4AD is a British independent record label that was started in 1980 by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, originally funded by Beggars Banquet.
The label gained prominence in the 1980s for releasing albums from alternative rock, post-punk, gothic rock and dream pop artists, such as Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, Modern English, Dead Can Dance, Pixies, Throwing Muses and Watts-Russell's own musical project This Mortal Coil. 4AD continued to have success in the 1990s and 2000s with releases from The Breeders, Red House Painters, TV on the Radio, St. Vincent and Bon Iver. The label's current roster includes indie rock acts such as The National, Camera Obscura, Deerhunter, Grimes and Future Islands.
4AD forms part of the Beggars Group, along with Matador Records, Rough Trade Records and XL Recordings. Its history has been detailed by Martin Aston in his biography of the label, Facing The Other Way, released 2013.
Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, employees of the Beggars Banquet record store and label, founded Axis Records in late 1979 as a property of Beggars Banquet that was run by the two. After the first four Axis singles in early 1980, the name was changed when it became apparent that the name Axis was already being used by another music company. The solution to this problem came from a promotional flyer that they had printed up to call attention to the new releases. The flyer's designer had added some typography that played on both the new year and the idea of progress:
Scrambling for a new name, Ivo glanced at the flyer and suggested "4AD." Peter Kent agreed, and, with that split-second decision, 4AD was named.
An initial idea for the label was that it would be a "testing ground" for Beggars Banquet; successful acts would graduate up to Beggars Banquet after a year at 4AD. The only band to follow this path would be Bauhaus, who were signed to Beggars Banquet in late 1980 right before Ivo and Peter purchased the label outright.
The two were the sole owners for about a year. Kent sold his share to Watts-Russell at the end of 1981, and started a new Beggars Banquet subsidiary, Situation Two Records. Watts-Russell would maintain ownership of the label, and act as its president, until the late 1990s.
Watts-Russell invited the graphic designer Vaughan Oliver to create sleeve art for the label, and as a result, 4AD acquired a visually distinctive identity. Its artists, like Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance, developed cult followings in the mid-1980s, but 4AD continued to evolve, and, after signing Throwing Muses and Pixies, the label increasingly concentrated on underground American rock music. In 1983, 4AD had a minor hit in America with the Modern English single "I Melt With You". In 1987, 4AD had a UK number-one hit with the collaged "Pump up the Volume" by M|A|R|R|S (licensed to 4th & B'Way/Island Records in the US).
In the 1990s, 4AD established an office in Los Angeles and enjoyed success with bands such as The Breeders, Red House Painters, Unrest, and His Name Is Alive. In 1999, Watts-Russell sold his share in 4AD back to the Beggars Group (as it had by then become), but the label continued to release music and add new artists to its roster.
The label's deal with Warner Bros. Records in the United States in 1992 would start the beginning of a new phase in 4AD history. New signings that year included American underground acts Kendra Smith, Tarnation, Air Miami and The Amps.
Simon Halliday took control of the label at the end of 2007. Immediate successes were Bon Iver's critically lauded debut For Emma, Forever Ago (CAD 2809) and Dear Science by Brooklyn's TV On The Radio (CAD 2821). In 2008, the Beggars Group re-aligned itself so that several labels (including Beggars Banquet itself) were folded up on to the 4AD label. Bands like The National were moved to 4AD as a part of this merger. 2009 saw the release, amongst others, of St. Vincent's second record Actor (CAD 2919) and Camera Obscura's My Maudlin Career, with 2010 bringing The National's High Violet and acclaimed albums from Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Blonde Redhead and Deerhunter.
In the next three years, 4AD oversaw new releases from Scott Walker, Bon Iver, Iron & Wine, and Tune-Yards, whilst also expanded its roster with a number of beats and electronic acts in the shape of acts including Purity Ring and Grimes, with the latter releasing one of the best received albums of 2012. The latest signings to the label are bEEdEEgEE, of Gang Gang Dance, Lo-Fang, and British producer SOHN. At the start of 2014, the label also announced the additions of Future Islands and Merchandise, followed by D.D Dumbo.
While 4AD did not handle any distribution outside the United Kingdom for many years, it had many willing distributors in many countries: Virgin Records for France, Nippon Columbia distributed much of the label in Japan, while PolyGram subsidiary Vertigo Records released many of the label's records in Canada. The United States had always been a tough market for 4AD, even though its records sold well there as imports. Only a few of the label's acts had deals to license their recordings in the USA, among various labels.
In 1992, Ivo signed a five-year distribution deal with Warner Bros. Records so that nearly all 4AD releases would be released in the United States. While this seemed to be a simple licensing deal, in reality executives from Warner Bros. took a lot of control during this period, as 4AD shifted focus to the US market, signing more American bands. While still president, it is clear that Ivo ceded some control during this period, and when the deal ended, he offered to sell the label back to Beggars Banquet. Dead Can Dance’s oeuvre, however, stayed with Warner Bros. until the sale back to Beggars Group.
The deal with Beggars was completed by early 1999, and since then it has owned 4AD and its distribution worldwide. This led to many negotiations for the label's back catalogue, like getting back US distribution rights for the Pixies, Dead Can Dance, and Cocteau Twins.