History of EMI – the 70s, 80s, and 90s

In an earlier post, we took a closer look at the History of EMI over the 1950s and 60s. Here, we’ll review the three last decades of the 20th century: the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.


All through its existence, EMI had been a very internationally-oriented company and had offices across the globe. The company had, however, mainly been involved in producing and selling classical records.

During the 1960s, the massive explosion in producing and selling popular music by frontrunners such as The Beatles and some other British, generally EMI-signed, performers and bands who were following in their wake, had changed all of that. This development now had given EMI a global outlook on an unprecedented scale.

At the end of the 1960s, new genres of popular music started to emerge such as “progressive rock”. EMI set up the label “Harvest” dedicated to specifically this sort of “left-field style” or “progressive” music. By the early 70s, EMI’s roster included Pink Floyd and Deep Purple. To read more about EMI’s interesting history in the 60s and 70s, check out this post.

One of the company’s new great successes was Pink Floyd’s epic album Dark Side of the Moon, and a year later, the company signed the first deal with up-and-coming band Queen known for the band’s intricately written hit songs and the outrageous flamboyance of Freddie Mercury. Queen went on to sell millions of record copies and established a firm reputation as one of the world’s best live acts.

From a business point of view, during the 1970s, EMI acquired the creme-de-la-creme of not only British music recording but music publishing as well. Ever since its birth, the company was already active in a minor publishing operation (Ardmore & Beechwood) but decided to expand these activities in 1969 by acquiring the Keith Prowse & Central Songs catalogs and taking over Affiliated Music Publishers in 1973.

The company rebranded these activities in 1974 into EMI Music Publishing and this division expanded even further when it purchased Hollywood’s Columbia Pictures Screen Gems & Colgems libraries in 1976 which gave the company a major and crucial presence in global film music.

Then in 1979, EMI acquired Liberty/United Artists, a major American record label which also included the iconic Blue Note Records Label. From its design and photography to its unrivaled roster, Blue Note was and still is a true musical icon. Blue Note was founded in 1939 and its catalog includes the greatest jazz giants such as Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.


In the early 1980s, the entire recording industry suffered immensely from severe declines in sales and in combination with the end of the phenomenon “Disco”, this opened for many new music genres the chance to emerge.

Heavy Metal was such a new genre. One of the first EMI-signed bands to make it into the charts was a five-man band from London named Iron Maiden. More than thirty years later, Iron Maiden is still a recording band and still touring relentlessly. In the 80s, the band was leading new generations of rockers across the globe.

Some more genres of new music emerging in that period were sample-based and/or electronic music, such as techno, hip-hop, and house. Arguably one of the most influential groups of those days was Kraftwerk from Germany who had started to experiment with electronic music and computers already in the early 1970s. Other very successful EMI artists in the early 1980s included Duran Duran and Kate Bush.

The second half of the 1980s and the early 1990s constituted a time of massive changes for EMI. In 1983, the company started to release the first recordings on the CD format and by already in the 1990s, the new shiny silver discs were accounting for the majority of sales.

Around the same time, EMI started to embark on a number of crucial business deals that were to transform it completely. In 1989, EMI acquired music publishing company SBK Entertainment World whose catalog contained, among many more numbers, Singin’ In The Rain, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, and Wizard of Oz.

This move turned EMI Music Publishing into the world’s undisputed music publishing leader and during that same year, the company acquired a fifty percent stake in the label Chrysalis Records. Chrysalis Records was founded in 1969 and was the company behind great and important artists such as Blondie and Jethro Tull.

In 1990, the company’s Music Publishing division expanded again by acquiring the Filmtrax catalog. This move even further extended the company’s music publishing leading role and in 1991, EMI Music Publishing purchased the remaining fifty percent Chrysalis Records which gave it full ownership and control of the label.


The year 1992 was a crucial year for EMI and led to important changes. In this year, the company acquired Virgin Music, at that time the world’s largest and most influential independent music company. Virgin’s roster included artists like the Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, and Mike Oldfield.

There was a series of deals during the 1990s that completely re-energized and transformed EMI and the revitalized company now was heading into a new decade with great new momentum. Take a look at this interesting video about the story of Virgin.

In those days, EMI signed a number of today’s best-known performers and artists such as Blur and Radiohead that began their careers in those days. All through the years, EMI was home to Britain’s best music stars. This tradition goes back to Cliff Richard onwards and continued through the 1990s with the signing of the most-sold British pop band ever, the Spice Girls, and one of the UK’s biggest male stars, Robbie Williams.

The company continued to make deals with successful entrepreneurs and acquire successful companies. By the year 1996, EMI bought a 50% stake in the Jobete Music Publishing catalog, set up by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. The Jobete Catalog included more than 15,200 Motown classics and in 2003 and 2004, EMI acquired the remaining 50% stake. In 1999, the EMI Music Publishing Group was expanding even by acquiring the copyright to some 41,000 Windswept Pacific catalog songs and the acquisition of the majority stake in Hit & Run, a key British music publisher.

EMI’s roots go back to the early stages of recorded sound and because the company was the inventor of “stereophonic recording”, it comes as no surprise that the company continued to be a frontrunner regarding technological changes in the music recording industry. In 1993, EMI launched its first websites and in 1994, the company was the first in 1999 to make downloading a digital album possible with David Bowie’s Hours. EMI was also the first company to produce the very first web-based video single in 2001 with Lenny Kravitz’s Dig In and in 2002, EMI was actually the first key music company that made music digitally available. If you want to read about how the University of Calgary received the massive EMI Canada Archive, check out this post.

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