Warner Music Group - History - 1970s

1970s

In 1970, Kinney paid $11 million for Jac Holzman's Elektra Records and its sister label Nonesuch Records, and they eventually assembled the labels into a group known as Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, also called WEA for short, which was renamed Warner Music in 1991 (the word "group" was added after the formation of AOL Time Warner). With the Elektra acquisition, the next step was forming an in-house distribution arm for the co-owned labels. By this time, Warner-Reprise's frustrations with its current distributors had reached breaking point; Joe Smith (then Executive Vice-President of Warner Bros.) recalled that The Grateful Dead were breaking as a major act but the distributor was constantly out of stock of their albums. These circumstances facilitated the full establishment of the group's in-house distribution arm, initially called Kinney Records Distributing Corporation.

The purchase of Elektra-Nonesuch brought in more prestigious additions to the Warner catalogue including The Doors, Judy Collins, The Stooges and Elektra's rich back catalogue of folk music as well as the renowned Nonesuch catalogue of classical and world music. Elektra founder Jac Holzman ran the label under Warners for two years, but by that time, he was by his own admission 'burnt out' after twenty years in the business. Kinney president Steve Ross subsequently appointed Holzman as part of a seven-person 'brains trust' tasked with investigating opportunities presented by new technologies, a role Holzman was eager to accept.

WEA was an early champion of the heavy metal style of rock music. Several heavy metal bands, including the three major pioneers Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple were all signed to WEA's labels at least in the United States. Among the earliest American metal acts to be signed to WEA were Alice Cooper, Montrose, and Van Halen.

Up to this point the Warner owned record companies had relied on licensing deals with local record labels to manufacture, distribute and promote its products in other countries; concurrent with the establishment of its new distribution arm, the company now began establishing subsidiary divisions in other major markets, beginning with the creation of Warner Bros. Records Australia in 1970 and soon followed by branch offices in the UK, Europe and Japan. In July 1971 the new in-house distribution company was incorporated as Warner-Elektra-Atlantic Distributing Corp. (WEA) and branches were established in eight major US cities; Joel Friedman a one-time Billboard writer who had been the head of Warner's advertising/merchandising division in its early years, was appointed to head WEA's US domestic division, and Ahmet Ertegun's brother Nesuhi was appointed to oversee its international operations. Neshui Ertegun, a Turkish native, displayed a global perspective and independence from its U.S. counterpart by successfully promoting international acts in their target markets world wide. Ertegun headed WEA International until his retirement in 1987. A de facto committee of three senior marketing executives—Dave Glew from Atlantic, Ed Rosenblatt from Warner Bros. and Mel Posner from Elektra—oversaw the integration of each label's marketing and distribution through the new division, but each label continued to operate totally independently in A&R matters and also applied their own expertise in marketing and advertising.

On July 1, 1971, following the pattern set by similar joint ventures in Canada and Australia, the Warner labels entered into a partnership with the British arm of CBS Records to press and distribute Warner-Reprise product in the United Kingdom, although this was undertaken as a cooperative venture rather than a formally incorporated business partnership. The Billboard article that reported the new arrangement also noted that, despite their intense competition in the US market, CBS continued to press Warner-Reprise recordings in the USA. However the new UK arrangement was a major blow to Warner's previous British manufacturer Pye Records, for whom Warner-Reprise had been their largest account. With the scheduled addition of the UK rights to the Atlantic catalogue, which would revert to Kinney in early 1972, Billboard predicted that the Warner-CBS partnership would have a 25–30% share of the UK music market.

In April 1971, thanks mainly to the influence of Ahmet Ertegun, the Warner group announced a major coup with its acquisition of the worldwide rights to The Rolling Stones' new label Rolling Stones Records, following the expiration of the band's contract with Decca Records and the acrimonious end to their business relationship with controversial former manager Allen Klein. Under the terms of the deal, Atlantic subsidiary Atco would distribute the Stones' recordings in the USA, with other territories mainly handled by Warner Bros. international divisions.

One of the Warner group's wisest investments was Fleetwood Mac. The band signed to Reprise in the early 1970s after relocating to the USA and the label supported them through numerous lineup changes and several lean years during which the band's records sold relatively poorly, although they remained a popular concert attraction. Ironically, after their transfer to Warner Bros. in 1975 and the recruitment of new members Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, the group scored a major international hit with the breakthrough single "Rhiannon" and consolidated with the blockbusting albums Fleetwood Mac, Rumours and Tusk, becoming one of the most successful bands of all time.

In 1972, the Warner group acquired another rich prize, David Geffen's Asylum Records. The $7 million purchase brought in several very important acts who would prove crucial the Warner group's subsequent success, including Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and later Warren Zevon. On the downside, however, it was rumoured that Warners was soon concerned about their possible liability under the California State Labor Code because of Geffen's questionable status as both the manager of most of the Asylum acts and the head of the record label to which they were signed. The sale included the Asylum Records label and its recordings, as well as Geffen's lucrative music publishing assets and the interests in the royalties of some of the artists managed by Geffen and partner Elliot Roberts. Geffen accepted a five-year contract with WCI and turned over his 75% share in the Geffen-Roberts management company to Roberts and Warners paid Geffen and Roberts 121,952 common shares worth $4,750,000 at the time of the sale, plus $400,000 in cash and a further $1.6 million in promissory notes convertible to common stock.

Although it seemed a lucrative deal at the time, Geffen soon had reason to regret it. Uncharacteristically, he had greatly underestimated the value of his assets—within Asylum's first year as a Warner subsidiary, albums by Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles alone had earned more than the entire value of the Asylum sale. Geffen's discomfort was compounded by the fact that, within six months of the sale, the value of his volatile Warner shares had plummeted from $4.5 million to just $800,000. He appealed to Steve Ross to intervene, and as part of a make-good deal, Ross agreed to pay him the difference in the share value over five years. Acting on Jac Holzman's suggestion that Kinney should take Asylum from Atlantic and merge it with Elektra, Ross then appointed Geffen to run the new combined label.

In 1976, Warner gained a brief early lead in digital media when it purchased the Atari computer company, and in 1981 it bought the Franklin Mint novelty company. WCI also blazed the trail in visual music with MTV, which it created and co-owned in partnership with American Express. In 1984–85, Warner rapidly divested many of these recent acquisitions, including Atari, Franklin Mint, Panavision, MTV Networks and a cosmetics business.

New signings in the late 1970s placed the Warner group in a strong position for the 1980s. A deal with Seymour Stein's Sire Records label (which Warner Bros. Records later took over) brought in several major punk and New Wave acts including The Pretenders, The Ramones and Talking Heads and, most importantly, rising star Madonna; Elektra signed The Cars and Warner Bros. signed Prince, giving WEA several of the biggest-selling acts of the decade.

WEA's labels also distributed a number of otherwise independent labels. For example, Warner Bros. distributed Straight Records, DiscReet Records, Bizarre Records, Bearsville Records, and Geffen Records (the latter was sold to MCA in 1990). Atlantic Records distributed Swan Song Records. In 1975, WEA scored a major coup by signing a distribution agreement with Island Records, which only covered the United States and select other countries. For the next 14 years (initially with Warner Bros. until 1982, then with Atlantic afterward), WEA would distribute such artists as Bob Marley, U2, Robert Palmer, Anthrax, and Tom Waits. This relationship ended when Island was sold to PolyGram in 1989.

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