Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, the biggest record group in the USA and internationally third behind EMI and CBS by 1990. The American film company Warner Brothers first entered music in 1930 when they bought Brunswick Records; they also bought four leading music publishers for $28m. Partly because of the Depression and because they knew nothing about the music business, these ventures failed and were sold off. (In 1982, 80 crates of priceless manuscript by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers etc were found in a WB warehouse in New Jersey, dating from that period.) WB entered the record business again in 1958 with its own Warner Brothers label, relying at first on movie stars like Tab Hunter; they signed the Everly Brothers, whose first WB release was the first on WB's own logo in the UK: 'Cathy's Clown' was the biggest Everly hit, spending five weeks at no. 1 in the USA, seven in UK. WB also signed Peter Paul and Mary, but big success came with amalgamations. WB bought Reprise from Frank Sinatra in 1963 in order to secure him as an actor, and were themselves taken over by the Elliot Hyman's upstart film distribution company Seven Arts in 1966 (buying out Jack Warner for $32m); Atlantic/Atco/Cotillion were added in 1968 (see Atlantic); WB-Seven Arts were taken over by Steve Ross's Kinney National Services in 1969 and purchased Elektra from Jac Holzman for $10m (he'd started it in 1950 with $600) and Asylum from David Geffen in 1970 (see Geffen's entry), becoming WEA (a division of WCI, Warner Communications Inc). Ross had built up his family funeral parlour and car-rental businesses, gone public and set out to be a mover and shaker in entertainment; soon it was obvious that most of the Warner profits were coming from records, not films.

The British Invasion of the '60s hadn't done the company much good, though Reprise licensed Petula Clark and the Kinks from Pye. But Sinatra had hired Mo Ostin away from Verve to run Reprise, and Ostin was one of the best record men of the era. The road was rocky at first (see Fred Goodman's The Mansion On The Hill for the shake-up of the record business during this period) but as Ostin gained experience Warner-Reprise became a more artist-oriented company than others, signing artists of lasting quality: WB had Van Morrison, James Taylor and the Association, and took a chance on Ry Cooder, who had never made an album; Reprise had Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Kenny Rogers; the group also did interesting and creative offbeat things e.g. with Van Dyke Parks and Captain Beefheart. Originally a folk label, Elektra as part of WEA was floundering when it was taken over in 1983 by music marketer Bob Krasnow (b 20 July 1934; d 11 December 2016) who signed Anita Baker, Björk, Tracy Chapman, 10,000 Maniacs, and heavy rock like Mötley Crüe and Metallica. WEA's UK subsidiary paid for itself by signing Fleetwood Mac. In the '70s-80s WEA slowly grew; an attempt to buy PolyGram was thwarted by other labels on anti-trust grounds, though WEA did acquire the UK music publisher Chappells, once owned by PolyGram. Van Halen, the Cars, deals with Sire Records (Madonna) and Paisley Park (Prince) kept WEA at the top; creativity continued with Laurie Anderson. WEA UK had one of the best press offices of any record company in London and the company was willing to gamble: it released a nice solo album by soul singer Stan Campbell (b 2 January 1962, Coventry) which disappeared without a trace, and picked up Mary Coughlan in the mid-'80s, still a highly rated chanteuse.

Ross paid people well and allowed Ostin at Warner-Reprise, Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic and Krasnow at Elektra to operate without much interference, so that while becoming a giant WEA somehow managed to remain artist-oriented; as country music became more important than ever, releases by Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams Jr, the Forrester Sisters, Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis etc had integrity in their production that was a company trademark. The only person who ever outsharked Ross was David Geffen, and that was a gamble that paid off. But the magic couldn't last for ever. Ross engineered a merger between Warner Communications and Time Inc. in 1990 and Time-Warner became one of the biggest media companies in the world; Geffen had been given his Geffen Records, created and sustained with Warner Brothers' money; Ross's friends Clint Eastwood, Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg all got stock options; but the new company was too big, one part of it worrying about the state of the nation while another part sold records urging cop-killing. Ostin left in 1995 to join Dreamworks SKG Music with Spielberg, Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and a Warner executive said in 1996, 'Nothing has been the same ... It's all about money now.' It was always about money, but somehow a few people like Ostin had managed to transcend that.

Next, Time Warner acquired AOL, the tottering Internet connection, and that was the last straw; the bloated edifice had to be rationalised. By 2007 the Warner Elektra Group, comprising Atlantic, Elektra, and Warner, had shed its ties with AOL and Time, so was miraculously once again the last industry giant that was not part of a conglomerate. They also own Rhino, one of the best reissue labels ever, but whose product is not promoted, e.g. Rare and Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul, a 2-CD set of vintage Aretha Franklin, compiled by Jerry Wexler and David Ritz, track-by-track documentation and 18 pages of notes by Wexler. We should have heard about this on TV and in the newspapers, but it's treated like a secret. Strange are the ways of the record biz.