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Island Records is a major record label that operates as a division of UMG Recordings, Inc. (Universal Music Group). It was founded by Chris Blackwell, Graeme Goodall and Leslie Kong in Jamaica in 1959. Blackwell sold the label to PolyGram in 1989. Both Island and another label recently acquired byPolyGram, A&M Records, were both at the time the largest independent record labels in history, with Island in particular having exerted a major influence on the progressive UK music scene in the early 1970s.
Three Island labels exist in the world: Island UK, Island US, and Island Australia, the main label operating out of London. Notable domestic artists on the UK roster include U2, Mumford & Sons, Amy Winehouse, Ben Howard, Florence + The Machine, John Newman, Hozier, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Disclosure, AlunaGeorge, Keane, James Morrison, Annie Lennox, and PJ Harvey.
Current key people of Island Records include Island president Darcus Beese, OBE and MD Jon Turner. Partially due to the label's significant legacy, Island remains one of UMG's pre-eminent record labels. In a 50-year anniversary documentary, Island Records artist Melissa Etheridge stated: "If you want to look at world music, music of the last fifty years that changed the world, you need look no further than Island Records."
Rise of the brand
Island Records was founded in Jamaica on 4 July 1959 by Chris Blackwell, Graeme Goodall and Leslie Kong, and partially financed by Stanley Borden from RKO. Its name was inspired by the Harry Belafonte song "Island in the Sun". Blackwell explained in 2009: “I loved music so much, I just wanted to get into it, or be as close to it as I could.”
Tom Hayes, the label's sales manager between 1965 and 1967, referred to the early period of the label in the UK as “organized chaos”. “My Boy Lollipop”, sung by Millie Small, was the label’s first success in the UK and led to a world tour that also involved Blackwell. Blackwell explained in a 50-year-anniversary documentary that he was only interested in building long-term careers at that stage in time, rather than short-term projects. Suzette Newman has been a close colleague of Chris Blackwell’s since working together in the early days of Island Records, and while there she ran the Mango world music label. Suzette Newman and Chris Salewicz were the editors for the book “The Story of Island Records: Keep On Running”.
Blackwell relocated to England in May 1962 to garner greater levels of attention after the local Jamaican sound systems proved to be overwhelmingly successful. The vast majority of the artists who had signed to Blackwell’s fledgling label while he was in Jamaica agreed to allow the musical entrepreneur to release their music in the UK. While in England, Blackwell travelled throughout the city carrying his stock with him and sold to record stores in the city. He did not provide any copies to radio stations, as they would not play any of the Island music; the music was also not reviewed by the press. Meanwhile, Goodall left to start the Doctor Bird record label in 1965.
Blackwell signed the Spencer Davis Group to the label (at that time, many Island releases were being distributed by Philips/Fontana). The group became very popular and Island started their own independent series to spotlight UK rock talent. They signed artists like John Martyn, Fairport Convention, Free, and greatly influenced the growing FM radio market. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were a major label in England with artists like Roxy Music, King Crimson, Traffic, The Wailers, and many others. (In the US, many of their releases were issued on A&M prior to Island signing up an unsuccessful distribution deal with Capitol. After that failed, Island was largely an independently distributed label in the US.)
For Toots and the Maytals, the group that introduced the term "reggae" in song with their 1968 single "Do the Reggay", Chris Blackwell was the one who decided on the line-up of the group before introducing them to an international audience. Blackwell had signed Bob Marley, and now Toots and the Maytals. In November 2016, Jackie Jackson described the formation of the group in a radio interview for Kool 97 FM Jamaica. Accompanied by Paul Douglas and Radcliffe "Dougie" Bryan in studio, Jackson explained,
“We’re all original members of Toots and the Maytals band. First it was Toots and the Maytals, three guys: Toots, Raleigh, and Jerry. …And then they were signed to Island Records, Chris Blackwell. And we were their recording band. One day we were summoned to Chris’ house. And he says, “Alright gentleman, I think it’s time. This Toots and the Maytals looks like it’s going to be a big thing”. By this time he had already signed Bob (Marley). So in his camp, Island Records, there was Toots and the Maytals / Bob Marley; we were talking about reggae is going international now. We kept on meeting and he (Blackwell) decided that the backing band that back all of the songs, the recording band, should be the Maytals band. So everything came under Toots and the Maytals. So we became Maytals also. And then we hit the road in 1975...we were the opening act for the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne. We were the opening act for The Who for about two weeks.”
The first Toots and the Maytals album released and distributed by Chris Blackwell’s Island Records was Funky Kingston. The Maytals had recently added a full time backing band which included drummer Paul Douglas and bassist Jackie Jackson, and Chris Blackwell joined the group in the studio as a co-producer for the album. Music critic Lester Bangs described the album in Stereo Review as “perfection, the most exciting and diversified set of reggae tunes by a single artist yet released.” As Blackwell says, “The Maytals were unlike anything else...sensational, raw and dynamic.” Blackwell had a strong commitment to Toots and the Maytals, saying “I’ve known Toots longer than anybody – much longer than Bob (Bob Marley). Toots is one of the purest human beings I’ve met in my life, pure almost to a fault.”
Despite the initial establishment work that Blackwell completed almost single-handedly, Island struggled as a business in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bob Marley's 1981 death was detrimental to the company, especially after its having engineered Marley's international breakthrough only a few years earlier, while Irish rock band U2, which had signed to Island in March 1980, was growing in popularity, but had not yet reached the international superstar status that was to come. In 1982, Paul Morley and producer Trevor Horn started the ZTT label under the Island banner and Blackwell was known to approve excessive spending by the label. Morley recalls in a 2009 book about Island Records:
I eventually grew to appreciate how Chris Blackwell, and therefore Island Records, was not about one thing, or one style, or one system, or one way of doing things ... [I began] reflecting how the world functions and reinvents itself precisely because it is a fluid, sometimes dangerous, always exhilarating union of systems and beliefs and the best way of allowing the world to progress is to mix up and place in glorious conflict these various systems and beliefs.
In 1983, Blackwell also used the label to finance a new film production and distribution company called Island Alive. In August 1987, the company was not able to pay a US$5 million sum that it owed to U2 in royalties for The Joshua Tree album, as it had diverted the funds to finance several unsuccessful films. U2 responded by negotiating a deal whereby they invested the unpaid royalties into the company in exchange for a stake in the company that was estimated to be around 10 per cent.
The label's 4th & Broadway division, operating since the mid-1980s, achieved some success marketing alternative hip hop and dance-pop music with artists such as Eric B and Rakim and the Stereo MCs. Mango (Chaka Demus and Pliers) was another Island dance-oriented subsidiary, while it was singer Robert Palmer who achieved worldwide success with the rock song "Addicted to Love" in 1986. African musicians such as King Sunny Ade and Angélique Kidjo were also championed by Blackwell.
In July 1989, Blackwell sold Island Records and Island Music to the PolyGram UK Group for £180 million (US$300 million)—he explained in 2009: “It had gotten too big and too corporate for me and I couldn’t really handle it.” Following the sale, Island was no longer an independent company, but Blackwell was given a position on PolyGram’s board and stayed on as CEO of PolyGram's new Island Entertainment division for ten years. PolyGram immediately began reissuing much of the Island back catalogue on compact disc and expanded Island's reach through its global manufacturing and distribution network, but the label was relatively unfocused in the 1990s.
Blackwell eventually ended his association with the company in 1997, as the corporate life hindered the independent ethos of his personal life. "I never really had a job until I sold Island to PolyGram in 1989. It had gotten too corporate," he commented afterwards. Blackwell left to found the Palm Pictures company and run a chain of boutique hotels in Miami, US and the Caribbean, including the very exclusive Goldeneye estate, once the Jamaican home of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. Then in May 1998, all of Polygram and its associated labels were purchased by Seagram which announced its plan to integrate Polygram with UMG to produce an estimated cost savings, within a couple of years, of between US$275 million and $300 million annually. Seagram further explained that the acquisition would unite a significant international presence with a thriving domestic business, as more than three-quarters of Polygram's sales were outside the US.
Under Universal Music Group
In December 1998 and the first three months of 1999, UMG placed three divisions under the management of the Island brand: one in the UK, one in the US, and one in Germany. In each territory, these companies were merged under umbrella groups:
- In the UK, Island Records Group.
- In the US, Island, Mercury, and Def Jam and 14 other record labels were merged into The Island/Mercury Records Group; however, within the year, Island/Mercury decided to build upon the success of Def Jam Recordings and re-incorporated the label as The Island Def Jam Music Group. On April 1, 2014, Universal Music announced the disbandment of IDJMG, one of four operational umbrella groups within Universal Music. Effective as of the same day of the announcement, Island Records and Def Jam will now operate as autonomous record labels.
- In Germany, Island and Mercury merged to become divisions of the Island Mercury Label group.
However, in 2001, UMG was merged with French company Vivendi S.A. to create Vivendi Universal S.A.; but the music company remains named Universal Music Group (UMG).
In the US, Island became a predominantly pop/rock label, as their urban artists were assigned to either Def Jam or Def Soul, a new Island/Def Jam R&B imprint. Following the takeover of Island by UMG, flagship band U2 were dissatisfied after chief Jason Iley moved to the Mercury label in the mid-2000s and signed with Mercury for the UK and Interscope Records for the US. However, successful artists such as Tricky and PJ Harvey were impressed by the label and signed on as artists. Tricky explained: "I knew I could get freedom. I knew I could do what I wanted to do.", while Harvey later stated:
I came to work with them, sort of fully formed—the way that I looked, the way that I sounded: that was already there. And I felt, like, that they just supported where that was going to go.
The label celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009.
In 2009, Island Records marked the 50th anniversary of its foundation in Jamaica by Chris Blackwell with a series of live concerts and an exhibition under the Island 50 banner. The events were a celebration of the street-cool, independent outlook and striking visual imagery at the label’s creative core. These festivities centred around a week-long run of shows at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Bush Hall in London. The concerts featured performances tracing the label’s history from its reggae and jazz roots to the modern era. Among the artists who appeared were Sly & Robbie, Ernest Ranglin, Paul Weller, The Compass Point All Stars, The I-Threes, Aswad, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Grace Jones, Steel Pulse, Keane, Tom Tom Club, Toots & The Maytals, The Mighty Diamonds, Yusuf / Cat Stevens, Bombay Bicycle Club, Baaba Maal and U2. Another Island 50 tribute event was held over four nights at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, with Marianne Faithfull, Grace Jones and Sly & Robbie all appearing, and Chris Blackwell holding a Question & Answer session.
There was also a major exhibition at the Vinyl Factory Gallery in Soho, held in an open space beneath the record shop Phonica. The exhibition featured a display of treasured musical artifacts, including the Trabant car from the sleeve of U2’s Achtung Baby, Nick Drake’s guitar, the dress worn by Amy Winehouse at the 2008 Grammy Awards, the handwritten lyric sheet for Winehouse’s song Love Is A Losing Game and Bob Marley’s passport application form. The exhibition contained 800 prints showcasing the work for Island of the photographers Adrian Boot, Jean-Paul Goude, Anton Corbijn, Gered Mankowitz, Keith Morris and Brian Cooke, and the London exhibition also featured live performances at the Vinyl Factory Gallery by DJ Shadow and PJ Harvey.
Into Island's Sixth Decade: 2009-2017
Following its 50th anniversary in 2009, Island Records entered its sixth decade on a tide of optimism. The years that followed saw fresh success for a number of established acts, including PJ Harvey, Keane, Paul Weller and Bombay Bicycle Club and an exciting wave of new signings. In its largest live production since its 2009 anniversary, the label also staged a concert by The Weeknd and Jack Garratt on Osea Island, a small island in Essex, as part of a bespoke one-day festival for 400 guests, including label staff, media and 200 fans who obtained tickets via a ballot.
2016 proved a particularly successful year for the label in the UK: over a seven-week period between April and June, four separate Island acts spent at least one week at number one. The albums concerned were PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, Drake’s Views (which spent two weeks at number one), Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman and [[Catfish & The Bottlemen’s The Ride.
Island World Communications, under the leadership of Blackwell and Andy Frain, created Manga Entertainment Ltd, the anime and live action Japanese film division of Island in 1991. In that year, Laurence Guinness, the Senior VP at Island World Communications bought the distribution license for Akira from ICA Projects in London, and the distribution of what was the label's first release is considered a crucial milestone in the establishment of anime in the UK. In 1994, Island sold the distribution licenses for most of Manga's releases to Siren Entertainment, an independent entertainment company in Australia. Those rights were then given to Madman Entertainment in 1999 when Siren became solely an acquisitions company.
Artists and recordings
The recording roster of Island Records, both past and present, has been and continues to be diverse. The label continues to champion new music, a practice that was highlighted at the Island Records 50th anniversary event, at which new artists provided the entertainment.
Subsidiaries and labels
This list is probably incomplete, and some of the dates are uncertain.
- Al's Records (1996–1997)
- Aladdin Records (UK) (1965–66)
- Antilles Records (1972–1998)
- Apollo Recordings (2006–2007)
- Black Swan Records (UK) (1963–1965 and mid-1970s)
- Blue Mountain (UK imprint only, 1970s)
- Blue (1999–2001)
- Blunted (1993–1996)
- De facto Records (2009 – 2010)
- Europa Recordings (2006–2007)
- Fallout Records (UK division)
- 4th & Broadway (1983–1998, 2014–present)
- Fruition (1996–1998)
- Gee Street Records (1990–1997)
- Great Jones (1988–1994)
- Hannibal (1981-unknown closing date, distributed under Antilles)
- Island Black Music (1995–1998)
- Island Jamaica (1993–1997)
- Island Jamaica Jazz (1996)
- Island Masters (1980s–1990s; reissues)
- Island Records Australia (2007–present)
- Island Reggae Greats (1985, compilation series; re-issued in several forms)
- Island Trading Company (US holding distributor under PolyGram; 1983–1989)
- Island Urban Music (2007)
- Island Visual Arts (1985 and 1990s)
- Jump Up Records (1963–67)
- Loose Cannon Records (1994-1996)
- Manga Entertainment (1991–1997, moved to Chris Blackwell's Palm Pictures, then was sold to Starz Media)
- Mango Records (1972–1997, US imprint only until 1993)
- Mango Street (1989–1992)
- Mercury Records (2014–present)
- MonarC Entertainment (2002, founded by Mariah Carey)
- Safehouse Records (2015–present, founded by Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, and Phil Mclntyre)
- Sense ("Sense of Island"; 1990–1991)
- Springtime! (1981–1985)
- Stiff Records (1984–1986 only)
- Stolen Transmission (−2007, still in business, but not part of Island any more)
- Sue Records (1963–68)
- Super Records (2007-)
- Surprise Records (mid-1960s, later known as Sportdisc)
- Trade 2 (1996–1997)
- Teen Island (2008–)
- Trojan Records (1967–1968 only)
- Tuff Gong (1990–present, founded by Bob Marley)
- Witchseason Productions (Joe Boyd)
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- Mikey T interview with Jackie Jackson, Paul Douglas, and Radcliffe "Dougie" Bryan. Kool 97 FM. kool97fm.com. November 27, 2016. <http://www.kool97fm.com> Retrieved November 27, 2016.
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- Katz, David. "Toots and the Maytals’ Live: From Stage to Wax in 24 Hours." Red Bull Music Academy. Red Bull Music Academy, 19 June 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2016. http://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2013/06/toots-and-the-maytals-live-album
- David Sinclair (30 May 2009). "A history of cool". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 February 2014.
- McGee, Matt (2008). U2:A Diary. Omnibus Press. ISBN 978-1-84772-108-2.
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- Geraldine Fabrikant (22 May 1998). "INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS; $10.6 Billion Seagram Deal For Polygram". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 February 2014.
- "How Universal Music Group's New Top-Level Troika Brings Peace (For Now)". billboard.com. Retrieved April 28, 2014.
- Geoffrey P. Hull; Thomas William Hutchison; Richard Strasser (2011). The Music Business and Recording Industry: Delivering Music in the 21st Century. Taylor & Francis. pp. 175–. ISBN 978-0-415-87560-8.
- Jem Aswad (30 December 2013). "U2 Return to 'Spiritual Home' Island Records for Next LP, Expected in April". Spin. BUZZMEDIA. Retrieved 8 February 2014.
- "Manga Entertainment: Taking Anime To The Next Stage". Retrieved 4 January 2016.
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- "Stolen Transmission splits from Island Records". Punknews.org. 2 December 2007. Retrieved 28 February 2013.