Founded in 1929 as American Record Corporation, it was acquired by the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1938 and renamed Columbia Recording Corporation. In 1966, the company was reorganized to become CBS Records. Its ownership was transferred to Sony who renamed it to its current name in 1991. Sony and Bertelsmann established a 50-50 joint venture known as Sony BMG in 2004 to handle the operations of Sony Music and Bertelsmann Music Group, but Sony acquired Bertelsmann's stake 4 years later and reverted to using the 1991 company name branding. This buyout incorporated and eventually absorbed labels formerly under BMG ownership like Arista, Jive, LaFace and J Records into former BMG and currently Sony's co-flagship record label, RCA Records, in 2011 and led to the relaunch of BMG as BMG Rights Management. Arista Records would later be revived in 2018.
The American Record Corporation (ARC) was founded in 1929 through a merger of several record companies. The company grew for the next several years, acquiring other brands such as the Columbia Phonograph Company, including its Okeh Records subsidiary, in 1934.
Columbia's international arm was launched in 1962 under the name "CBS Records", as the company only owned the rights to the Columbia name in North America. In 1964, the company began acquiring record companies in other countries for its CBS Records International unit and established its own UK distribution outfit with the acquisition of Oriole Records.
By 1966, Columbia was renamed as CBS Records and was a separate unit of the parent company, CBS-Columbia Group. In March 1968, CBS and Sony formed CBS/Sony Records, a Japanese business joint venture.
In 1986, CBS sold its music publishing division, CBS Songs, to SBK Entertainment On November 17, 1987, Sony acquired CBS Records for US$2 billion. CBS Inc., now Paramount Global, retained the rights to the CBS name for music recordings but granted Sony a temporary license to use the CBS name. The sale was completed on January 5, 1988.CBS Corporation founded a new CBS Records in 2006, which was distributed by Sony through its RED subsidiary.
Sony renamed the record company Sony Music Entertainment (SME) on January 1, 1991, fulfilling the terms set under the 1988 buyout, which granted only a transitional license to the CBS trademark. The CBS Associated label was renamed Epic Associated. Also on January 1, 1991, to replace the CBS label, Sony reintroduced the Columbia label worldwide, which it previously held in the United States and Canada only, after it acquired the international rights to the trademark from EMI in 1990. Japan is the only country where Sony does not have rights to the Columbia name as it is controlled by Nippon Columbia, an unrelated company. Thus, Sony Music Entertainment Japan issues labels under Sony Records. The Columbia Records trademark's rightsholder in Spain was Bertelsmann Music Group, Germany, which Sony Music subsequently subsumed via a 2004 merger, and a subsequent 2008 buyout.
The merger made Columbia and Epic sister labels to RCA Records, which was once owned by CBS rival, NBC. It also started the process of bringing BMG's Arista Records back under common ownership with its former parent Columbia Pictures, a Sony division since 1989, and also brought Arista founder Clive Davis back into the fold. As of 2017, Davis was still with Sony Music as chief creative officer.
2008–present: Sony Music revival, restructuring and recent developments
On August 5, 2008, Sony Corporation of America (SCA) and Bertelsmann announced that Sony had agreed to acquire Bertelsmann's 50% stake in Sony BMG. The company completed the acquisition on October 1, 2008. On July 1, 2009, SME and IODA announced a strategic partnership to leverage worldwide online retail distribution networks and complementary technologies to support independent labels and music rights holders. In March 2010, Sony Corp partnered with The Michael Jackson Company in a contract of more than $250 million, the largest deal in recorded music history.
In June 2012, a consortium led by Sony/ATV acquired EMI Music Publishing, making Sony/ATV the world's largest music publisher at the time. This acquisition also reunited the common ownership of pre-1986 CBS Songs (as SBK Songs) catalog to Sony/ATV.
Sony has experienced a number of changes with its international labels. In February 2012, Sony Music reportedly closed its Filipino office due to piracy, and Ivory Music and Video had been handling distribution for its catalog a few months earlier in July 2011. In early 2018, their distribution deal with Ivory expired and SME resumed its operations in the Philippines, with the new offices still located in Ortigas Center, Pasig. In July 2013, Sony Music withdrew from the Greek market due to an economic crisis. Albums released by Sony Music in Greece from domestic and foreign artists would then be carried by Feelgood Records.
In June 2017, Sony announced that by March 2018 it would be producing vinyl records in-house for the first time since ceasing their production in 1989. Reporting the decision, the BBC noted that, "Sony's move comes a few months after it equipped its Tokyo studio with a cutting lathe, used to produce the master discs needed for manufacturing vinyl records" but added that "Sony is even struggling to find older engineers who know how to make records".
On February 5, 2019, a group of 1970s-era musicians including David Johansen and John Waite filed lawsuits accusing Sony Music Entertainment and UMG Recordings, Inc. of improperly refusing to let them reclaim the rights to songs they had signed away earlier in their careers. The lawsuit cites U.S. copyright law, which gives artists who formerly bargained away their rights on unfavorable terms a chance to reclaim those rights by filing termination notices after 35 years. The plaintiffs claim that Sony and UMG have “routinely and systematically” ignored hundreds of notices, having taken the position that recordings are “works made for hire” and are therefore not subject to being reclaimed.
In 2022, Sony Music Entertainment acquired boutique branding and merchandising agency, Ceremony of Roses(CoR). The newly acquired company would merge with Sony's existing merch division and continue under the CoR banner. The merger brought together artists like Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo, and Adele under one merchandising house. According to Sony, the move will help expand their merchandising team and take artists' merch to the next level.
In January 2023, Sony Music and Alamo Records founder Todd Moscowitz launched Santa Anna, an artist and label services company.
Sony Music UK
Sony Music UK (legal name Sony Music Entertainment UK Limited) is owned and operated by Sony Music Entertainment in the United Kingdom. Since 2014, Jason Iley has been chairman and CEO of Sony Music UK. Though owned by Sony Music Entertainment, Sony Music UK has standalone operations in the UK to promote musicians within the UK.
In June 2017, it was announced that Sony would be merging its two independent distribution companies The Orchard and Red Essential.
Sony's performance at the BRITs 2015 was the label's best in nearly 20 years, winning a total of 5 awards. In 2017, Sony Music UK celebrated the most successful BRIT Awards in the company's history, winning seven of the 11 awards.
In the last three years, Sony Music UK has made key acquisitions including forming Insanity Records with Insanity Management. Craig David became the first artist to sign an album deal with Insanity Records. Sony Music UK signed Robbie Williams, who released his 11th album The Heavy Entertainment Show in 2016. Jason Iley commented that the agreement was "a once in a lifetime signing with the biggest male solo artist of our generation".
On April 5, 2017, two of Sony Music UK's labels won awards at the annual Music Week Awards. Columbia Records received the 'A&R of the Year' Award, while Syco were awarded the 'Record Company of the Year' Award.
In 2021, Sony agreed to buy Kobalt neighboring rights division and independent distribution company AWAL, from the Kobalt Music Group for $430 million.
Between 1995 and 2000, music companies were found to have used illegal marketing agreements such as minimum advertised pricing to artificially inflate prices of compact discs. This was done in order to end price wars of the early 1990s among discounters such as Best Buy and Target. A settlement was reached in 2002 that included music publishers and distributors Sony Music, Warner Music, Bertelsmann Music Group, EMI Music and Universal Music. In restitution for price fixing, they agreed to pay a $67.4 million fine and distribute $75.7 million in CDs to public and non-profit groups but admitted no wrongdoing. It is estimated that customers were overcharged by nearly $500 million overall and up to $5 per album.
The British artist, George Michael, signed to Columbia in the U.S. and Epic worldwide, advised Sony executives in 1990 that he would not be appearing in music videos to support his forthcoming album, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. Michael then accused Sony of not promoting the album at all. He sued in the UK in 1992, asking to be released from his contract. Sony ultimately prevailed in the courts in 1994, but Michael's contract was bought out by other labels. Some 11 years later, Michael licensed tracks to Sony for release.
Michael Jackson and Tommy Mottola
The release of Invincible was preceded by a dispute between Michael Jackson and Sony Music Entertainment. Jackson had expected the licenses to the masters of his albums to revert to him sometime in the early 2000s, after which he would be able to promote the material however he pleased and keep the profits; however, clauses in the contract set the revert date years into the future. Jackson discovered that the attorney who had represented him in the deal had also been representing Sony. He was also concerned that for years Sony had been pressuring him to sell his share in its music catalog venture; he feared that Sony might have had a conflict of interest, since if Jackson's career failed, he would have had to sell his share of the catalog at a low price. Jackson sought an early exit from his contract.
In July 2002, Jackson alleged that the then-Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola was a "devil" and "racist" who did not support his African-American artists, using them merely for his own gain. He charged that Mottola had called his colleague Irv Gotti a "fat nigger". Sony refused to renew Jackson's contract, and claimed that a $25 million promotional campaign had failed because Jackson refused to tour in the United States.
Prosecution of copyright infringement
In May 2012, Sony Music filed charges against the website IsoHunt. The plaintiff's claims in the court document filed at the Supreme Court of British Columbia read: "The IsoHunt Websites have been designed and are operated by the defendants with the sole purpose of profiting from rampant copyright infringement which defendants actively encourage, promote, authorize, induce, aid, abet, materially contribute to and commercially profit from." In February 2016, in a lawsuit filed at a California federal court, Sony Music Entertainment and its associated brands (Arista Records and LaFace Records, formerly owned by Bertelsmann Music Group) accused Belgian radio aggregator Radionomy (owned by Universal Music Group's parent Vivendi) of copyright infringement.
In February 2016, 100,000 people signed an online petition in less than 24 hours, calling for a boycott of Sony Music and all other Sony-affiliated businesses after rape allegations against music producerDr. Luke were made by musical artist Kesha. Kesha asked a New York CitySupreme Court to free her from her contract with Sony Music, but the court denied the request, prompting a widespread public and media response.
^"Lieberson Heads New C.B.S. Group. Put in Charge of Activities Outside Broadcasting". The New York Times. June 10, 1966. Archived from the original on July 23, 2018. Retrieved August 25, 2012. Goddard Lieberson, one of the more prominent figures in the phonograph recording industry, has been named the president of the C.B.S./Columbia Group, a new unit of the Columbia Broadcasting System for expanded activities in education and music. The unit is part of the company's long-range plans to achieve greater diversification outside the field of broadcasting.
^"CBS/Sony Inc". The New York Times. December 8, 1982. p. D4. Archived from the original on May 11, 2013. Retrieved July 20, 2009.
^ abPareles, Jon (January 4, 1989). "CBS Records to Buy Tree, Ending an Era in Nashville". The New York Times. p. D1. Archived from the original on September 1, 2020. Retrieved January 2, 2021. CBS Songs, the record company's publishing arm, was sold in 1986 for $125 million to Stephen Swid, Martin Bandier and Charles Koppelman, who renamed it SBK Entertainment. It is now the second-largest music publishing company.
^Llewellyn, Howell (May 27, 2000). "The Spanish Star Shines". Billboard. p. 76. Retrieved January 2, 2021. When Sony bought CBS, Spain had to keep the name Sony CBS instead of Sony Columbia, until Sony bought the rights to the name Columbia from BMG Spain.