The Electric and Musical Industries, or EMI, was founded in 1931 as a merger of the Columbia Graphophone Company and the Gramophone Company, after record sales had plummeted drastically during the Great Depression in the early 1930’s.
Both Columbia and the Gramophone Company had R&D departments, and after EMI was formed, Alan Blumlein, an influential Columbia scientist who had gone to the new company, developed the first stereo recording and playing system in the world.
However, due to commercial reasons that were influenced by the negative economical climate, stereo recordings would not be widely available for the next few decades.
Under the inspiring guidance of genius Blumlein, the EMI labs not only developed stereo technology, they had also given birth to the world’s first electrical television, which allowed the UK to be the world’s first country to launch public television services. EMI also developed the new technology of radar, which helped the Allied forces greatly at the time of World War II.
By the end of WW II, more new technologies became available to the music recording industry, and a revolutionary new technology, magnetic tape recording, became introduced to music recording studios for the first time in history.
This great development allowed recording artists to perform multiple takes of a song rather than having to record everything in one take, which was common practice until then.
Recording on magnetic tape also made the recording of live shows outside a music studio a lot easier. The research labs of EMI were among the frontrunners in developing magnetic tape recording machines, and it wasn’t long before the company began to design and sell its own tape recording models.
In 1948, another crucial development happened in the U.S. when the world’s first 33rpm vinyl LP was released. In comparison with the 78rpm shellac records that were used until then, these vinyl LP’s, in combination with the newly produced 45rpm single records, were cheaper to produce, and they also were more durable and lighter than the former shellac records.
Vinyl LP’s were also capable of holding up to 25 minutes of music on each of its sides, far more than was the case with the 78rpm records. Both the vinyl single and the vinyl LP were instant hits, and their popularity dramatically was expanding the market for music recordings.
In the period 1950-1960, EMI was holding licenses from the big U.S. record companies Columbia Records (the descendant of one of EMI’s original parent companies – Columbia Graphophone) and RCA Victor for the entire world except South and North America. Among RCA Victor’s artists was a young and very popular singer from Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Presley.
His first EMI-released record outside North & South America, Heartbreak Hotel, was in 1956 brought out by EMI on their HMV (His Master’s Voice) Pop label.
During the following two years EMI released more than a dozen of Elvis’ earlier American hits such as ‘Love me tender’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Hound Dog’, as well as his first number one top hit in the UK ‘All Shook Up’. In 1957, however, the license contract between RCA Victor and EM had ended and RCA decided to set up its own branch office in the UK, in London.
Columbia Records had also decided to start marketing its releases by itself internationally and had ended its EMI agreement already in 1952. RCA and Columbia had been the main suppliers of EMI’s music from America, so as a response, EMI started to look for interesting American artists by itself, and in 1955, EMI acquired Capitol Records, one of America’s biggest record companies.
Capitol Records was operating from the U.S. West Coast and the company had an impressive range of top artists under contract such as Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Gene Vincent, and Les Paul.
Besides creating and developing its own roster of U.S. artists, EMI also was increasing its investment in talent from the UK so intensively that within a few years, EMI’s record releases were accounting for over forty percent of the pop charts in the UK. During the 1950’s, EMI signed artists such as Shirley Bassey, Adam Faith, Frankie Vaughan, Alma Cogan, and Max Bygraves.
All these artists were highly successful and this development led to a true British pop music explosion, of which the best known and most successful exponent was Cliff Richard. EMI released Cliff’s first record, ‘Move It’ in 1958, and Cliff Richard went on to turn in to one of the most enduring and successful pop artists in British music history.
In the period 1960-1970, the British music industry exploded, and EMI was right in the middle of it as a true frontrunner. The company had just signed a new band from Liverpool to its ‘Parlophone’ label, The Beatles, and though the band’s first single, ‘Love Me Do’ just made it to the number 17 position in the UK charts, it wasn’t long before the British audience realized what they had missed.
The Beatles’ next release, ‘Please Please Me’ reached number 2 in the charts, and as we all know, the world of popular music would never be the same since then. Before the end of that year, The Beatles had released ‘From Me To You, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, and ‘She Loves You (yeah yeah yeah) and all these three records reached the number one position, and in all, the Beatles had 17 number one hits in the UK.
The band’s manager, Brian Epstein, had not only brought the Beatles to EMI, as he introduced more ‘Merseybeaters’ to the company, including Cilla Black and Gerry and the Pacemakers. In 1963, EMI record releases were accounting for an astonishing 15 out of a total of 19 number one hit singles, and the year after, a total of 8 EMI-contracted artists were holding British pop charts number one positions for a staggering 41 weeks.
EMI’s fantastic UK successes were also mirrored in America where Capitol Records had signed the Beach Boys. Additionally, EMI reached a license agreement with Detroit’s Tamla Motown records, and thanks to this ‘Hitsville USA’ deal, EMI’s roster in the 1960’s and 70’s was absolutely stunning and included fabulous artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Temptations, the Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, and the list goes on and on….
During the 1970’s, EMI was relying on the fact that two out of every three Tamla Motown releases were becoming a smash hit, which was a never-before-performed success rate in the world of music business.
In the period 1970-1980, EMI’s global outlook had drastically changed. The company had always had a very profound ‘international’ image and EMI had offices across the globe.
EMI’s existence had initially come basically from its overseas classical record sales, but the tremendous explosion in pop music (first and foremost led by the Beatles with in their wake a lot of other British, mostly EMI-contracted bands), changed everything and led to the company’s unprecedented global image and position.
By the end of the 1960’s, a new sort of music style emerged, so-called ‘progressive rock’. EMI set up the label ‘‘Harvest’ to specifically release this musical style and during the early 1970’s, EMI’s roster included band like Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, and one year before The Floyd’s epic album “Dark Side Of The Moon’ came out, EMI has contracted the band Queen.
This band’s intricately written music and the outrageous flamboyance of its front man Freddy Mercury made that Queen was selling millions of records, and the band firmly set a reputation as among the world’s best live acts.
During the 1970’s, EMI acquired the cream of British music publishing. The company already owned a small publishing company named Ardmore & Beechwood that it expanded through the 1969 acquisition of the catalogues of Keith Prowse and Central Songs, as well as the 1973 acquisition of Affiliated Music Publishers
These acquisitions were renamed in 1974 into ‘EMI Music Publishing’ and these activities expanded further when the Colgems Libraries (the Monkees) was bought, as well as the Screen Gems (from Hollywood’s Columbia Pictures) in 1976.
This move gave EMI also a dominant presence in the world of film music. EMI purchased U.S. record label Liberty/United Artists in 1979, which also included the world famed Blue Note Record label.
Renown not only for its unrivalled roster, music icon Blue Note is famous for its art, design, and photography. Blue Note was established in 1939, and the label’s catalogue comes with jazz greats such as Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Continue reading part 2 of history of EMI.