The Three Major Record Labels

Record Label -

The Three Major Record Labels

To read the back catalogue of the biggest three record labels - Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros. - is to basically look at the history of 20th century pop music. Though many began from humble roots, today, these three giant names represent many of the biggest artists in the world.

The paths towards success for ‘the Big Three’, as they’re known, is far from a straight line. In fact, most of these labels began as something else entirely with different names and owners and then through years of legal acquisitions and licensing agreements became the music behemoths we know today.

Here’s just a brief overview.

Sony Music

Famous Sony artists you might know:

  • Beyonce
  • Shakira
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Michael Jackson
  • Britney Spears

Like we said, looking at these record labels is like looking at the history of popular music. Sony Music as we know it today began in the early 1990’s but it’s actually made up of many other labels. Some of these label names you may even recognize -- Columbia Records, RCA Records, Epic Records and Arista Records are just some of the labels under the Sony banner today.

Columbia Records is a good example to look at. Founded over a hundred and thirty years ago in 1889, Columbia Records began its life as the American Graphophone Company and then evolved eventually becoming Columbia in 1931. Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra, AC/DC, Yo-Yo-Ma, and Bob Dylan are just a few of the artists who’ve signed on with Columbia Records.

Michael Jackson and his battle with Sony

In the early 2000’s, right before releasing his last album Invincible, Michael Jackson ran into legal troubles with Sony. Jackson had expected licensing rights to his earlier albums to revert back to him. If this happened, he would have been able to promote his own material in any way he wanted and keep all the profits for himself.

However, certain clauses in the contract set back Jackson’s contractual release date by years. Not only that, but the attorney who’d represented him during the initial deal had also worked for Sony. Naturally, Jackson suspected that he’d been swindled.

The King of Pop tried to get out of the contract and accused then Sony Music Chairman Tommy Mottola of being a racist. He alleged that Mottola had referred to Jackson’s friend and music executive Irv Gotti by a vicious racial epithet. Jackson also said that Mottola was intent upon exploiting black artists for his own gain.

In the end, despite these accusations, Sony refused to renew Michael Jackson’s contract and claimed $25million from the star because of his refusal to tour the U.S..


Famous Universal artists:

  • Kendrick Lamar
  • Elton John
  • Lady Gaga
  • Guns N’Roses
  • Taylor Swift
Much like Sony Music, Universal Music has a long and storied rise behind it. It’s also the amalgamation of a number of different labels including Def Jam Recordings, EMI, Geffen, Island, Republic Records. Universal Music in itself has actually been owned by a French media conglomerate called Vivendi, who also own DailyMotion and Gameloft, since the 1970’s.

However, you can more or less trace the beginning of Universal's story back to 1934 and the launch of Decca Records. This is the same label that would go on to sign artists throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s such as Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Billie Holiday. They even put out the first recording of ‘White Christmas’ by Bing Crosby in 1940.

Similarly to Warner and Sony, Universal have acquired many additional labels over the years most notably EMI. Up to its acquisition in 2012, EMI was considered the fourth biggest label in the music industry.


Have you ever heard about the Universal studios fire?

In 2008, a fire broke out in a space rented by Universal Studios which destroyed 500,000 master recordings of songs. It was described in the New York Times as “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”

Destroyed in the fire were master tapes of landmark albums in jazz, pop music, and classic released from Decca in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Additionally, there were iconic blues and jazz albums released on Chess and Impulse!.

A lawsuit against Universal has since been on behalf of the artists Soundgarden, Hole, Steve Earle, Tupac Shakur, and Tom Petty to seek class action status.

Warner Bros.

Famous Warner Bros. Artists

  • Prince
  • Madonna
  • Gorillaz
  • Dua Lipa
  • Neil Young

The commonality between the Big Three is that they’ve gotten to the top of the pile by accumulating all of the smaller players. Warner Bros, or more specifically Warner Music Group (WMG) is no different. Asylum, Fueled by Ramen, Reprise, Roadrunner, east west, Atlantic, Big Beat are just a few of the names in the Warner Bros. family.

One of the labels that fall under the WMG banner are Atlantic Records. Arguably one of the most iconic names in popular music history.

Atlantic Records’ rich artist history includes classic bands and musicians like Led Zeppelin, John Coltrane, Donny Hathaway, Genesis, Charles Mingus as well as modern hitmakers such as Charli XCX, Cardi B, and Bruno Mars. Any label that can boast both Gnarls Barkley and Hall & Oates in their back catalog must be doing something right.

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince & Warner Bros.

Like his musical enemy, Michael Jackson, Prince also had legal disputes with his record label. His particular disputes took place over financial and artistic control of his music with Warner Bros. and resulted in a now legendary name change.

At the time, Prince was growing increasingly frustrated with the label’s reluctance to release Prince’s huge backlog of music. He viewed this as a way to control his artistic expression.

During this troubled period, Prince wrote ‘slave’ on his cheek and would ultimately change his name to the Love Symbol. For a period then he was referred to as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, or simply, The Artist.

Unlike Micahel Jackson though, Prince’s legal story ended with him being released from contractual obligations and releasing music on his own terms from then on.