Columbia Records is an American record label founded in 1888.
Columbia is one of the oldest surviving brand name in pre-recorded sound, being the first record company to produce pre-recorded records as opposed to blank cylinders. Columbia Records went on to release records by an array of notable singers, instrumentalists and groups. Today it is a premier subsidiary label of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Inc.
Columbia was originally the local company distributing and selling Edison phonographs and phonograph cylinders in Washington, DC, Maryland and Delaware, and derives its name from the District of Columbia, which was its headquarters. As was the custom of some of the regional phonograph companies, Columbia produced many commercial cylinder recordings of its own, and its catalogue of musical records in 1891 was 10 pages long. Columbia severed its ties to Edison and the North American Phonograph Company in 1893, and thereafter sold only records and phonographs of its own manufacture.
Columbia began selling disc records and phonographs in addition to the cylinder system in 1901. For a decade, Columbia competed with both the Edison Phonograph Company cylinders and the Victor Talking Machine Company disc records as one of the top three names in recorded sound. In 1908 Columbia introduced mass production of "Double Sided" disc records, with recordings stamped into both sides of the disc.
In 1926, Columbia acquired Okeh Records and its growing stable of jazz and blues artists including Louis Armstrong. In 1928, Paul Whiteman, the nation's most popular orchestra leader, left Victor to record for Columbia. That same year, Columbia executive Frank Buckley Walker pioneered some of the first country music or "hillbilly" genre recordings in Johnson City, Tennessee including artists such as Clarence Greene and the legendary fiddler and entertainer, "Fiddlin" Charlie Bowman. 1929 saw industry legend Ben Selvin signing on as house bandleader and A. & R. director. Other favorites in the Viva-tonal era included Ruth Etting, Fletcher Henderson and Ted Lewis. Columbia kept using acoustic recording for "budget label" pop product well into 1929 on the Harmony and Velvet Tone labels.
In 1938 ARC, including the Columbia label in the USA, was bought by William S. Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System for US$750,000. ( Columbia Records had originally co-founded CBS, but soon cashed out leaving only the name.) CBS revived the Columbia label in the place of Brunswick and the Okeh label in the place of Vocalion. The Columbia trademark from this point until the late 1950s was two overlapping circles with the Magic Notes in the left circle and a CBS microphone in the right circle. Columbia's president Edward (Ted) Wallerstein, instrumental in steering Paley to the ARC purchase, at this time set his talents to the goal (as he saw it) of hearing an entire movement of a symphony on one side of an album. Ward Botsford writing for the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Issue of "High Fidelity Magazine" relates, "He was no inventor—he was simply a man who seized an idea whose time was ripe and begged, ordered, and cajoled a thousand men into bringing into being the now accepted medium of the record business."
In 1951, Columbia USA began issuing records in the 45 rpm format RCA had introduced two years earlier. Also that year, Columbia USA severed its decades-long distribution arrangement with EMI and signed a distribution deal with Philips Records to market Columbia recordings outside North America. EMI continued to distribute Okeh, and later Epic, label recordings for several years into the 1960s. EMI also continued to distribute Columbia recordings in Australia and New Zealand.
Columbia began recording in stereo in 1956. One of their first stereo releases was an abridged and re-structured performance of Handel's Messiah by the New York Philharmonic and the Westminster Choir conducted by Leonard Bernstein (recorded on December 31, 1956, on 1/2 inch tape, using an Ampex 300-3 machine). Bernstein combined the Nativity and Resurrection sections, and ended the performance with the death of Christ. As with RCA Victor, most of the early stereo recordings were of classical artists, including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter, Dmitri Mitropoulos, and Leonard Bernstein, and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, who also recorded an abridged Messiah for Columbia. Some sessions were made with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble drawn from leading New York musicians, which had first made recordings with Sir Thomas Beecham in 1949 in Columbia's famous New York City studios. George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra recorded mostly for Epic. When Epic dropped classical music, the roster and catalogue was moved to Columbia Masterworks Records.
In the early 1970s, Columbia began recording in a four-channel process called quadraphonic, using the "SQ" standard which used an electronic encoding process that could be decoded by special amplifiers and then played through four speakers, with each speaker placed in the corner of a room. Remarkably, RCA Victor countered with another quadraphonic process which required a special cartridge to play the "discrete" recordings for four-channel playback. Both Columbia and RCA's quadraphonic records could be played on conventional stereo equipment. Although the Columbia process required less equipment and was quite effective, many were confused by the competing systems and sales of both Columbia's matrix recordings and RCA's discrete recordings were disappointing. A few other companies also issued some matrix recordings for a few years. Quadraphonic recording was used by both classical artists, including Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, and popular artists such as Electric Light Orchestra, Pink Floyd, Barbra Streisand and Carlos Santana. Columbia even released a soundtrack album of the movie version of Funny Girl in quadraphonic. Many of these recordings were later remastered and released in Dolby surround sound on CD.
The acquisition of rights to the Columbia trademarks from EMI (including the "Magic Notes" logo) presented Sony Music with a dilemma of which logo to use. For much of the 1990s, Columbia released their albums without a logo, just the "COLUMBIA" word mark in the Bodoni Classic Bold typeface. Columbia experimented with bringing back the "notes and mike" logo but without the CBS mark on the microphone. That logo is currently used in the "Columbia Jazz" series of jazz releases and reissues. A modified "Magic Notes" is found on the logo for Sony Classical. It was eventually decided that the "Walking Eye" (previously the CBS Records logo outside North America) would be Columbia's logo, with the retained Columbia word mark design, world wide except in Japan where Columbia Music Entertainment has the rights to the Columbia trademark to this day and continues to use the "Magic Notes" logo. In Japan, CBS/Sony Records was renamed Sony Records and continues to use the "Walking Eye" logo. Sony merged its music division with Bertelsmann AG's BMG unit in 2004; the combined company, Sony BMG, continues to use the Columbia Records name and Walking Eye logo in all markets except Japan (where that division is called Sony Records and is still fully owned by Sony). In Japan, the Columbia trademarks (including a modified Magic Notes logo) is still held by the former Nippon Columbia, now called Columbia Music Entertainment. Currently, Legacy Recordings Sony BMG's catalog division, reissues classic albums for Columbia.