Olivia Records was a collective founded in 1973 to record and market women's music. Olivia, named after the heroine of a pulp novel by Dorothy Bussy who fell in love with her headmistress at French boarding school, was the brainchild of ten lesbian-feminists (the Furies Collective and Radicalesbians) living in Washington, D.C. who wanted to create a feminist organization with an economic base.
Olivia was co-founded by Judy Dlugacz.
In 1973, the collective put out a 45 with Meg Christian on one side and Cris Williamson on the other. Yoko Ono responded and said that she wanted to do a side project with Olivia, but the collective politely declined. Without making themselves dependent on any high-profile person, they made $12,000 with that 45, enough to put out singer Meg Christian's first record, and soon after, Williamson's groundbreaking album The Changer and the Changed.
Sandy Stone was Olivia's sound engineer from ca. 1974-1978, recording and mixing all Olivia product during this period. She resigned as the controversy over her working for a lesbian-identified enterprise increased because she was a transgender woman. The debate continued in Janice Raymond's book The Transsexual Empire, which devoted a chapter to criticism of "the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist".
In 1977, after repeated criticism by Anita Bryant, Olivia put out Lesbian Concentrate, a collection of songs and poetry with part of the proceeds going to benefit the Lesbian Mothers National Defense Fund. Included on the 13 track LP is Meg Christian's "Ode To A Gym Teacher" and Sue Fink's "Leaping Lesbians".
Olivia moved first to Los Angeles to stay on top of the burgeoning music scene and then to Oakland. The remaining five women of the collective, who had been pooling their money and even living together for the previous seven years, began to disperse. Olivia stopped putting out new records and instead performed a series of 15th anniversary concerts in 1988. The two concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City were the largest grossing concerts at that venue in its history. Yet, The New York Times barely mentioned the show.
Even though Olivia Records released world music and salsa records, they were most successful with acoustic solo acts, although sometimes they failed to identify mainstream talent. In 1985, singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge, then a struggling Los Angeles artist, sent her demo to Olivia, but was ultimately rejected. Etheridge went on to become one of the most popular female performers of the 1990s and arguably the most successful lesbian musician of all time. She saved the rejection letter, signed by "the women of Olivia," which was featured in Intimate Portrait, the Lifetime Television documentary of her life.
Unable to reinvent themselves for the changing musical landscape for women, from riot grrl to Lilith Fair to Ani Difranco, Olivia could no longer sustain itself as a record label.
Olivia Records founded Olivia, the lesbian cruise line, in 1988.