RCA Records logo 1968–87; revived as of 2015
|Parent company||Sony Music Entertainment
a subsidiary of Sony Corporation of America, Inc.
|Founded||1901(114 years ago)|
Eldridge R. Johnson
|Distributor(s)||Sony Music Entertainment
(in the US)
RCA Label Group
(Outside the US)
|Country of origin||United States|
|Location||New York City, New York, United States|
RCA Records is the second-oldest recording company in U.S. history, after Columbia. RCA's Canadian unit (formerly Berliner Gramophone Canada) is Sony's oldest label in Canada, as it was only one of two Canadian record companies (Compo Company, now Universal Music Canada, is the other) to survive the Great Depression.
RCA is the name of three different co-owned record labels. RCA Records is the pop, rock, hip-hop, R&B and country music label. RCA Victor is the label for blues music, world music, jazz, musicals, religious music and other musical genres which do not fit the pop music mold. RCA Red Seal is the renowned classical music label with a reissue sub-label called RCA Gold Seal.
Besides manufacturing records for themselves, RCA Victor also operated RCA Custom which was the leading record manufacturer for independent record labels. RCA operated three strategically located record manufacturing plants in the U.S. and advertised overnight delivery to record distributors. RCA Custom also pressed record compilations for The Reader's Digest Association.
Currently, Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment's catalog division, reissues classic albums for RCA.
In 1929, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company, then the world's largest manufacturer of phonographs (including the famous "Victrola") and phonograph records (in British English, "gramophone records"). The company then became RCA Victor. With Victor, RCA acquired New World rights to the famous Nipper trademark. While in Shanghai, China, RCA Victor was the main competitor with Baak Doi.
In September 1931, RCA Victor introduced the first 33⅓ rpm records sold to the public, calling them "Program Transcriptions". These used a shallower and more closely spaced implementation of the large "standard groove" found on contemporary 78 rpm records, rather than the "microgroove" used for post-World War II 33⅓ rpm "LP" (Long Play) records. In the depths of the Great Depression, the format was a commercial failure, partly because the new playback equipment they required was expensive. After two or three years the format was abandoned and two-speed turntables were no longer offered in consumer products, but some Program Transcriptions lingered in the company's record catalog throughout the decade.
During the early part of the depression, RCA made a number of attempts to produce a successful cheap label to compete with the "Dime Store Labels" (Perfect, Oriole, Banner, Melotone, etc.). In 1932, Bluebird Records was created as a sub-label of RCA Victor. It was originally an 8-inch record with a dark blue label, alongside an 8-inch Electradisk label (sold at Woolworth's). Neither were a success. In 1933, RCA reintroduced Bluebird and Electradisk as a standard 10-inch label (Bluebird's label was redesigned as it became known as the 'buff' label). Another cheap label, Sunrise, was produced (although nobody seems to know for whom it was produced, as Sunrise records are exceptionally rare). The same musical couplings were issued on all three labels, and Bluebird survived long after Electradisk and Sunrise were discontinued. RCA also produced records for Montgomery Ward during the 1930s.
RCA sold its interest in EMI in 1935, but EMI continued to distribute RCA recordings on the HMV label. RCA also manufactured and distributed HMV classical recordings on the HMV label in North America.
From 1942 to 1944, RCA Victor was seriously impacted by the American Federation of Musicians recording ban. Virtually all union musicians could not make recordings during that period. One of the few exceptions was the eventual release of recorded performances by the NBC Symphony Orchestra with Arturo Toscanini. However, RCA lost the Philadelphia Orchestra during this period; when Columbia Records settled quickly with the union, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphians signed a new contract with Columbia and began making recordings in 1944.
In 1949, RCA Victor introduced the 7-inch 45 rpm fine-grooved vinyl record, marketed simply as a "45". The new format, which had been under development for several years, was RCA Victor's belatedly unveiled alternative to the 12-inch and 10-inch 33⅓ rpm microgroove vinyl "LP" (Long Play) discs introduced by arch-rival CBS/Columbia in 1948. In heavy promotion, RCA sold compact, inexpensive add-on and stand-alone units that played the 45 rpm format exclusively. At first, RCA Victor's 45s were issued on colored vinyl according to the musical genre: ordinary pop music on black vinyl, prestigious Broadway musicals and operettas on "midnight blue" vinyl, classical music on red vinyl, country and polka on green, children's fare on yellow, rhythm and blues on orange or cerise, and international on teal. This array of colors complicated the production process and the practice was soon discontinued. The use of vinyl, which was much more expensive than the gritty shellac compound normally used for 78s, was made economically practical by the smaller diameter and greatly reduced bulk of the new discs, which required very little raw material.
The 45 was marketed as a direct replacement for 10-inch and 12-inch 78 rpm records, which typically played for about three and four minutes per side respectively. RCA also released some "extended play" (EP) 45s with playing times up to 7 minutes per side, primarily for light classical selections, as typified by an Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra disc featuring Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave and Ketèlbey's In a Persian Market. Boxed sets of four to six 45s were issued, each set providing about the same amount of music as one LP. (The extreme case of these boxed sets was the opera Carmen, consisting of sixteen 45 rpm discs.) In the case of symphonies and other longer classical music, there had to be an interruption every few minutes as one disc side ended and another was started up. These disruptive "side breaks", a nuisance familiar to classical listeners from similar sets of 78 rpm records, were minimized by an extremely fast automatic record-changing mechanism that was a core feature of RCA Victor's 45 players. The 45 became the standard format for pop music singles, overtaking U.S. sales of the same material on 78s by 1954, but the LP prevailed as the standard format for classical music and convenient one-disc "album" collections of eight or more pop songs.
In 1950, realizing that Columbia's LP format had become successful and fearful that RCA was losing market share, RCA Victor began issuing LPs themselves. Among the first RCA LPs released was a performance of Gaîté Parisienne by Jacques Offenbach, played by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, which had actually been recorded in Boston's Symphony Hall on June 20, 1947; it was given the catalogue number LM-1001. Non-classical albums were issued with the prefix "LPM." When RCA Victor later issued classical stereo albums (in 1958), they used the prefix "LSC." Non-classical stereo albums were issued with the prefix "LSP." RCA utilized these catalog prefixes until 1973.
Through the 1940s and 1950s, RCA was in competition with Columbia Records. A number of recordings were made with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini; sometimes RCA utilized recordings of broadcast concerts (Toscanini had been recording for the label since the days of acoustic recordings, and RCA Victor had been recording the NBC Symphony since its creation in 1937). When the NBC Symphony was reorganized in the fall of 1954 as the Symphony of the Air, it continued to record for RCA, as well as other labels, usually with Leopold Stokowski. RCA also released a number of recordings with the Victor Symphony Orchestra, later renamed the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, which was usually drawn from either Philadelphia or New York musicians, as well as members of the Symphony of the Air. By the late 1950s RCA had fewer high prestige orchestras under contract than Columbia had: RCA recorded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Pops, whereas Columbia had the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
On October 6, 1953, RCA held experimental stereophonic sessions in New York's Manhattan Center with Leopold Stokowski conducting a group of New York musicians in performances of George Enescu's Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1 and the waltz from Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin. There were additional stereo tests in December, again in the Manhattan Center, this time with Pierre Monteux conducting members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In February 1954, RCA made its first commercial stereophonic recordings, taping the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Münch, in a performance of The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz. This began a practice of simultaneously recording orchestras with both stereophonic and monaural equipment. Other early stereo recordings were made by Toscanini and Guido Cantelli respectively, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra; the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler; and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. Initially, RCA used RT-21 quarter-inch tape recorders (which ran at 30 inches per second), wired to mono mixers, with Neumann U-47 cardioid and M-49/50 omnidirectional microphones. Then they switched to an Ampex 300-3 one-half inch machine, running at 15 inches per second (which was later increased to 30 inches per second). These recordings were initially issued in 1955 on special stereophonic reel-to-reel tapes and then, beginning in 1958, on vinyl LPs with the logo "Living Stereo." Sony Music and successor companies have continued to reissue these recordings on CD. Another 1953 project for RCA was converting the acoustically superior building Webster Hall into its East Coast recording studio. It operated this studio venue from 1953 to 1968.
In September 1954, RCA introduced "Gruve-Gard" where the center and edge of a disc are thicker than the playing area, reducing scuff marks during handling and when used on a turntable with a record changer. Most of RCA Victor Records' competitors quickly adopted the raised label and edges.
In 1955, RCA purchased the recording contract of Elvis Presley from Sun Records for the then astronomical sum of $35,000. Presley would become RCA's biggest selling recording artist. His first gold record was "Heartbreak Hotel", recorded in January 1956.
In 1957, RCA ended its 55-year association with EMI and signed a distribution deal with Decca Records, which caused EMI to purchase Capitol Records. Capitol then became the main distributor for EMI recordings in North and South America, with RCA distributing its recordings through Decca in the United Kingdom on the RCA label. This had the lightning bolt logo instead of the His Master's Voice Nipper logo (now owned by HMV in the UK as EMI transferred trademark ownership in 2003). RCA set up its own British distribution in 1969.
Also in 1957, RCA opened a state-of-the-art recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee, which recorded hit after hit for RCA and other labels for 20 years and is now open for tours as RCA Studio B. Elvis Presley made most of his recordings in this studio.
In 1960, RCA announced the Compact 33 double and singles. In January 1961, these discs hit the market. The Compact 33 discs were released simultaneously with their 45 rpm counterparts. The long-term goal was to phase out the 45 rpm, but by early 1962 the campaign had failed.
In 1963, RCA introduced Dynagroove which added computer technology to the disc cutting process, ostensibly to improve sound reproduction. Whether it was actually an improvement or not is still debated among audiophiles.
In September 1965, RCA and Lear Jet Corp. teamed up to release the first stereo 8-track tape music Cartridges (Stereo 8) which were first used in the 1966 line of Ford automobiles and were popular throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. (The initial release comprised 175 titles from RCA Victor and RCA Camden's catalog of artists.)
In late 1968, RCA modernized its image with a new futuristic-looking logo (the letters RCA in block modernized form), replacing the old lightning bolt logo, and the virtual retirement of both the Victor and Nipper trademarks. The background of the labels, which had always been black for its regular series (as opposed to its Red Seal line), switched to a bright orange or yellow (becoming tan later in the 1970s). In late 1976, RCA Records reinstated Nipper to most of its record labels (as well as returning to the traditional black label color for popular releases) in countries where RCA had the rights to the Nipper trademark.
In late 1969, RCA introduced a very thin, lightweight vinyl LP known as Dynaflex. This type of pressing claimed to overcome warping and other problems in conventional thicker pressings, but it had a controversial reputation in the industry and was abandoned later in the decade.
In April 1970 RCA announced the first quadraphonic 4-channel 8-track tape cartridges ("Quad-8," later called just Q8). RCA then began releasing quadraphonic vinyl recordings in the United States in February 1973, in the CD-4 format developed by Japan Victor Corporation (JVC), and made commercially practical by Quadracast Systems Inc. (QSI). RCA's trade name became "Quadradisc." The CD-4 format required a special cartridge that had a ±1 db frequency response out to 50 kHz, a CD-4 demodulator which decoded the difference between the front and rear channels from a 30 kHz subcarrier, four separate amplifier channels, and four separate speakers for the left and right front and left and right rear. Both the CD-4 Quadradisc and Quad-8 tape cartridge systems were true discrete 4-4-4 quadraphonic systems. Columbia introduced a quadraphonic matrix system, SQ, which required a decoder, 4-channel amplifier and the four speakers. The SQ system was referred to as a 4-2-4 matrix system. The Warner Music labels also adopted the Quadradisc format, but they, RCA and Columbia abandoned quadraphonic recording within a few years; some of the RCA sessions were later remastered for Dolby encoding (same as Peter Scheiber's original matrix system) and released on CD. This included Charles Gerhardt's series of albums devoted to classic film scores by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and others, performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra in London's Kingsway Hall.
When General Electric acquired RCA in 1986, the company sold its 50% interest in RCA/Ariola International to its partner Bertelsmann and the company was renamed BMG Music for Bertelsmann Music Group. BMG brought back the lightning bolt logo that was last used in 1968 to make clear that RCA Records was no longer co-owned with the other RCA entities which GE sold or closed. The only RCA unit GE kept was the National Broadcasting Company. BMG also revived the "RCA Victor" label for musical genres outside of country, pop and rock music.
Many artists such as Eurythmics, indie-popsters The Bongos, Grayson Hugh and Rick Astley recorded with RCA in the 1980s. Co-writer Marvin Walters worked closely with both artists producing hit songs such as "Set Me Free" for Rich and "Pretty Girl" for Pride.[clarification needed] Walters left RCA when it sold its interest to BMG.
In the 1990s, RCA's corporate structure basically remained the same. Also, RCA had marked success in the contemporary jazz genres with artists such as Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts, Opafire and Hugh Masekela, as well as an explosion of urban talent, such as Tyrese, SWV, Chantay Savage, and others. Some of these artists, such as Mobb Deep, recorded for the RCA label via a distribution deal with Loud Records, which remained distributed by RCA until 1999. Many of these artists have since left RCA for a number of reasons, such as SWV's breakup and Tyrese's move to J Records. Also, artists of other genres, such as Christina Aguilera and The Dave Matthews Band were launched by the RCA label in the '90s. The Foo Fighters joined the label in 1999.
RCA saw continued success with artists such as Christina Aguilera, the Dave Matthews Band, the Foo Fighters, and later The Strokes. New acts that signed to the label included Kings of Leon and various American Idol contestants such as Kelly Clarkson and David Cook. Early in the decade the label became part of the RCA Music Group which also included Arista Records and J Records. The company was headed by Clive Davis until April 2008.
In 2004, BMG and Sony merged their music holdings into a joint venture called Sony BMG. Because Sony Music was the successor to the old CBS record division, this merger meant that RCA Records, once owned by parent RCA, was now under the same umbrella as the label once owned by RCA's rival, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), Columbia Records.
In 2006, Sony BMG merged its Broadway music labels, including RCA Victor, to the new Masterworks Broadway Records.
In 2008, Sony acquired Bertelsmann's interest in the record company which was officially renamed Sony Music Entertainment at the start of 2009. RCA became part of the newly formed RCA/Jive Label Group (also known as RCA Records Group) as a result.
In August 2011, Peter Edge was named CEO of RCA Music Group. In October of that year, Jive, Arista and J were shuttered, and RCA Music Group was renamed RCA Records, making it a standalone label under the Sony Music umbrella. Multiple artists from the Jive, Arista and J imprints were shifted to RCA.
RCA has produced several notable Broadway cast albums as well, among them the original Broadway recordings of Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, the Mary Martin Peter Pan, Damn Yankees, Hello, Dolly!, Oliver!, and Fiddler on the Roof. RCA has also recorded and released recordings of revival stagings of musicals. These include the musical productions staged at Lincoln Center, such as the 1966 revivals of Show Boat and Annie Get Your Gun, the 1987 revival of Anything Goes and the 1998 Broadway revivals of Cabaret and The Sound of Music. Call Me Madam was recorded by RCA Victor with all of its original cast except for its star Ethel Merman, who, due to contractual obligations, could not be released from her American Decca Records contract. She was replaced on the RCA album by Dinah Shore. RCA was also responsible for the film soundtrack albums of Damn Yankees, South Pacific, Bye Bye Birdie, Half a Sixpence, and The Sound of Music. The album made from the 1965 hit Julie Andrews film was (and is) one of the best selling soundtracks of all time. The film soundtrack of Oliver!, made by Colgems Records, was distributed by RCA, which had released the Broadway cast album. RCA also released the original American cast album of Hair.
Similarly, RCA Victor also made several studio cast recording albums, including a Lerner and Loewe series with Jan Peerce, Jane Powell, and Robert Merrill, as well as a 1963 album of excerpts from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, with its 1952 revival leads, Leontyne Price and William Warfield, but a different supporting cast. They also issued two studio cast versions of Show Boat, one with Robert Merrill, Patrice Munsel, and Rise Stevens in 1956, and the other with Howard Keel, Anne Jeffreys, and Gogi Grant in 1958. Unfortunately, contrary to the way the show is written, both of these Show Boat albums featured all-white casts, reflecting the era of racial segregation.
All of these recordings are now under Masterworks Broadway Records, which has remastered and reissued many of these albums.
RCA Victor also issued several spoken word albums in the 1950s and 60s, notably the soundtracks of the films Richard III, A Man for All Seasons and The Taming of the Shrew, as well as complete versions of the National Theatre of Great Britain stage productions of Othello (starring Laurence Olivier) and Much Ado About Nothing (starring Maggie Smith, who also played Desdemona in the Olivier Othello). None of these albums have appeared on compact disc, but the films of Richard III, A Man For All Seasons, The Taming of the Shrew and the Olivier Othello have all been issued on DVD.
Canadian rockers Triumph claimed to be ignored by the label. When the band wanted to resign from their deal with RCA, the label refused. Afterwards, MCA Records executive Irving Azoff co-opted their debts and bought the band out of their RCA contract and signed them for five albums.
In 2007, reports said that many RCA workers, including mogul Clive Davis, were unhappy with Kelly Clarkson's album My December. Davis was even said to offer Clarkson $10 million to scrap five of her songs, but she refused. Months of controversy concluded with Clarkson's tour being rescheduled, My December becoming the lowest-selling album of her career, and Clarkson joining Starstruck Entertainment. In 2009, RCA persisted in releasing the Ryan Tedder-produced "Already Gone" as the third single off Clarkson's album, All I Ever Wanted, despite Clarkson objecting to this because of its similarities to another Tedder production: Beyoncé's song, "Halo". The press noted the similarities between the two songs.
In November 2010, singer Avril Lavigne explained the reason for the long delay of her fourth album, Goodbye Lullaby, which she said was completed a year prior. She wrote to her fans stating she had "experienced a bunch of bureaucratic BS" prior to the label's belated decision to release it. Disagreements between Lavigne and RCA resulted in the album's release date being pushed back several times until it finally came out in March 2011. In October 2011, Lavigne confirmed that she had left RCA Records for Epic Records.
After singer Kenny Rogers left the label, RCA was accused of trying to ruin his career. Rogers signed to RCA in 1983 for an advance sum of $20 million (the largest deal ever in country music at that time) when Bob Summer was head of the label. Shortly after Rogers' first album for RCA, Summer was fired (for unrelated reasons) by RCA. Deciding it would make the label look bad for firing Summer if Rogers continued to be a major success (his duet with Dolly Parton, "Islands in the Stream", had been one of the biggest hits of 1983), Rogers maintains in his autobiography that he received very little support from the label during the next several years he was with them. Although Rogers and RCA parted ways many years ago, the results of the conflict can still be seen today. In 1989, RCA removed all of Rogers' solo albums from its catalog soon after he returned to Reprise, where he had recorded when he was a rock artist with his former group, The First Edition. Rogers, in turn, reclaimed rights to those albums for himself as RCA refused to keep them, with only Once Upon A Christmas (a 1984 album of seasonal duets with Parton) remaining in print on RCA. Recent CD reissues of that album have omitted the tracks on which Rogers sang solo.
Neil Sedaka first became a star with RCA Victor in 1958 and was on the label until the end of 1966. The company contributed to his mid-1960s decline by refusing to release his version of "It Hurts To Be In Love" in 1964, because it was not recorded in their studios as stipulated by his contract. His attempts to replicate the song in their studios were unsuccessful. Ultimately, Musicor's Gene Pitney picked it up and turned "It Hurts To Be In Love" into a #7-ranked hit for himself and his label. The loss of this song, combined with the British Invasion and RCA's disinterest in promoting him, hastened his decline in popularity and led to his contract expiring without renewal at the end of 1966. Sedaka would rejoin the label briefly in 1971–1972 for his Emergence and Solitaire albums, but despite the efforts of his friend Don Kirshner, RCA did not promote either of these albums extensively. Sedaka would later revive his career in the 1970s with Polydor Records and Rocket Records. RCA, seeking to capitalize on his new fame, began releasing assorted repackaging of his old hits on their family of labels.
RCA and Sedaka have been at odds for decades over ownership rights over Sedaka's original master tapes from his late 1950s/early 1960s hits. This has forced Sedaka to re-record his old hits and make them sound as close and authentic to the originals as possible.
RCA Victor decided to demolish their Camden warehouse in the early 1960s. This warehouse held four floors' worth of catalog and vault masters (most of them were pre-tape wax and metal discs), test pressings, lacquer discs, matrix ledgers, and rehearsal recordings. A few days before the demolition took place, some collectors from the US and Europe were allowed to go through the warehouse and salvage whatever they could carry with them for their personal collections. Soon after, collectors and RCA Records officials watched from a nearby bridge as the warehouse was demolished, with many studio masters still intact in the building. The remnants were bulldozed into the Delaware River and a pier was built on top of them. In 1973, when the company decided to release all of Rachmaninoff's recordings on LPs (to celebrate the centennial of the composer's birth), RCA was forced to go to record collectors for materials, as documented by Time.
In the early 1920s, Victor was slow about getting deeply involved in recording and marketing black jazz and vocal blues. By the mid to late 1920s, Victor had signed Jelly Roll Morton, Bennie Moten, Duke Ellington and other black bands and were becoming very competitive with Columbia and Brunswick, even starting their own V-38000 "Hot Dance" series that was marketed to all Victor dealers. They also had a V-38500 "race" series, a 23000 'hot dance' continuation of the V-38000 series, as well as a 23200 'Race' series with blues, gospel and some hard jazz. However, throughout the 1930s, Victor's involvement in jazz and blues slowed down and by the time of the musicians' strike and the end of the war, Victor was neglecting the R&B (race) scene, which is one of the reasons so many independent companies sprang up so successfully.
In the 1970s, the label let much of its catalog go out of print. This pattern affected its jazz catalog most greatly, followed by its classical music catalog.
In the compact disc era a small proportion of its jazz catalog has been reissued. (For example, Jelly Roll Morton albums were reissued; but they were removed from circulation in less than ten years.) Similarly, only a fraction of its vast classical catalog has remained available on compact disc.