Universal Music Group alone covers 32% of the global record-label industry, which is more than all of the independent labels in the world combined (31%). Below, you can find out more about the 10 largest record labels in the world:
10. Republic Records Founded in 1995 and relaunched in 2012, Republic Records is an American record label owned by the Universal Music Group. It was created by two brothers, Monte and Avery Lipman, who started releasing albums as a hobby. Bloodhound Gang was the first artist signed by Republic Records, which was quick to land bigger artists.
After establishing a partnership with the Universal Music Group, Republic Records managed to enlist the talents of major pop acts such as Ariana Grande, Post Malone, and The Weeknd. They were also the first major label in the United States to sign a deal with the digital music distribution service DistroKid. — Out of Republic Records’ entire roster, Taylor Swift is arguably the standout. Monte and Avery Lipman offered the country-music favorite a profitable deal in 2018, shortly after her contract with Big Machine Records ended.
9. Capitol Records The roster of artists of the iconic Capitol Records is emblematic of the label’s historic significance. Perhaps best known for being the U.S. label of The Beatles during the Beatlemania of the ’60s, Capitol Records owns the rights to artists as disparate as the crooner legend Frank Sinatra, the cult metal band Iron Maiden, and the trap sensation Migos.
Needless to say, Capitol Records was founded a long time ago, in 1942 (as Liberty Records), and “changed hands” many times over the years. After being famously owned by the now-defunct British media conglomerate EMI, it was acquired by Universal Music Group in 2012. — To this day, Capitol Records remains one of the most important music businesses ever founded in the United States. At the time of its creation, it was the first West Coast-based major label in the country. The American songwriter Johnny Mercer was one of the founders and released several records with the label. He’s mainly known for his soundtrack compositions, which earned him 19 Oscar nominations.
8. Interscope Records Interscope Records was founded in 1990 as a division of the motion picture production company Interscope Communications. Strangely enough, the latter was defunct in 2003 and Interscope Records survived until today. This California-based label owes its success to its partnership with Universal Music Group, its endless roster of commercially-successful artists, and a vital 1992 decision.
— In the early ’90s, Interscope Records hit gold after acquiring the exclusive rights to the Death Row Records releases. Perhaps one of the first major record labels to predict the hip-hop boom of the following decades, Interscope wasn’t afraid of taking a clear side in the gangsta rap controversy that dominated public opinion at the time. As a result, they made lots of money. — Interscope Records is hardly a hip-hop label, though. First and foremost, the people at Interscope seem to have a knack for supporting artists that perform well on the charts. Recent examples include the sensational K-pop act Blackpink, the beloved Billie Eilish, and the promising Olivia Rodrigo.
7. RCA Records Nowadays, RCA Records is a modern major record label owned by Sony Music Entertainment and with an impressive roster of old and new artists. With yearly revenues sitting at around $38 million, RCA Records continues to be among the biggest players in town. Yet, this New York-based company is more than just a record label, it’s a piece of American history pretty much as old as the phonograph.
— The story of RCA Records starts over 100 years ago, in 1900. It was then the phonograph manufacturer Victor Talking Machine Company was founded. The business was sold to the Radio Corporation of America in 1929 and gave way to RCA Victor. While RCA Victor published records early on, it was mainly considered to be a phonograph company. — Impressively, the RCA brand survived the Great Depression and World War II unscathed, partly thanks to the success of the 33 RPM format. In the mid-’50s, they paid a then-astronomical sum of $35K to acquire the rights to Elvis Presley’s music, a decision that proved to be unbelievably profitable. — Over the years, RCA Records was bought and sold by multiple corporations, including the General Electric Company and the Bertelsmann Music Group. In 2008, it was acquired by its current parent company, Sony Music Entertainment.
6. BMG Rights Management BMG Rights Management is the fourth big player in the worldwide record industry market. Unlike most labels on the list, it was never acquired by one of the big three. Instead, it’s solely owned by the Bertelsmann Music Group. A corporation of its own, BMG Rights Management is simultaneously a record label and a music publisher. — Based in Berlin, Germany, BMG Rights Management’s roster features an impressive array of international musicians, going from the local pop-rock icon Nena to the legendary American producer Quincy Jones. While it was once owned by Sony, BMG regained its independence in 2008, retaining many of its major music rights contracts. — While BMG Rights Management isn’t quite at the same level as the big three, it does have a steady yearly revenue superior to $500 million. In 2017, the company invested approximately $100 million to acquire the BBR Music Group, best known for its country music catalog. It was one of the biggest transactions in the history of the European music market.
5. Columbia Records If you’re lucky enough to have a 19th-century record in your private collection, there’s a good chance it’s branded with the Columbia logo. Established in 1887 as the Columbia Graphophone Company, Columbia Records is yet another American record label that managed to survive for over 100 years. It was THE music company of pre-’50s America, partly thanks to the success of its disc records and patented Grafonola.
To survive the Great Depression, the Columbia Graphophone Company merged with its British counterpart, the Gramophone Company. It was but the first of a series of mergers and acquisitions that allowed Columbia to remain active until the present day. — Always ahead of the curve, Columbia pioneered numerous music technologies, including the LP and the stereo record. They complemented their state-of-the-art hardware with an incredible music catalog, ranging from big-band and avant-garde jazz to punk rock and pop music. — Nowadays, Columbia Records is one of the most vital subsidiaries of the Sony Music Entertainment conglomerate, banking yearly revenues of approximately $3 billion.
4. Atlantic Records Partly documented in the Ray Charles 2004 biopic “Ray,” Atlantic Records was founded in 1947 by the Turkish-American brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun. The Erteguns were passionate about the Black music of the ’40s and invested heavily in soul music, jazz, and R&B artists. Their brave bet proved to be a huge success.
— By the late ’40s, Atlantic Records was already putting out a series of hits, with some early artists selling over 400,000 singles. The turning point came a few years later when the Ertegun brothers decided to sign a then-unknown Ray Charles. Charles quickly became one of the label’s most profitable artists with songs like “Mess Around” and “I Got a Woman.” To this day, he remains one of the best-known musicians in the Atlantic Records’ catalog. — Later on, Atlantic Records was acquired by Warner Music Group (then called Warner Bros.-Seven Arts) and expanded into rock music. The signings of artists such as Led Zeppelin and Yes helped to give new life to a business that was mostly known for its soul music hits.
3. Warner Music Group The story of the Warner Music Group begins in 1957, the year Paramount Pictures (Warner Bros. rival film studio) landed its first number-one single. The song, released via Paramount’s now-defunct Dot Records, was the relatively forgettable “Young Love” by Tab Hunter. Looking to mimic their rivals’ success, Warner Bros. founded its music division in 1958. It was the start of one of the biggest music companies that have ever existed.
— With yearly revenues superior to $5 billion, Warner Music Group is more than a record label. It’s a beast of an entertainment conglomerate with a spot in the NASDAQ stock market and a whopping collection of subsidiaries. Most famously, the corporation owns the flagship labels Atlantic Records, Elektra Records, Parlophone Records, and Warner Records. — The story of the Warner Music Group is less about music and more about business. With the backup of Warner Bros.’s titanic influence, the music company managed to sit at the top for more than half a century.
2. Sony Music Entertainment At one point, it seemed as though Japan was going to take the United States’ place as the world’s largest economy. The country’s historically rapid economic evolution stagnated before the turn of the millennium, but its gigantic corporations continued to operate successfully. The poster child of the Japanese economic miracle, the Sony Group Corporation still makes for one of the world’s most profitable business conglomerates.
— What does this have to do with music, you wonder? Well, Sony happens to own a music division (and a massive corporation itself) that’s the world’s most profitable record label, banking a whopping yearly revenue of close to $9 billion. Their impressive list of owned/associated labels is almost too complex to navigate and includes many serious money makers, from RCA Records to Legacy Recordings. — As one of the “big three” music corporations in the world, Sony Music Entertainment owns the rights to about one-third of the artists you love and cherish. The entertainment conglomerate is so impossibly large it would be torturing to list all of its successful artists. At first glance, though, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen are two of the names that ring a bell.
1. Universal Music Group — While revenue reports show that Universal Music Group hasn’t been as profitable as Sony Music Entertainment in recent years, they’re still the number one music company in the world in terms of market share. Out of the “big three” music-industry players, Universal stands out as the “big one.” — While most major music labels are based in New York, the corporate headquarters of Universal Music Group sit in the discrete Dutch city of Hilversum—home to less than 100,000 people. Even though it’s considered to be a Dutch-American conglomerate, Universal has its historical roots in the United Kingdom.
— The whole music company started when the British Decca Records (yes, the one with The Rolling Stones) decided to expand into the U.S. market. Decca Records teamed up with the film company Universal Pictures and was eventually merged with the media conglomerate MCA Inc. Before becoming the Universal Music Group we know today, the business was bought, sold, and reshaped numerous times, with big buyouts coming from Japan’s Matsushita Electric and Canada’s Seagram. —Universal Music Group was always a huge market player, but it established its unrivaled dominance in 2012, the year it acquired and integrated EMI’s catalog for a “cheap” $1.9 billion. Today, it controls 32% of the global music industry and generates close to $7 billion every year.
Summary The music industry is still hugely profitable, and there’s no shortage of big corporations trying to dominate the market. Sadly, independent record labels don’t stand a chance against leviathans of the like of the “big three.” Like most industries, the music industry is in the hands of a few huge conglomerates that own an insurmountable number of subsidiaries and operate at an impossibly intricate level. — Nonetheless, it’s important to understand who’s who in the music market if you want to make a living as a musician or music executive. While it seems impossible to challenge the authority of the “big three,” there will always be room for change in a business as dynamic as the music business.