Columbia Graphophone Company

The Columbia Graphophone Company Limited (Columbia Graphophone Co. Ltd.) was one of the earliest gramophone companies in the United Kingdom.

Columbia Graphophone Company
Parent company
Founded1917 (1917)
Defunct1973 (1973)
StatusCatalogue and artist roster owned by Parlophone Records since 2012, trade mark and name sold to Sony Music Entertainment in 1990
Country of originUnited Kingdom

Founded in 1917 as an offshoot of the American Columbia Phonograph Company, it became an independent British-owned company in 1922 in a management buy-out after the parent company went into receivership.

In 1925 it acquired a controlling interest in its American parent company to take advantage of a new electrical recording process. The British firm also controlled the US operations from 1925 until 1931. That year Columbia Graphophone in the UK merged with the Gramophone Company (which sold records under the HMV label) to form EMI, At the same time Columbia divested itself of its American branch, which was eventually absorbed by CBS in 1938.

As Columbia Records, it became a successful British label in the 1950s and 1960s, and was eventually replaced by the newly created EMI Records, as part of an EMI label consolidation. This in turn was absorbed by the Parlophone Records unit of Warner Music Group in 2013.

Early history

The Columbia Phonograph Company was originally founded in the US by Edward D. Easton in 1887, initially as a distributor with a local monopoly on sales and service of Edison phonographs and phonograph cylinders in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Delaware. It also made its own compatible cylinder recordings. In 1901 Columbia began selling disc records (invented and patented by Emile Berliner of the Victor Talking Machine Company) and phonographs. For a decade, Columbia competed with both the Edison Phonograph Company cylinders and the Victor discs. Edison discs and Columbia's acoustic records both had a playback speed of 80 rpm.

From about 1898 until 1922 the US parent company managed a UK subsidiary, the Columbia Graphophone Manufacturing Company. In 1917 the Columbia Graphophone Company was registered as an English company, with the shares being held by the American firm.[1]

A general market downturn in 1921 affected the whole entertainment industry. Profits turned to losses, and in late 1922 the creditors of the US parent company filed a petition for involuntary bankruptcy: Columbia went into receivership. Seeking to raise cash, Columbia sold the British branch in December 1922 to a group of investors led by Columbia's General Manager in Britain, Louis Sterling (1879–1958).[2][3][4][5]

Columbia in the US emerged from receivership in February 1924 as the Columbia Phonograph Company Inc., but was immediately faced with another crisis as booming radio sales reduced the firm's profitability.[2] Also by 1924 Bell Labs-Western Electric had developed a new electrical recording system to replace the old acoustic recording methods, and was offering exclusive rights to Victor although its Chairman's illness had led to delays.[4] Louis Sterling as Managing Director had turned around the fortunes of English Columbia, and persuaded Western Electric that granting a monopoly would be a grave mistake. Although the Columbia Phonograph Company of New York couldn't afford the royalty payments, Sterling was in a position to buy out the US operation and, as an American company, to purchase the licence for the new Western Electric patents.[2] In March 1925 Louis Sterling (backed by J. P. Morgan & Co.), acquired a controlling interest in the US parent company for $2.5 million (about £500,000) in order to take advantage of Western Electric's patents.[6] The firm continued in business as the Columbia Graphophone Company in many countries as a British company.[7] Sterling, originally from New York, became chairman of the US operation.

On February 25, 1925, Columbia began recording with the licensed Western Electric recording process and was using it on a regular basis by April. The royalty payments were considerable, and in 1928 Columbia hired the English electronics engineer Alan Blumlein to work on an alternative. By late 1930 he had developed a recording system including a moving-coil microphone and a cutting head with linear characteristics which circumvented Western Electric's patents.[8] Columbia continued to use acoustic recording methods for the cheaper labels, and to release discs made with old acoustic masters until around 1929.

The repercussions of the stock market Crash of 1929 led to huge losses in the recording industry, and in March 1931 J. P Morgan, the major shareholder, steered the Columbia Graphophone Company (along with Odeon records and Parlophone, which it had owned since 1926) into a merger with the Gramophone Company (HMV) to form Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (EMI).[9][10][11] By the time of the merger the Gramophone Company had not independently fully developed an alternative to Western Electric's process and was still paying royalty fees, so it was a technically advantageous move.[8]

Since the Gramophone Company (HMV) was a wholly owned subsidiary of Victor, and Columbia in America was a subsidiary of English Columbia, Victor now technically owned its biggest rival in the US.[9] To avoid antitrust legislation, EMI had to sell off its US Columbia operation, which continued to release pressings of matrices made in the UK.[9] The American company was eventually absorbed by CBS (another of its former offshoots) in 1938.

As an EMI label

EMI continued to operate the Columbia record label in the UK until the early 1970s, and everywhere else except for the US, Canada, Mexico, Spain and Japan, until it sold its remaining interest in the Columbia trademark to Sony Music Entertainment in 1990.

Under EMI, English Columbia's output was mainly licensed recordings from American Columbia until 1951 when American Columbia switched British distribution to Philips Records. English Columbia continued to distribute American Columbia sister labels Okeh and Epic until 1968 when American Columbia's then parent CBS moved distribution of all its labels to the new CBS Records[12] created from the purchase of Oriole Records (UK) in late 1964. The loss of American Columbia product had forced English Columbia to groom its own talent[13] such as Russ Conway, Acker Bilk, John Barry, Cliff Richard, the Shadows, Helen Shapiro, Frank Ifield, Rolf Harris, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Dave Clark Five, Shirley Bassey, Frankie Vaughan, Des O'Connor, Ken Dodd, the Animals, Herman's Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Seekers, the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, and Pink Floyd.[14] Led by avuncular A&R man Norrie Paramor, the label was arguably the most successful in Britain in the rock era prior to the beat boom.

In the mid 1960s, English Columbia added an audiophile imprint called Studio 2 Stereo. During that time, the Columbia Graphophone Company was absorbed into the Gramophone Company with the label maintaining its identity.[15][16]

EMI has engaged in litigation with CBS regarding the importing of American records bearing the Columbia imprint into areas where EMI owned the Columbia name.[17]

Releases from the British Columbia Graphophone Company appeared in Japan under Nippon Columbia until 1962, when licensing was switched to Toshiba Musical Industries.

Phaseout of label by EMI and trade mark transfer

EMI decided to reserve the HMV label for classical repertoire and had transferred HMV's remaining pop acts to Columbia and Parlophone by 1967.[18] EMI began to replace the Columbia label with the eponymous EMI Records in January 1973.[19][20] The last Columbia single was issued in 1989.[21] EMI sold its remaining interest in the Columbia name in 1990 to Sony Music Entertainment (formerly CBS Records Group), which already owned Columbia Records in the U.S. and Canada. The formal reassignment of British registered trade marks from EMI, including the "magic notes" logo, took place in 1993.

For the Columbia Records trade mark in the UK[22] and elsewhere, Sony Music now prefers the "walking eye" logo previously used by the old CBS Records, which is based on the Columbia Records logo introduced in the US and Canada in 1955. However, the "magic notes" logo is occasionally used, usually to give a 'retro' feel (such as on the 2016 vinyl reissues of Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets).

The Columbia name was still on some EMI releases between 1973 and 1990 (such as Baltimora's "Tarzan Boy" in 1985,[23] Jeanne Mas and the 1987 Kiki Dee album Angel Eyes),[24][25] but it had ceased acting as a fully functioning label.

In Australia and Germany, EMI continued using the Columbia label throughout the 1970s and to at least 1980, but added the EMI label in 1973.

Current ownership

Through its ownership of the former Columbia/EMI catalogue, Parlophone Records' new owner Warner Music Group assumed Columbia's artist roster and catalogue.[26][27] New reissues bear the Parlophone imprint.[28]

See also


  1. Burns 2000, p. 98.
  2. Brooks, Tim (ed.), Columbia Corporate History: The Early 1920s, Columbia Master Book Discography, Volume I (Online ed.), Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR) See also Notes section.
  3. "Louis Saul Sterling". Grace's Guide to British Industrial History. Retrieved 8 June 2019.
  4. "Sterling, Louis (1879–1958)". Sound Of The Hound. (originally printed in Gramophone Magazine, July 1958). Retrieved 8 June 2019.CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. "Louis Saul Sterling". Recording Pioneers. Retrieved 8 June 2019.
  6. Brooks, Tim (ed.), Columbia Corporate History: Electrical Recording and the Late 1920s, Columbia Master Book Discography, Volume I (Online ed.), Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR) See also Notes section.
  7. Burns 2000, pp. 95, 98.
  8. Burns 2000, pp. 112-3.
  9. Brooks, Tim (ed.), Columbia Corporate History: Market Crash, 1929, and the Early 1930s, Columbia Master Book Discography, Volume I (Online ed.), Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR) See also Notes section.
  10. Walworth, Julia (2005). "Sir Louis Sterling and his library". Jewish Historical Studies. Jewish Historical Society of England. 40: 161. JSTOR 24027031.
  11. "EMI: A Brief History". BBC News. 24 January 2000. Retrieved 15 January 2009.
  12. Billboard - Google Books. 1968-05-11. Retrieved 2013-02-12.
  13. The Rise & Fall of EMI Records - Brian Southall - Google Books. Retrieved 2013-02-28.
  14. Pink Floyd recorded their first three albums for Columbia Graphophone, then switched to Harvest; some of their recordings for Harvest were leased to the CBS Columbia label.
  15. ""Heart Full of Soul" record label". Retrieved 2012-02-12.
  16. "The Yardbirds record label". Retrieved 2012-02-12.
  17. Competition Law, Technology Transfer and the Trips Agreement: Implications ... - Tú Thanh Nguyen - Google Books. Retrieved 2013-02-12.
  18. Billboard - Google Books. 1967-11-11. Retrieved 2013-02-28.
  19. Billboard - Google Books. 1972-12-23. Retrieved 2013-02-12.
  20. Billboard - Google Books. 1973-02-03. Retrieved 2013-02-12.
  21. "Soulsister - The Way To Your Heart (UK Version)". 45cat. Retrieved 2016-05-07.
  22. "Columbia Records UK". Retrieved 2013-02-12.
  23. "Baltimora - Tarzan Boy (Vinyl) at Discogs". Retrieved 2013-02-12.
  24. "Kiki Dee - Angel Eyes (Vinyl, LP) at Discogs". Retrieved 2013-02-12.
  25. "Kiki Dee - Angel Eyes (Vinyl, LP) at Discogs". Retrieved 2013-02-12.
  26. "Why Pink Floyd?, Pink Floyd & EMI 2011 remastered campaign". 2011-08-19. Retrieved 2014-05-20.
  27. "Warner Music Group Integrates Parlophone Roster, Including Coldplay, David Guetta and Pink Floyd". The Hollywood Reporter. 2013-12-19. Retrieved 2014-05-20.
  28. "Helen_Shapiro_Overseas_Albums_Japan". Retrieved 2016-03-25.
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