (ARC), virtually ceasing operations, in the process.
But the fortuitous hiring of legendary A&R scout John Hammond and a new focus on “secondary” genres like southern gospel, country, blues, and jazz, including discoveries like Benny Goodman, Bessie Smith, Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charles Davis Tillman, and the Chuck Wagon Gang, kept Columbia afloat long enough to turn its fortunes around.
This turnaround started in earnest with Columbia’s 1938 purchase by William S. Paley, of CBS (ironically, the same Columbia Broadcasting System the record company had founded in 1927, and later spun off), gained momentum in the next decade with the success of young New Jersey crooner named Frank Sinatra, and culminated in a major technological breakthrough in 1948 via Columbia’s development of the 12-inch, 33 1/3 RPM long-playing album, as we still know it today.
Under the leadership of Paley and new company president Goddard Lieberson, Columbia firmly reclaimed their major label status in the 1950s, leveraging the new LP format to boost classical music sales, to introduce mega-selling Broadway cast recordings (masterminded by Lieberson), and to score huge success with bandleader and A&R man Mitch Miller’s Sing Along with Mitch series, while beefing up their roster of easy listening stars (Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day), jazz innovators (Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck), and signing an Arkansas-born country singer named Johnny Cash.
The ‘60s brought a slew of folk giants in Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds, and arguably Hammond’s greatest discovery, Bob Dylan, plus a new mainstream star in Barbra Streisand; yet Columbia, swayed by Miller’s strong objections, stubbornly missed the boat on rock & roll until decade’s end, when new president Clive Davis dragged the label into the future with landmark signings like Janis Joplin, Chicago, and Santana.
Columbia rarely slept on another cutting-edge musical style again, nor did they relinquish their standing amongst the world’s most powerful majors, roaring through the ‘70s, first under Davis and then his successor Walter Yetnikoff, behind superstars like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Judas Priest, Willie Nelson and Earth, Wind & Fire, and into the ‘80s with Journey, Men at Work, The Bangles, L.L. Cool J, and countless others, paving the way for the company’s sale to the Sony Music in 1988.
Today, Columbia still operates under the Sony Music umbrella and remains one of the music industry’s perennial sales leaders, while navigating a succession of executives (Tommy Mottola, Rick Rubin, Rob Stringer, Ron Perry) and consistently launching new stars (Alice in Chains, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Ricky Martin, the Dixie Chicks, Beyoncé, John Mayer, Harry Styles, and Lil Nas X, etc.), very much the definition of a major label, well over a century since its modest beginnings.
A record company doesn’t stay in business for one hundred years-plus without making a few cosmetic changes to its brand, logo, and labels, yet Columbia’s core design hallmarks haven’t changed very much, all things considered.
With only a few exceptions, Columbia labels have stuck with a single color as the background for their bold typefaces, starting with the vintage gold-on-black designs of the early 20th Century, before adding a variety of colors based on music genre: red for pop, green for jazz, gray for classical, orange for country, pink for sacred music, etc.
For a brief time in the 1930s, Columbia issued the now highly collectible “Royal Blue Records” (yes, both the label AND vinyl were blue), before cycling through a sequence of clean, classic, red designs in ensuing decades – all of them familiar to most consumers in possession of timeless LPs recorded by Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, etc., etc.
Among Columbia’s rare design deviations over the years, there have been the gray counterparts to these red labels employed for the Masterworks product line, a short-lived bright yellow 7-inch look used in the ‘50s, an uncharacteristically elaborate (read: corny) jazz and country reissue series of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and a memorable sunset design adopted in the ‘70s and ‘80s for singles in America and albums overseas, often substituting the logo of parent company CBS.
As for distinguishing trademarks, Columbia has also used them sparingly …
First came the so-called “Magic Notes” gracing most Columbia labels into the 1940s (and occasionally, beyond), then the iconic, stylized, modernist microphone (a.k.a. the “Walking Eye”) that had previously served as the CBS logo outside North America, and was quietly dropped after the company’s sale to Sony Music.
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