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Warner Bros. Records Inc. is an Americanmarker record label that operates as a wholly owned subsidiary of Warner Music Group. It is also affectionately known as Warners or the Bunny, based on the Bugs Bunny cartoons released by Warner Bros. Pictures.



Warner Bros. Records was originally established in 1958 as the recorded music division of the American movie studio Warner Bros. Pictures. For most of its existence Warner Bros Records was one of a group of labels owned and operated by larger parent corporations. The sequence of companies that controlled Warner Bros and its allied labels evolved through a convoluted series of corporate mergers and acquisitions from the late 1960s to the early 2000s. Over this period, Warner Bros. Records grew from a struggling minor player in the industry to become one of the top recording labels in the world.

In 2003 these music assets were divested by their then owner Time Warner and purchased by a private equity group. This independent company currently trades as the Warner Music Group (WMG), of which Warner Bros. Records is still an active label. WMG is currently the third-largest of the four major international music conglomerates and the world's only publicly traded major music company. The group's extensive publishing assets, which include over one million song copyrights by more than 65,000 songwriters, currently make it the world's largest music publisher.

At the end of the silent movie era Warner Bros. Pictures decided to expand into publishing and recording so that it could access low-cost music content for its films. In 1928 the studio acquired several smaller music publishing firms -- including M. Witmark & Sons, Remick Music Corp., Harms Inc. and a partial interest in New World Music Corp. -- and merged them to form the Music Publishers Holding Company, which controlled valuable copyrights on standards by George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern and the new division was soon earning solid profits of up to US$2 million annually.

In 1930 MPHC paid US$28 million to acquire Brunswick Records, whose roster included Duke Ellington, Red Nichols, Leroy Carr, Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie, and soon after the sale to Warners, the label signed rising radio and recording star Bing Crosby. Unfortunately for Warners, the impact of the Great Depression soon decimated the record industry and sales plummeted from 104 million in 1927 to just 6 million by 1932, when the label was offloaded to the American Record Corporation (ARC) for a fraction of its former value. This loss implanted a deep suspicion about the music industry in Warner corporate director Herman Starr, who also headed MPHC from 1939. Due to Starr's considerable influence with Jack Warner, the studio stayed out of the record business for more than 25 years, and during this period it licensed its film music to other companies for release as soundtrack albums.

1958-1963: formation and early years

Warner Bros. re-entered the record business with the establishment of a new subsidiary, Warner Bros Records, in 1958. By this time the established Hollywood studios were reeling from multiple challenges to their former dominance, the most notable being the introduction of television in the late 1940s. Legal changes also had a major impact -- lawsuits brought by major stars had effectively overthrown the old studio contract system by the late 1940s; Warner Bros. Pictures sold off much of its movie library in 1948 (although, ironically, Time Warner's 1989 takeover of Turner Broadcasting returned most of the Warner archive to the company) and in 1949 anti-trust action by the US government forced the five major studios to sell off their cinema chains.

In 1956 Harry Warner and Albert Warner sold their interest in the studio and the board was joined by new members -- Charles Allen of the investment bank Charles Allen & Company, Serge Semenenko of the First National Bank of Boston and investor David Baird -- who were more favourably disposed to a renewed expansion into the music business. Semenenko in particular had a strong professional interest in the entertainment business and he began to push Jack Warner on the issue of setting up an 'in-house' record label. With the record business booming -- sales had topped US$500 million by 1958 -- Semenenko argued that it was foolish for Warners to make deals with other companies to release its soundtracks when, for less than the cost of one motion picture, they could establish their own label, creating a new income stream that could continue indefinitely and providing an additional means of exploiting and promoting its contract actors.

Another impetus for the label's creation was the fact that Warner Bros. contract actor Tab Hunter scored a number one hit in 1957 with the single "Young Love", recorded for Dot Records. To Warners' chagrin, reporters were primarily asking about the hit record, instead of Hunter's latest Warner movie. The company quickly signed Hunter to the newly formed record division, although his subsequent recordings for the label failed to duplicate the success that he had with Dot.

Warners had agreed to buy Imperial Records in 1956 and although the deal fell apart it signified the passing of a psychological barrier -- if they were willing to buy another label, why not start their own? To establish the label Warner Bros hired former Columbia Records president James Conkling, an able administrator with extensive experience in the industry -- he had been instrumental in launching the LP format at Columbia and had played a key role in establishing the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences the previous year. However, Conkling had decidedly middle-of-the-road musical tastes (he was married to one of the King Sisters) and he was rather out of step with emerging trends in the industry, especially the fast-growing market for rock'n'roll music.

Warner Bros. Records opened for business on 19 March 1958, and its original office was located above the film studio's machine shop at 3701 Warner Boulevard in Burbank, California. Its first batch of stereo albums, which mirrored the MOR taste of its president, was a bland collection aimed at the upscale end of the mainstream market. This included:

  • an album of love songs recited over orchestral backings performed by actor Jack Webb (who was a friend of Conkling)

  • an album by vocal octet The Smart Set (which featured an unattractive cover photo of eight baby birds in a nest [83681])

  • the bizarrely titled Music for People with $3.98, plus Tax, if Any credited to "Ira Ironstrings", a pseudonym for guitarist Alvino Rey (Conkling's brother-in-law) who was in fact under contract to Columbia at the time.

Not surprisingly, all were commercial failures.

Warner Bros. Records scored its first hit in 1959 with the novelty single "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" performed by Warner contract actor Edd Byrnes, who played the character Kookie on TV's 77 Sunset Strip, but the story behind the recording exemplified the sharp practices often employed by major recording companies. Connie Stevens sang the song's chorus, but although her contract entitled her to a 5 percent royalty rate, the label arbitrarily defined her contribution as a favour to Byrnes and they assigned her just 1% royalty on the song, despite the fact that Stevens soon discovered that her name was being prominently displayed on the single's label; Warner Bros. also charged her for a share of the recording costs, which was to be recouped from her drastically reduced royalty. This was the first in a string of insults Stevens suffered at the hands of her label -- when she scored her own hit with "Sixteen Reasons" in 1960, Warner Bros. refused to allow her to sing it on Hawaiian Eye because it was not published by MPHC, and they also prevented her from performing it on The Ed Sullivan Show, thereby robbing her of nationwide promotion and a $5000 appearance fee.

Despite these minor successes, the label was in serious financial trouble by 1960, having lost at least US$3 million; the only reason it was not closed down was because the Warner board was reluctant to write off the additional $2 million the label was owed in outstanding receivables and inventory. After a restructure, Conkling was obliged to report to Herman Starr, who still loathed the record business; he rejected a buyout offer by Conkling and a group of other record company employees but agreed to keep the label running in exchange for heavy cost-cutting -- the staff was reduced from 100 to 30 and Conkling voluntarily cut his pay from $1000 to $500.

Warner Bros then turned to rock'n'roll acts in in hopes of turning around the label's fortunes, but their first signing, Bill Haley, failed to score any hits. They were luckier with their next signing, The Everly Brothers (who had previously recorded for Cadence Records). In a bold and uncharacteristic move, Herman Starr effectively gambled the future of the company by approving what amounted to the first million-dollar contract in music history, which guaranteed the Everly Brothers $525,000 against an escalating royalty rate of up to 7 percent, well above the industry standard of the day. Luckily the Everlys' first Warner Bros single, "Cathy's Clown" was a smash hit, going to #1 in the U.S. and selling more than eight million copies.

In 1959 Warner Bros had signed rising standup comedian Bob Newhart, who provided the label's next major commercial breakthrough. In May 1960, three months after the success of "Cathy's Clown", Warners released Newhart's debut album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, which went straight to #1 in the U.S., staying at the top for fourteen weeks, charting for more than two years and selling more than 600,000 copies. Capping this commercial success, Newhart scored historic wins in three major categories at the 1961 Grammy Awards, winning Album of the Year for Button-Down Mind, while Newhart himself won Best New Artist -- the first time a comedy album had won 'Album of the Year', and the only time a comedian has won 'Best New Artist' -- while Newhart's quickly-released follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back(1960) also won the Grammy for Best Comedy Performance - Spoken Word.

New staff joined the label in late 1961 -- Jim Conkling retired in the fall of that year, selecting as his successor Mike Maitland, a former Capitol executive, and Joe Smith joined as head of promotion -- and Warner Bros made more successful signings in folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary and comedians Allan Sherman and Bill Cosby; Cosby continued the label's dream run with comedy LPs, releasing a string of highly successful albums for the label over the next six years, alongside his groundbreaking success as a TV actor.

Despite a dismal Christmas party to end 1961, the label's fortunes had finally turned around by 1962 thanks to the Everly Brothers, Newhart, Peter, Paul & Mary and Allan Sherman, whose LP My Son, the Folk Singer (which sent up the folk boom) also became a huge hit, selling over a million copies. As a result, Warner Bros Records ended the financial year 1961-62 in the black for the first time since its foundation.

Reprise takeover, 1963

In 1963, the year that Warner Bros. Pictures closed its famous animation division, the company purchased Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records in a "rescue" takeover, which paid Sinatra US$1.5 million and gave him a one-third share in the combined record company, as part of a broader deal to acquire Sinatra's services as an actor for Warner Bros Pictures.

Reprise was itself in financial straits at the time of the sale, and the Warner Bros staff were dismayed at being pushed back into debt by the acquisition. However they were reportedly not given a choice -- Ben Kalmenson, a company director and close aide to Jack Warner, summoned the Warner Records directors to a meeting in New York and explicitly told them that both he and Jack Warner wanted the deal and they expected them to vote in favour of it.

Ultimately, the deal proved very beneficial; Reprise flourished in the late 1960s thanks to Sinatra's famous "comeback" and the hits by Sinatra and his daughter Nancy, and the label also secured the U.S. distribution rights to the recordings of Jimi Hendrix. Most importantly for the future of the company, the merger brought Reprise manager Mo Ostin into the Warner fold and his influence and instincts were to be crucial to the success of the Warner labels over the next two decades and "his ultimate value to Warner Bros. would dwarf Sinatra's".

In 1964, Warner Bros successfully negotiated with French label Disques Vogue and Warners' British distributor Pye Records for the rights to distribute Petula Clark's recordings in the US, beginning with her international hit "Downtown." Warner also released other Pye artists to the U.S. market such as The Kinks. Eight years later, in 1972, Dionne Warwick was brought to the label after leaving Scepter Records in a deal that was the biggest contract at the time for a female recording artist, although Warwick's five years at Warners were relatively unsuccessful in comparison to her spectacular hit-making tenure at Scepter.

1967-1989: the WEA era

In 1967 Jack Warner sold his controlling share in the Warner empire to Seven Arts Productions for US$95 million and the group was renamed Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. Soon after this Warner's music division expanded dramatically with the purchase of one of the most famous and successful American independent labels, Atlantic Records.

In 1969 Warner-Seven Arts was taken over by Kinney National Services, a conglomerate with wide-ranging interests that included comic publishing, the Ashley-Famous talent agency, parking-lots, cleaning services and funeral parlours. Warner Bros. Records worldwide briefly adopted the 'umbrella' name Kinney Music, because U.S. anti-trust laws at the time prevented the three labels from trading as one, so Kinney renamed the film and music group Warner Communications. Its stewardship helped rebuild the company's image, which had been tarnished by corruption and payola scandals.

During this period the Warner Bros. label continued to build a prestigious rock/pop roster, beginning in the late 1960s with The Grateful Dead; by the early 1970s its signings included James Taylor, Van Morrison, America, Van Dyke Parks, Little Feat, Alice Cooper, Bonnie Raitt, Seals & Crofts and LaBelle.

Reprise also carved out its own distinctive niche, augmenting its complement of popular vocalists (Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Trini Lopez) with an eclectic roster ranging from popular music to comedy. This grew to include Lee Hazlewood, the early Joni Mitchell recordings, Neil Young, The Electric Prunes, The Kinks' Pye recordings, Arlo Guthrie, Norman Greenbaum, Tom Lehrer, Tiny Tim, Ry Cooder, Captain Beefheart, the early 1970s recordings by Frank Zappa and The Mothers, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Nico, The Fugs, Jethro Tull, Pentangle, T.Rex, The Meters, John Cale, Gordon Lightfoot, Michael Franks, Richard Pryor, Al Jarreau and the early '70s recordings of The Beach Boys.

1989-2004: the Time Warner era

In 1989 WEA's fortunes changed dramatically when the group was purchased for US$14 billion by the Time-Life media empire, creating Time Warner. Following the takeover, WEA continued acquiring independent labels, buying CGD Records (Italy) and MMG Records (Japan) in 1989, and in 1990 the French labels Carrere Disques and Erato. In 1991, WEA was renamed Warner Music.

In 1994 Canadian beverage giant Seagram bought a 14.5% stake in Time Warner, and the Warner publishing division -- now called Warner/Chappell Music -- acquired CPP/Belwin, becoming the largest world's largest owner of song copyrights and the world's largest publisher of printed music. In 1996 Time Warner made another dramatic expansion of its media holdings, taking over the Turner Broadcasting System, which by then included the Turner cable TV network, CNN and the screen production houses Castle Rock and New Line Cinema.

In 1998 Seagram boss Edgar Bronfman Jr. held talks aimed at merging Seagram's Universal Music with the venerable British recording company EMI, but the discussions came to nothing; Bronfman then oversaw Universal's takeover by Vivendi. WEA meanwhile continued to expand its publishing empire, buying a 90% stake in the Italian recording and music publishing group Nuova Fonit Cetra.

In 2000, Time Warner merged with leading American internet service provider AOL to craete AOL Time Warner. The new conglomerate again tried (and failed) to acquire EMI, and subsequent discussions about the takeover of BMG stalled, with Bertelsmann eventually offloading BMG into a joint venture with Sony. In 2002 AOLT-W further consolidated its hold over the publishing industry, buying 50% of music publisher Deston Songs from edel music AG. By the early 2000s, however, the effects of the "dotcom crash" had eroded AOL's profits and stock value, and in 2003 the Time Warner board sidelined its under-performing partner by dropping "AOL" from its business name.

2004-present: Warner Music Group

In 2003, amid management disputes, sagging share prices and rising alarm about the impact of digital file sharing, Time Warner decided to unload its music operations. In March 2004, Time Warner's music assets were acquired by private equity group headed by Thomas H. Lee Partners, Lexa Partners (led by Edgar Bronfman Jr., who put up US$150 million drawn from his family's stake in Vivendi), Bain Capital and Providence Equity Partners. The deal set the group's value at around US$2.6 billion, payable in cash and other considerations, and it included an option that would allow Time Warner to buy back in if conditions proved favorable. Bronfman, Lee, Bain and Providence had reportedly recouped their investment by May 2006 through dividends, refinancing and a share offer floated in May 2005.

The Warner music group currently trades as Warner Music Group and is structured in three main units: recording, licensing and publishing. It has thirty-seven affiliates and numerous licensees in over fifty countries, and operates on every continent (except Antarctica). Its major record labels include Atlantic, Bad Boy, Elektra, Erato, Lava, Madonna's Maverick Records, Nonesuch, Reprise, reissue specialist Rhino Records, Sire, Teldec, Warner Bros. and Christian label Word Records. Its music publishing division, Warner/Chappell Music, is currently the largest music publisher in the world, with a catalogue of over one million song copyrights. As of October 2005 WMI had 84,000 employees, US$42 billion in annual revenue and a market valuation of US$82 billion.

Once free of Time Warner, WMG began cutting costs by offloading loss-making or low-earning divisions. Like its rival EMI, Warner reacted to the growth of the digital music market by making an historic change, moving out of record production by closing or selling off disk-pressing plants, particularly in territories such as the USA and the Netherlands where production costs are high.

In 2005 the Miami-based Warner Bros. Publications, which printed and distributed a broad selection of sheet music, books, educational material, orchestrations, arrangements and tutorials, was sold to Alfred Publishing, although the sale excluded the print music business of WMG's Word Music (church hymnals, choral music and associated instrumental music).

During 2006 EMI and WMG engaged in a hostile takeover battle, with each rejecting an unwelcome US$4.6bn bid from the other. EMI announced that it had turned down an offer to be acquired by Warner Music, its smaller rival, calling the proposal "wholly unacceptable" and increasing its offer for Warner Music, which was in turn rebuffed.

Today Warner Bros. Records remains one of Warner Music Group's dominant labels, with around 120 artists on its roster.

Despite the divestiture, WMG currently enjoys a royalty-free license from Time Warner for the use of Warner Bros. trademarks although this could be revoked if WMG becomes under control of a major motion picture studio.

American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi was appointed to vice president of A&R in 2008.

Affiliated labels




See also


  1. Warner Music Group - Overview
  2. Warner Music Group - Overview
  3. Fred Goodman, The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce (Jonathon Cape, London, 1997, ISBN 0-224-05062-1), p.44
  4. Goodman, 1997, pp.43-44
  5. Goodman, 1997, p.44-45
  6. Jon Pareles, James Conkling obituary, New York Times, 17 April 1998
  7. Goodman, 1997, p.45
  8. Goodman, 1997, p.45-46
  9. Goodman, 1997, p.46
  10. Goodman, 1997, p.46
  11. Frederick Dannen, Hitmen: Powerbrokers and Fast Money Inside The Music Business (Vintage Books, London, 1991, ISBN0-09-981310-6), p.121
  12. Goodman, 1997, p.47
  13. Goodman, 1997, p.47
  14. [Goodman, 1997, p.47
  15. Goodman, 1997, p.48
  16. Goodman, 1997, p.47
  17. Goodman, 1997, p.51
  18. Goodman, 1997, p.49
  19. - Time Warner
  20. Warner Music Group 2008 Form 10-K

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