SONY BMG: One Word, Three Letters and a Whole Lot of History

© 2006 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.

The 2005 merger of two of the record industry’s few major distributors united giant corporations based in Japan and Germany. In Nashville, it also brought two of the companies with the longest track records in Country Music literally under one roof. The staff at SONY’s labels – Columbia, Epic and Monument – packed up its file cabinets and abandoned the conglomerate’s historic home in the heart of Music Row to re-establish operations in the RCA Label Group building – now renamed SONY BMG Music Entertainment building – a few blocks over.

In doing so, the companies merged two impressive legacies: nearly half the members of the Country Music Hall of Fame – 43 out of 95 – have ties to SONY BMG. Here’s a brief primer on the company’s illustrious background: SONY MUSIC
Japanese electronics firm SONY entered the Country Music business when it bought CBS Records in 1987. CBS was itself a conglomerate with tentacles reaching back to the early days of Music Row and the recording business itself.

Columbia Records was established in 1889, a dozen years after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. Columbia planned to sell its new technology for office dictation, but voice recording soon became a novelty attraction at fairs and carnivals.

Columbia started issuing music in short order, with John Philip Sousa Marches among its first product. In 1924, the label recorded its first Country Music in Manhattan, and within two years Columbia purchased rival Okeh for a united catalog that included Country pioneers Fiddlin’ John Carson, Vernon Dalhart, Charlie Poole and Gid Tanner.

Through 1938, a series of deals pulled even more labels into CBS’ orbit. In the process, British native Art Satherley took command of Columbia’s rural-focused product and directed such Country legends as Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Patsy Montana and Bob Wills, while also guiding the recordings of blues artists Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey.

Satherley retired in 1952, turning over the reins to Don Law, another Englishman who also straddled the “hillbilly” and “race” genres. Law produced the legendary blues work of Robert Johnson, but also Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price and Marty Robbins, ushering Columbia into the era of the Nashville Sound.

In 1962, the label purchased the Bradley Recording Studio, the site that formed the foundation for what is Music Row today. Columbia built its offices around the studio, which would house sessions by Bob Dylan, George Jones, Tammy Wynette and more until it was closed in 1982. The CBS labels remained in the same 16th Avenue building until this July, when the current staff, headed by John Grady, President of Sony Music Nashville, decamped to the SONY BMG offices.

CBS, then SONY, labels have included:

Columbia, which continued to build upon its past successes through such artists as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rosanne Cash, Willie Nelson, Ricky Van Shelton, Buddy Jewell, and current artists Montgomery Gentry, Jessi Alexander, Shelly Fairchild, Brice Long, Ashley Monroe, Van Zant and Trent Willmon.

Epic Records, an imprint started in 1954 and added to the CBS Country stable in 1963. Wynette and Jones stamped the label’s history, as did Charlie Daniels, Joe Diffie, Merle Haggard, David Houston, Patty Loveless, Johnny PayCheck, Charlie Rich, Ricky Skaggs and newer acts Jace Everett, Miranda Lambert, Christy Sutherland and Gretchen Wilson.

Monument Records was founded by Fred Foster in 1958. It provided Larry Gatlin, Kris Kristofferson and Roy Orbison with their foundations before CBS purchased it in 1987. The label was long dormant until its 1997 revival with the Dixie Chicks.

In June 1922, fiddlers Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland visited the Victor Studio in New York and talked their way into a recording session. The event marked the first time that Country Music was ever put to disc and established an impressive history for what would become RCA Records.

Victor’s catalog already included the 1902 recordings of opera singer Enrico Caruso, whose sales helped establish the fledgling recording industry.

Victor executive Ralph Peer recognized a market in the rural South, and his journeys to make so-called “field recordings” led to a 1927 trip to Bristol, Tenn., where he produced the first sessions by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

Two years later, RCA bought the label, which would be referred to initially as RCA Victor (later becoming simply RCA). With its dog-and-gramophone logo – the pooch was affectionately called Nipper – as its corporate symbol, the company aided the careers of future Country Music Hall of Fame members Eddy Arnold, Pee Wee King and Hank Snow.

Sixteen years after joining Victor as a messenger, Hall of Fame member Steve Sholes became head of the Country and R&B genres, working out of New York. Needing a Nashville aide, he turned to guitarist-producer Chet Atkins, who would eventually work autonomously in Music City.

Sholes purchased Elvis Presley’s contract from Sun Records in 1955, and while the Hillbilly Cat turned big profits for the label, his success with rock ‘n’ roll hurt Country sales.

With that in mind, Atkins helped create the Nashville Sound, a softer, pop-influenced form of Country. He matched it to talents Arnold, Skeeter Davis, Don Gibson and Jim Reeves, and kept the label afloat in Music City. Many of the label’s legendary hits were recorded at tiny RCA Studio B, opened in 1957.

In ensuing years, Jerry Bradley and current RCA Label Group Chairman Joe Galante would oversee the company, which represented Alabama, Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly Parton and Charley Pride during their commercial peaks.

During 1990s expansion, the company renamed itself the RCA Label Group, with the following imprints:

RCA, which built upon its history with such acts as Clint Black, Keith Whitley and contemporary bellwethers Sara Evans and Martina McBride plus newcomers Jeff Bates, Catherine Britt, Jake Owen, John Pierce and The Wrights.

BNA, a sister label established in 1991, using the Nashville airport’s three-letter symbol for its name. BNA’s short history has included John Anderson, Lorrie Morgan and current roster members Rhett Akins, Kenny Chesney, Morgane Hayes, Jamey Johnson, Blaine Larsen, Lonestar and The Lost Trailers.

Arista, the Nashville division that was founded by Tim DuBois in 1989 and absorbed into RLG during a 2000 corporate makeover. The label established Brooks & Dunn, Diamond Rio, Alan Jackson, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Brad Paisley and Phil Vassar and features newcomers Keith Anderson, Jypsi and Carrie Underwood.