"Big Three" music labels

A record label or record company is a brand or trademark of music recordings and music videos, or the company that owns it. Sometimes, a record label is also a publishing company that manages such brands and trademarks, coordinates the production, manufacture, distribution, marketing, promotion, and enforcement of copyright for sound recordings and music videos, while also conducting talent scouting and development of new artists, and maintaining contracts with recording artists and their managers. The term "record label" derives from the circular label in the center of a vinyl record which prominently displays the manufacturer's name, along with other information.[1]

Within the mainstream music industry, recording artists have traditionally been reliant upon record labels to broaden their consumer base, market their albums, and promote their singles on streaming services, radio, and television. Record labels also provide publicists, who assist performers in gaining positive media coverage, and arrange for their merchandise to be available via stores and other media outlets.

Major versus independent record labels

Record labels may be small, localized and "independent" ("indie"), or they may be part of a large international media group, or somewhere in between. The Association of Independent Music (AIM) defines a 'major' as "a multinational company which (together with the companies in its group) has more than 5% of the world market(s) for the sale of records or music videos." As of 2012, there are only three labels that can be referred to as "major labels": Universal Music Group, Sony Music, and Warner Music Group. In 2014, AIM estimated that the majors had a collective global market share of some 65–70%.[2]

Major labels


Major record label Year founded Headquarters Divisions Global market share[3]
Universal Music Group (Euronext AmsterdamUMG) September 1934; 89 years ago (1934-09) Hilversum, North Holland, Netherlands (corporate)
Santa Monica, California, United States (operational)
List of Universal Music Group labels 31.9%
Sony Music Entertainment September 9, 1929; 94 years ago (1929-09-09) New York City, New York, United States List of Sony Music labels 22.1%
Warner Music Group (NasdaqWMG) April 6, 1958; 66 years ago (1958-04-06) New York City, New York, United States List of Warner Music Group labels 16%


PolyGramPolyGramUniversal Music GroupSony MusicWarner Music GroupPolyGramMCA RecordsSony BMGWarner Music GroupSony MusicWarner RecordsColumbia RecordsWarner RecordsBertelsmann Music GroupWarner RecordsEMIBertelsmann Music GroupWarner RecordsGramophone CompanyPolyGramDecca RecordsRCA RecordsAmerican Record Corporation

Record labels are often under the control of a corporate umbrella organization called a "music group". A music group is usually affiliated to an international conglomerate "holding company", which often has non-music divisions as well. A music group controls and consists of music-publishing companies, record (sound recording) manufacturers, record distributors, and record labels. Record companies (manufacturers, distributors, and labels) may also constitute a "record group" which is, in turn, controlled by a music group. The constituent companies in a music group or record group are sometimes marketed as being "divisions" of the group.

From 1929 to 1998, there were six major record labels, known as the Big Six:[4]

  1. Warner Music Group
  2. EMI
  3. Sony Music (known as CBS Records until January 1991)
  4. BMG (formed in 1985 as RCA/Ariola International)
  5. Universal Music Group (known as MCA Music until 1996)
  6. PolyGram

PolyGram was merged into Universal Music Group (UMG) in 1999, leaving the remaining record labels to be known as the Big Five.

In 2004, Sony and BMG agreed to a joint venture and merged their recorded music division to create the Sony BMG label (which would be renamed Sony Music Entertainment after a 2008 merger); BMG kept its music publishing division separate from Sony BMG and later sold BMG Music Publishing to UMG. In 2007, the remaining record labels—then known as the Big Four—controlled about 70% of the world music market, and about 80% of the United States music market.[5][6]

In 2012, the major divisions of EMI were sold off separately by owner Citigroup: most of EMI's recorded music division was absorbed into UMG; EMI Music Publishing was absorbed into Sony/ATV Music Publishing; finally, EMI's Parlophone and Virgin Classics labels were absorbed into Warner Music Group (WMG) in July 2013.[7] This left the so-called Big Three labels.

In 2020 and 2021, both WMG and UMG had their IPO with WMG starting trading at Nasdaq and UMG starting trading at Euronext Amsterdam and leaving only Sony Music as wholly-owned subsidiary of an international conglomerate (Sony Entertainment which in turn owned by Sony Group Corporation).


Main article: Independent record label

Record labels and music publishers that are not under the control of the big three are generally considered to be independent (indie), even if they are large corporations with complex structures. The term indie label is sometimes used to refer to only those independent labels that adhere to independent criteria of corporate structure and size, and some consider an indie label to be almost any label that releases non-mainstream music, regardless of its corporate structure.

Independent labels are often considered more artist-friendly. Though they may have less sales power, indie labels typically offer larger artist royalty with a 50% profit-share agreement, aka 50–50 deal, not uncommon.[8] In addition, independent labels are often artist-owned (although not always), with a stated intent often being to control the quality of the artist's output. Independent labels usually do not enjoy the resources available to the "big three" and as such will often lag behind them in market shares. However, frequently independent artists manage a return by recording for a much smaller production cost of a typical big label release. Sometimes they are able to recoup their initial advance even with much lower sales numbers.

On occasion, established artists, once their record contract has finished, move to an independent label. This often gives the combined advantage of name recognition and more control over one's music along with a larger portion of royalty profits. Artists such as Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann, Prince, Public Enemy, among others, have done this. Historically, companies started in this manner have been re-absorbed into the major labels (two examples are American singer Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records, which has been owned by Warner Music Group for some time now, and musician Herb Alpert's A&M Records, now owned by Universal Music Group). Similarly, Madonna's Maverick Records (started by Madonna with her manager and another partner) was to come under control of Warner Music when Madonna divested herself of controlling shares in the company.

Some independent labels become successful enough that major record companies negotiate contracts to either distribute music for the label or in some cases, purchase the label completely, to the point where it functions as an imprint or sublabel.


A label used as a trademark or brand and not a company is called an imprint, a term used for the same concept in publishing. An imprint is sometimes marketed as being a "project", "unit", or "division" of a record label, even though there is no legal business structure associated with the imprint. A record company may use an imprint to market a particular genre of music, such as jazz, blues, country music, or indie rock.


Music collectors often use the term sublabel to refer to either an imprint or a subordinate label company (such as those within a group). For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, 4th & B'way Records (pronounced as "Broadway") was a trademarked brand owned by Island Records Ltd. in the UK and by a subordinate branch, Island Records, Inc., in the United States. The center label on a 4th & Broadway record marketed in the United States would typically bear a 4th & B'way logo and would state in the fine print, "4th & B'way™, an Island Records, Inc. company". Collectors discussing labels as brands would say that 4th & B'way is a sublabel or imprint of just "Island" or "Island Records". Similarly, collectors who choose to treat corporations and trademarks as equivalent might say 4th & B'way is an imprint and/or sublabel of both Island Records, Ltd. and that company's sublabel, Island Records, Inc. However, such definitions are complicated by the corporate mergers that occurred in 1989 (when Island was sold to PolyGram) and 1998 (when PolyGram merged with Universal). PolyGram held sublabels including Mercury, Island and Motown.[9] Island remained registered as corporations in both the United States and UK, but control of its brands changed hands multiple times as new companies were formed, diminishing the corporation's distinction as the "parent" of any sublabels.

Vanity labels

Main article: Vanity label

Vanity labels are labels that bear an imprint that gives the impression of an artist's ownership or control, but in fact represent a standard artist/label relationship. In such an arrangement, the artist will control nothing more than the usage of the name on the label, but may enjoy a greater say in the packaging of their work. An example of such a label is the Neutron label owned by ABC while at Phonogram Inc. in the UK. At one point artist Lizzie Tear (under contract with ABC themselves) appeared on the imprint, but it was devoted almost entirely to ABC's offerings and is still used for their re-releases (though Phonogram owns the masters of all the work issued on the label).

However, not all labels dedicated to particular artists are completely superficial in origin. Many artists, early in their careers, create their own labels which are later bought out by a bigger company. If this is the case it can sometimes give the artist greater freedom than if they were signed directly to the big label. There are many examples of this kind of label, such as Nothing Records, owned by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; and Morning Records, owned by the Cooper Temple Clause, who were releasing EPs for years before the company was bought by RCA.

Relationship with artists

If an artist and a label want to work together, whether an artist has contacted a label directly, usually by sending their team a demo,[10] or the Artists & Repertoire team of the label has scouted the artist and reached out directly, they will usually enter in to a contractual relationship.

A label typically enters into an exclusive recording contract with an artist to market the artist's recordings in return for royalties on the selling price of the recordings. Contracts may extend over short or long durations, and may or may not refer to specific recordings. Established, successful artists tend to be able to renegotiate their contracts to get terms more favorable to them, but Prince's much-publicized 1994–1996 feud with Warner Bros. Records provides a strong counterexample,[11] as does Roger McGuinn's claim, made in July 2000 before a US Senate committee, that the Byrds never received any of the royalties they had been promised for their biggest hits, "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn!, Turn!".[12]

A contract either provides for the artist to deliver completed recordings to the label, or for the label to undertake the recording with the artist. For artists without a recording history, the label is often involved in selecting producers, recording studios, additional musicians, and songs to be recorded, and may supervise the output of recording sessions. For established artists, a label is usually less involved in the recording process.

The relationship between record labels and artists can be a difficult one. Many artists have had conflicts with their labels over the type of sound or songs they want to make, which can result in the artist's artwork or titles being changed before release.[13] Other artists have had their music prevented from release, or shelved.[14] Record labels generally do this because they believe that the album will sell better if the artist complies with the label's desired requests or changes. At times, the record label's decisions are prudent ones from a commercial perspective, but these decisions may frustrate artists who feel that their art is being diminished or misrepresented by such actions.

In other instances, record labels have shelved artists' albums with no intention of any promotion for the artist in question.[15][16] Reasons for shelving can include the label deciding to focus its resources on other artists on its roster,[14] or the label undergoing a restructure where the person that signed the artist and supports the artist's vision is no longer present to advocate for the artist.[14][17] In extreme cases, record labels can prevent the release of an artist's music for years, while also declining to release the artist from their contract, leaving the artist in a state of limbo.[17][18] Artists who have had disputes with their labels over ownership and control of their music have included Taylor Swift,[19] Tinashe,[20] Megan Thee Stallion,[21] Kelly Clarkson,[22] Thirty Seconds to Mars,[23] Clipse,[24] Ciara,[25] JoJo,[18] Michelle Branch,[26] Kesha,[27] Kanye West,[28] Lupe Fiasco,[29] Paul McCartney,[30] and Johnny Cash.[31]

In the early days of the recording industry, recording labels were absolutely necessary for the success of any artist.[32][better source needed] The first goal of any new artist or band was to get signed to a contract as soon as possible. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, many artists were so desperate to sign a contract with a record company that they sometimes ended up signing agreements in which they sold the rights to their recordings to the record label in perpetuity. Entertainment lawyers are usually employed by artists to discuss contract terms.

Due to advancing technology such as the Internet, the role of labels is rapidly changing, as artists are able to freely distribute their own material through online radio, peer-to-peer file sharing such as BitTorrent, and other services, at little to no cost, but with correspondingly low financial returns. Established artists, such as Nine Inch Nails, whose career was developed with major label backing, announced an end to their major label contracts, citing that the uncooperative nature of the recording industry with these new trends is hurting musicians, fans and the industry as a whole.[33] However, Nine Inch Nails later returned to working with a major label,[34] admitting that they needed the international marketing and promotional reach that a major label can provide. Radiohead also cited similar motives with the end of their contract with EMI when their album In Rainbows was released as a "pay what you want" sales model as an online download, but they also returned to a label for a conventional release.[35] Research shows that record labels still control most access to distribution.[36]

New label strategies

Computers and internet technology led to an increase in file sharing and direct-to-fan digital distribution, causing music sales to plummet in recent years.[37] Labels and organizations have had to change their strategies and the way they work with artists. New types of deals called "multiple rights" or "360" deals are being made with artists,[38][39] where labels are given rights and percentages to artist's touring, merchandising, and endorsements. In exchange for these rights, labels usually give higher advance payments to artists, have more patience with artist development, and pay higher percentages of CD sales. These 360 deals are most effective when the artist is established and has a loyal fan base. For that reason, labels now have to be more relaxed with the development of artists because longevity is the key to these types of pact. Several artists such as Paramore,[40] Maino, and even Madonna[41][42] have signed such types of deals.

A look at an actual 360 deal offered by Atlantic Records to an artist shows a variation of the structure. Atlantic's document offers a conventional cash advance to sign the artist, who would receive a royalty for sales after expenses were recouped. With the release of the artist's first album, however, the label has an option to pay an additional $200,000 in exchange for 30 percent of the net income from all touring, merchandise, endorsements, and fan-club fees. Atlantic would also have the right to approve the act's tour schedule, and the salaries of certain tour and merchandise sales employees hired by the artist. In addition, the label also offers the artist a 30 percent cut of the label's album profits—if any—which represents an improvement from the typical industry royalty of 15 percent.[40]

Internet and digital labels

Main article: Netlabel

With the Internet now being a viable source for obtaining music, netlabels have emerged. Depending on the ideals of the net label, music files from the artists may be downloaded free of charge or for a fee that is paid via PayPal or other online payment system. Some of these labels also offer hard copy CDs in addition to direct download. Digital Labels are the latest version of a 'net' label. Whereas 'net' labels were started as a free site, digital labels represent more competition for the major record labels.[43]

Open-source labels

Main article: Open-source record label

The new century brought the phenomenon of open-source or open-content record labels. These are inspired by the free software and open source movements and the success of Linux.

Publishers as labels

In the mid-2000s, some music publishing companies began undertaking the work traditionally done by labels. The publisher Sony/ATV Music, for example, leveraged its connections within the Sony family to produce, record, distribute, and promote Elliott Yamin's debut album under a dormant Sony-owned imprint, rather than waiting for a deal with a proper label.[44]

Crowdfunded labels

In 2002, ArtistShare was founded as the Internet's first record label where the releases were directly funded by the artist's fans.

See also


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  2. ^ "Independent Music is now a growing force in the global market". Association of Independent Music. 1 February 2014. Archived from the original on 23 February 2019. Retrieved 20 March 2019.
  3. ^ "Global record companies market share 2022".
  4. ^ "The Rise And Fall Of Major Record Labels". www.arkatechbeatz.com. Archived from the original on 9 May 2021. Retrieved 5 May 2021.
  5. ^ "Copyright Law, Treaties and Advice". Copynot.org. Archived from the original on 19 June 2013. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
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  7. ^ Joshua R. Wueller, Mergers of Majors: Applying the Failing Firm Doctrine in the Recorded Music Industry, 7 Brook. J. Corp. Fin. & Com. L. 589, 601–04 (2013).
  8. ^ McDonald, Heather (20 November 2019). "5 Lessons Big Record Labels Learned From Independents". The Balance.
  9. ^ Rosen, Jody (11 June 2019). "The Day the Music Burned". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 November 2022.
  10. ^ Leighton, Mackenzie. "How to send a demo to a record label?". Groover Blog. Retrieved 14 November 2023.
  11. ^ Newman, Melinda (28 April 2016). "Inside Prince's Career-Long Battle to Master His Artistic Destiny". Billboard. Retrieved 3 April 2017.
  12. ^ "CNN Transcript – Special Event: Lars Ulrich, Roger McGuinn Testify Before Senate Judiciary Committee on Downloading Music on the Internet". CNN. 11 July 2000. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 29 April 2016.
  13. ^ Boone, Brian (13 January 2020). "Musicians That Were Forced To Change Their Album Covers". Grunge.com. Retrieved 3 September 2021.
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  43. ^ Suhr, Cecilia (November 2011). "Understanding the Hegemonic Struggle between Mainstream Vs. Independent Forces: The Music Industry and Musicians in the Age of Social Media". International Journal of Technology, Knowledge & Society. 7 (6): 123–136. doi:10.18848/1832-3669/CGP/v07i06/56248.
  44. ^ Butler, Susan (31 March 2007). "Publisher = Label?". Billboard. p. 22.