In 1929, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company, then the world's largest manufacturer of phonographs (including the famous "Victrola") and phonograph records (in British English, "gramophone records"). The company then became RCA Victor but retained use of the Victor Records name on their labels until the beginning of 1946 when the labels were finally switched over to RCA Victor. With Victor, RCA acquired New World rights to the famous Nipper "His Master's Voice" trademark; in Shanghai, China, RCA Victor was the main competitor with Baak Doi (EMI).
In 1931, RCA Victor's British affiliate the Gramophone Company merged with the Columbia Graphophone Company to form EMI. This gave RCA head David Sarnoff a seat on the EMI board.
In September 1931, RCA Victor introduced the first 33⅓ rpm records sold to the public, calling them "Program Transcriptions". These used a shallower and more closely spaced implementation of the large "standard groove" found on contemporary 78 rpm records, rather than the "microgroove" used for post-World War II 33⅓ rpm "LP" (long play) records. In the depths of the Great Depression, the format was a commercial failure, partly because the new playback equipment they required was expensive. After two or three years the format was abandoned and two-speed turntables were no longer offered in consumer products, but some Program Transcriptions lingered in the company's record catalog throughout the decade.
During the early part of the depression, RCA made a number of attempts to produce a successful cheap label to compete with the "dime store labels" (Perfect, Oriole, Banner, Melotone, etc.). The first was the short-lived "Timely Tunes" label in 1931 sold at Montgomery Ward. In 1932, Bluebird Records was created as a sub-label of RCA Victor. It was originally an 8-inch record with a dark blue label, alongside an 8-inch Electradisk label (sold at Woolworth's). Neither were a success. In 1933, RCA reintroduced Bluebird and Electradisk as a standard 10-inch label (Bluebird's label was redesigned as it became known as the 'buff' label). Another cheap label, Sunrise, was produced (although nobody seems to know for whom it was produced, as Sunrise records are exceptionally rare today). The same musical couplings were issued on all three labels and Bluebird Records still survives eight decades after Electradisk and Sunrise were discontinued. RCA also produced records for Montgomery Ward label during the 1930s.
Besides manufacturing records for themselves, RCA Victor operated RCA Custom which was the leading record manufacturer for independent record labels. RCA Custom also pressed record compilations for The Reader's Digest Association.
RCA sold its interest in EMI in 1935, but EMI continued to distribute RCA recordings in the UK and its territories on the HMV label. RCA also manufactured and distributed HMV classical recordings on the RCA and HMV labels in North America.
During World War II, ties between RCA and its Japanese affiliate JVC were severed. The Japanese record company is today called Victor Entertainment and is still a JVC subsidiary.
From 1942 to 1944, RCA Victor was seriously impacted by the American Federation of Musicians recording ban. Virtually all union musicians could not make recordings during that period. One of the few exceptions was the eventual release of recorded radio broadcast performances by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. However, RCA lost the Philadelphia Orchestra during this period; when Columbia Records settled quickly with the union, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphians signed a new contract with Columbia and began making recordings in 1944.
In 1949, RCA Victor introduced the 7-inch 45 rpm micro-grooved vinylite record, marketed simply as a "45". The new format, which had been under development for several years, was RCA Victor's belatedly unveiled alternative to the 12-inch and 10-inch 33⅓ rpm microgroove vinyl "LP" (Long Play) discs introduced by arch-rival CBS/Columbia in 1948. In heavy promotion, RCA sold compact, inexpensive add-on and stand-alone units that played the 45 rpm format exclusively. At first, RCA Victor's 45s were issued on colored vinyl according to the musical genre: ordinary pop music on black vinyl (47-XXXX series), prestigious Broadway musicals and operettas on "midnight blue" vinyl (52-xxxx series), classical music on red vinyl (49-xxxx series), country and polka on green (48-xxxx series), children's fare on yellow (also in the 47-xxxx series), rhythm and blues on orange or cerise (50-xxxx series), and international on light blue (51-xxxx series). This array of colors complicated the production process and the practice was soon discontinued, all records became black. Yellow and red held on until about 1952. The first 45 rpm record pressed was "PeeWee the Piccolo" RCA 47-0147 pressed Dec. 7, 1948 at the Sherman Avenue plant Indianapolis, R.O. Price, plant manager. The use of vinyl, which was much more expensive than the gritty shellac compound normally used for 78s, was made economically practical by the smaller diameter and greatly reduced bulk of the new discs, which required very little raw material.
The 45 was marketed as a direct replacement for 10-inch and 12-inch 78 rpm records, which typically played for about three and four minutes per side respectively. RCA also released some "extended play" (EP) 45s with playing times up to 7 minutes per side, primarily for light classical selections, as typified by an Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra disc featuring Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave and Ketèlbey's In a Persian Market. Boxed sets of four to six 45s were issued, each set providing about the same amount of music as one LP. (An extreme case of these boxed sets was the opera Carmen, consisting of sixteen 45 rpm discs.) In the case of symphonies and other longer classical music, there had to be an interruption every few minutes as one disc side ended and another was started up. These disruptive "side breaks", a nuisance familiar to classical listeners from similar sets of 78 rpm records, were minimized by an extremely fast automatic record-changing mechanism that was a core feature of RCA Victor's 45 players. The 45 became the standard format for pop music singles, overtaking U.S. sales of the same material on 78s by 1954, but the LP prevailed as the standard format for classical music and convenient one-disc "album" collections of eight or more pop songs.
In 1950, realizing that Columbia's LP format had become successful and concerned that RCA was losing market share, RCA Victor began issuing LPs itself. Among the first RCA LPs released was a performance of Gaîté Parisienne by Jacques Offenbach, played by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, which had actually been recorded in Boston's Symphony Hall on June 20, 1947; it was given the catalogue number LM-1001. Non-classical albums were issued with the prefix "LPM". When RCA Victor later issued classical stereo albums (in 1958), they used the prefix "LSC". Non-classical stereo albums were issued with the prefix "LSP". RCA utilized these catalog prefixes until 1973.
In the 1950s, RCA had three subsidiary or specialty labels: Groove, Vik and "X". Label "X" was founded in 1953 and renamed Vik in 1955. Groove was an R&B specialty label founded in 1954.
Through the 1940s and 1950s, RCA was in competition with Columbia Records. A number of recordings were made with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini; sometimes RCA utilized recordings of broadcast concerts (Toscanini had been recording for the label since the days of acoustic recordings, and RCA Victor had been recording the NBC Symphony since its creation in 1937). When the NBC Symphony was reorganized in the fall of 1954 as the Symphony of the Air, it continued to record for RCA, as well as other labels, usually with Leopold Stokowski. RCA also released a number of recordings with the Victor Symphony Orchestra, later renamed the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, which was usually drawn from either Philadelphia or New York musicians, as well as members of the Symphony of the Air. By the late 1950s RCA had fewer high prestige orchestras under contract than Columbia had: RCA recorded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Pops, whereas Columbia had the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
On October 6, 1953, RCA held experimental stereophonic sessions in New York City's Manhattan Center with Leopold Stokowski conducting a group of New York City musicians in performances of George Enescu's Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1 and the waltz from Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin. There were additional stereo tests in December, again in the Manhattan Center, this time with Pierre Monteux conducting members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In February 1954, RCA made its first commercial stereophonic recordings, taping the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Münch, in a performance of The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz. This began a practice of simultaneously recording orchestras with both stereophonic and monaural equipment. Other early stereo recordings were made by Toscanini and Guido Cantelli respectively, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra; the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler; and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. Initially, RCA used RT-21 quarter-inch tape recorders (which ran at 30 inches per second), wired to mono mixers, with Neumann U-47 cardioid and M-49/50 omnidirectional microphones. Then they switched to an Ampex 300-3 one-half inch machine, running at 15 inches per second (which was later increased to 30 inches per second). These recordings were initially issued in 1955 on special stereophonic reel-to-reel tapes and then, beginning in 1958, on vinyl LPs with the logo "Living Stereo". Sony Music and successor companies have continued to reissue these recordings on CD. Another 1953 project for RCA was converting the acoustically superior building Webster Hall into its East Coast recording studio. It operated this studio venue from 1953 to 1968.
In September 1954, RCA introduced "Gruve-Gard" where the center and edge of a disc are thicker than the playing area, reducing scuff marks during handling and when used on a turntable with a record changer. Most of RCA Victor Records' competitors quickly adopted the raised label and edges.
In 1955, RCA purchased the recording contract of Elvis Presley from Sun Records for the then astronomical sum of $35,000. Presley would become RCA's biggest selling recording artist. His first gold record was "Heartbreak Hotel", recorded in January 1956.
In 1957, RCA ended its 55-year association with EMI and signed a distribution deal with Decca Records, which caused EMI to purchase Capitol Records. Capitol then became the main distributor for EMI recordings in North and South America, with RCA distributing its recordings through Decca in the United Kingdom on the RCA label. This had the lightning bolt logo instead of the His Master's Voice Nipper logo (now owned by HMV in the UK as EMI transferred trademark ownership in 2003). RCA set up its own British distribution in 1969.
Also in 1957, RCA opened a state-of-the-art recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee, which recorded hit after hit for RCA and other labels for 20 years and is now open for tours as RCA Studio B. Elvis Presley made most of his recordings in this studio.
RCA Victor issued several spoken word albums in the 1950s and 60s, notably the soundtracks of the films Richard III, A Man for All Seasons and The Taming of the Shrew, as well as complete versions of the National Theatre of Great Britain stage productions of Othello (starring Laurence Olivier) and Much Ado About Nothing (starring Maggie Smith, who also played Desdemona in the Olivier Othello). None of these albums have appeared on compact disc, but the films of Richard III, A Man For All Seasons, The Taming of the Shrew and the filmed version of Olivier's Othello have all been issued on DVD.
In 1960, RCA announced the Compact 33 double and singles. In January 1961, these discs hit the market. The Compact 33 discs were released simultaneously with their 45 rpm counterparts. The long-term goal was to phase out the 45 rpm, but by early 1962 the campaign had failed.
In 1963, RCA introduced Dynagroove which added computer technology to the disc cutting process, ostensibly to improve sound reproduction. Whether it was actually an improvement or not is still debated among audiophiles.
In September 1965, RCA and Lear Jet Corp. teamed up to release the first stereo 8-track tape music Cartridges (Stereo 8) which were first used in the 1966 line of Ford automobiles and were popular throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. (The initial release comprised 175 titles from RCA Victor and RCA Camden's catalog of artists.)
In late 1968, RCA modernized its image with a new futuristic-looking logo (the letters RCA in block modernized form), replacing the old lightning bolt logo, and the virtual retirement of both the Victor and Nipper trademarks. The color of the labels, which had always been black for its regular series (as opposed to its Red Seal line), switched to a bright orange or yellow (becoming tan later in the 1970s). In late 1976, RCA Records reinstated Nipper to most of its record labels (as well as returning to the traditional black label color for popular releases) in countries where RCA had the rights to the Nipper trademark.
In late 1969, RCA introduced a very thin, lightweight vinyl LP known as Dynaflex. This type of pressing claimed to overcome warping and other problems in conventional thicker pressings, but it had a controversial reputation in the industry and was abandoned in 1980.
In April 1970 RCA announced the first quadraphonic 4-channel 8-track tape cartridges ("Quad-8", later called just Q8). RCA then began releasing quadraphonic vinyl recordings in the United States in February 1973, in the CD-4 format developed by Japan Victor Corporation (JVC), and made commercially practical by Quadracast Systems Inc. (QSI). RCA's trade name became "Quadradisc". The CD-4 format required a special cartridge that had a ±1 db frequency response out to 50 kHz, a CD-4 demodulator which decoded the difference between the front and rear channels from a 30 kHz subcarrier, four separate amplifier channels, and four separate speakers for the left and right front and left and right rear. Both the CD-4 Quadradisc and Quad-8 tape cartridge systems were true discrete 4-4-4 quadraphonic systems. Columbia introduced a quadraphonic matrix system, SQ, which required a decoder, 4-channel amplifier and the four speakers. The SQ system was referred to as a 4-2-4 matrix system. The Warner Music Group labels also adopted the Quadradisc format, but RCA and Columbia abandoned quadraphonic recording within a few years; some of the RCA sessions were later remastered for Dolby encoding (same as Peter Scheiber's original matrix system) and released on CD. This included Charles Gerhardt's series of albums devoted to classic film scores by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and others, performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra in London's Kingsway Hall.
In 1983, Arista Records owner Bertelsmann sold 50% of Arista to RCA. In 1985, Bertelsmann and RCA formed a joint venture called RCA/Ariola International. The following year, RCA Corporation was acquired by General Electric and it sold its 50% interest in the label to its partner Bertelsmann. The company was renamed BMG Music for Bertelsmann Music Group. BMG brought back the RCA "lightning bolt" logo that was last used in 1968 to make clear that RCA Records was no longer co-owned with the other RCA entities which GE sold or closed. BMG also revived the "RCA Victor" label for musical genres outside of country, pop and rock music. In 1986, Bob Buziak, formerly an artist manager, was appointed president of the label.
During the mid-1980s, RCA operated at a deficit, due in part to "overpriced deals" with pop stars including Kenny Rogers (worldwide) and Diana Ross (domestically). In 1986, they bought back $25 million in unsold albums and lost $35 million during the fiscal year 1987. As a partial corrective, a decentralized style of management which allowed RCA Records to function as a free-standing entrepreneurial business was implemented in 1988. Buziak cut the RCA roster from forty acts to 11, and began to rebuild it with a focus on developing artists, including artists acquired through marketing and distribution agreements with Beggars Banquet and Jive Records, whose roster included Schooly D, Kool Moe Dee, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.
By the end of the fiscal year 1988, RCA Records had gross revenue of $236 million in the United States, their most profitable year to date. Bruce Hornsby's The Way It Is sold more than 3 million albums, and the soundtrack for the film Dirty Dancing, which cost RCA $200,000, sold 15.6 million copies in less than two years. Its follow-up, "More Dirty Dancing", composed of song tracks which had been left out of the first album, was produced for $80,000 and went on to sell more than 5.6 million. 11 albums by first-time artists, including Love and Rockets, Rick Astley and the Eurythmics were certified gold, platinum or multiplatinum.
In August 1990 Buziak was replaced by Joe Galante, who had been the president of RCA Records Nashville. The roster was cut once again and the A&R department was restructured. Along with the launch of BNA Records and the expansion of the urban music division, these initiatives would prove to be positive, but RCA was unsuccessful under Galante, ranking 10th in market share in 1995. Galante returned to head RCA Nashville and was replaced in March 1995 by the president of RCA Canada, Bob Jamieson. Jamieson overhauled RCA, eliminating a layer of middle management and retooling the label's marketing department. The A&R department was again restructured and the artist roster cut.
By the close of the decade, RCA had undergone what Billboard described as a "remarkable turnaround" with the success of artists including The Dave Matthews Band, Natalie Imbruglia, The Verve Pipe, Robyn, SWV, Christina Aguilera, NSYNC, and Foo Fighters. A distribution deal with Loud Records yielded hit records from urban artists including Big Punisher, Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep.
In 2002, BMG fully acquired J Records, which it had founded in 2000 as a joint venture with Clive Davis. Davis was then named chairman of RCA Records and J Records under the auspices of a new entity, the RCA Music Group, which included RCA Records, J, and Arista Records. In 2004, Sony and BMG merged their music divisions to create Sony BMG, and in 2007, the RCA Music Group was rebranded as the BMG Label Group. In 2006, Sony BMG merged its former Broadway music and classical labels, including Red Seal and Gold Seal, to Sony Masterworks. Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment's catalog division, reissues classic albums for RCA.
In April 2008, former Zomba Label Group president and CEO Barry Weiss was appointed chairman of the BMG Label Group, and Davis was named chief creative officer of Sony BMG worldwide. In October, Sony acquired BMG's 50% ownership and the BMG Label Group was merged with the Jive Label Group to establish the RCA/Jive Label Group. It included RCA, Jive, J, Arista, Polo Grounds, LaFace Records, Volcano Entertainment, Hitz Committee, Battery Records, and the Verity Gospel Music Group.
The decade marked a period during which RCA Records had notable success in the pop genre, with Christina Aguilera, NSYNC, Kesha, Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Pitbull scoring multiple #1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. NSYNC's No Strings Attached broke sales records, selling more than a million singles in one day and 2.3 million albums in one week. It was the top selling album of the decade.
In May 2011, Doug Morris was appointed chairman of Sony Music Entertainment. Focused on A&R, Morris named J/RCA A&R president Peter Edge chairman and CEO of RCA Music Group. Tom Corson was named president and COO. In October of that year, the Jive, Arista and J imprints were folded into RCA, and RCA Music Group was renamed RCA Records, making it a standalone label under the Sony Music umbrella. Multiple artists from the Jive, Arista and J imprints were shifted to RCA.
Between 2010 and 2015, RCA released platinum and multi-platinum records by Bryson Tiller, ZAYN, Kid Ink, Justin Timberlake, P!nk, Alicia Keys, Miley Cyrus, Foo Fighters, Sia, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, D'Angelo, A$AP Rocky, Kings Of Leon, Britney Spears, Pitbull, Chris Brown, Dave Matthews Band, Shakira, R. Kelly, Jennifer Hudson, Kesha, T-Pain, G-Eazy and Mark Ronson. As of May 2015, Ronson's "Uptown Funk" (with Bruno Mars) was the biggest pop hit of the year.
RCA has produced several notable Broadway cast albums, among them the original Broadway recordings of Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, the Mary Martin Peter Pan, Damn Yankees, Hello, Dolly!, Oliver!, and Fiddler on the Roof. RCA has also recorded and released recordings of revival stagings of musicals. These include the musical productions staged at Lincoln Center, such as the 1966 revivals of Show Boat and Annie Get Your Gun, the 1987 revival of Anything Goes and the 1998 Broadway revivals of Cabaret and The Sound of Music. Call Me Madam was recorded by RCA Victor with all of its original cast except for its star Ethel Merman, who, due to contractual obligations, could not be released from her American Decca Records contract. She was replaced on the RCA album by Dinah Shore. RCA was also responsible for the film soundtrack albums of Damn Yankees, South Pacific, Bye Bye Birdie, Half a Sixpence, and The Sound of Music. The album made from the 1965 hit Julie Andrews film was (and is) one of the best selling soundtracks of all time. The film soundtrack of Oliver!, made by Colgems Records, was distributed by RCA, which had released the Broadway cast album. RCA also released the original American cast album of Hair.
Similarly, RCA Victor also made several studio cast recording albums, including a Lerner and Loewe series with Jan Peerce, Jane Powell, and Robert Merrill, as well as a 1963 album of excerpts from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, with its 1952 revival leads, Leontyne Price and William Warfield, but a different supporting cast. They also issued two studio cast versions of Show Boat, one with Robert Merrill, Patrice Munsel, and Rise Stevens in 1956, and the other with Howard Keel, Anne Jeffreys, and Gogi Grant in 1958. Unfortunately, contrary to the way the show is written, both of these Show Boat albums featured all-white casts, reflecting the era of racial segregation.
In 2006, Sony BMG merged its Broadway music labels, including RCA Victor, to the new Masterworks Broadway Records. All of these recordings are now on Masterworks Broadway Records, which has remastered and reissued many of these albums.
In the early 1920s, Victor was slow about getting deeply involved in recording and marketing black jazz and vocal blues. By the mid to late 1920s, Victor had signed Jelly Roll Morton, Bennie Moten, Duke Ellington and other black bands and were becoming very competitive with Columbia and Brunswick, even starting their own V-38000 "Hot Dance" series that was marketed to all Victor dealers. They also had a V-38500 "race" series, a 23000 'hot dance' continuation of the V-38000 series, as well as a 23200 'Race' series with blues, gospel and some hard jazz. However, throughout the 1930s, Victor's involvement in jazz and blues slowed down and by the time of the musicians' strike and the end of the war, Victor was neglecting the R&B (race) scene, which is one of the reasons so many independent companies sprang up so successfully.
In the early 1960s, Victor decided to demolish their Camden warehouse. This warehouse held four floors' worth of catalog and vault masters (most of them were pre-tape wax and metal discs), test pressings, lacquer discs, matrix ledgers, and rehearsal recordings. A few days before the demolition took place, some collectors from the US and Europe were allowed to go through the warehouse and salvage whatever they could carry with them for their personal collections. Soon after, collectors and RCA Records officials watched from a nearby bridge as the warehouse was demolished, with many studio masters still intact in the building. The remnants were bulldozed into the Delaware River and a pier was built on top of them. In 1973, when the company decided to release all of Rachmaninoff's recordings on LPs (to celebrate the centennial of the composer's birth), RCA was forced to go to record collectors for materials, as documented by Time.RCA Records (UK): A division of Sony Music UK, since 2006, which acts as an import label of American and multinational Sony Music artists, and also signs UK and Irish artists, including Paloma Faith, Everything Everything, Laura Mvula, and Kodaline.
RCA Red Seal Records: The RCA Red Seal classical music label is now part of Sony Masterworks.
RCA Records (France): A division of Sony Music France. Founded as RCA Cinematre in 1978. Renamed to its current name in 2006.
RCA Records (Italy): A division of Sony Music Italy. Founded as RCA Italiana in 1949. It was closed in 1987 and reactivated in 2006.
RCA Victor: The former name of RCA Records that currently distributes electronic, rock and soundtrack albums, such as The Sound of Music soundtrack, Jose Feliciano's Feliz Navidad, the European release of The Fashion by The Fashion, American releases of albums by Imogen Heap, a handful of albums by Elvis Presley, and other classic albums.
RCA Records (Australia): A division of Sony Music Australia. Founded in 1963 for Australian artists. Renamed to RCA Limited Australia and New Zealand in 1976 for Australian and New Zealand artists. Renamed to its current name in 2006.
Bluebird Records: Launched by RCA in 1932, Bluebird was originally a low priced label consisting mainly of Jazz, Blues and Country music.
The current Bluebird label offers mostly Jazz releases, as well as some reissues of historic Jazz, Swing and Pop titles originally released on the RCA Victor label.RCA Victor Label Group: The RCA Victor Label Group consisted of the RCA Victor, Windham Hill Records and Bluebird Records labels.
RCA-distributed labels: A&M Records, Colgems Records, Calendar/Kirshner, Chelsea Records, Grunt Records, Windstar Records, Midland International, Loud Records, Planet Records, Total Experience Records, Wooden Nickel Records, Millennium Records and Tortoise International Records (Detroit)
Black Seal Music: A short-lived imprint of RCA Records that released indie rock music. Artists who recorded on Black Seal are Albert Hammond, Jr., Audrye Sessions, Cory Chisel and The Wandering Sons and The Union Line.
Peter Edge: Chairman and CEO
Tom Corson: President and COO
Mark Pitts: President of Urban Music