Universal Greed

Seagram's merger invites a look into how the suits took record labels away from the true music enthusiasts

Former Great Indie Record Label: A&M Records
Founders: Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss
Founders' Connection to Music: Musician/songwriter Alpert co-wrote "Wonderful World" with Sam Cooke among others, and played that goddamned trumpet. Moss was a record promoter, back in the days when payola meant getting some poor DJ a broad and a steak.

Humble Starting Point: A&M initially operated out of Herb's garage. The second single, the Tijuana Brass' "The Lonely Bull," sold 700,000 copies.

Label's Identity: A&M was an easy-listening haven to acts like Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, Burt Bacharach, the Baja Marimba Band, the Carpenters and champion whisperer--and future felon--Claudine Longet. Later, A&M would embrace British prog rock (Procol Harum, Rick Wakeman, Supertramp), British cock rock (Joe Cocker, Free), British folk music (Cat Stevens, Fairport Convention) and British New Wave (The Police, Joe Jackson). Also, the label sired two of the best-selling albums of all time while still an indie, Carole King's Tapestry, and Frampton Comes Alive!. As for Alpert, his Tijuana Brass albums outsold the Beatles two to one, a figure that can only be believed when one spots the countless Alpert LPs now filling up Salvation Armies everywhere.

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: By all accounts, A&M in its first configuration was a pretty easygoing place to be. Even after signing the Sex Pistols in 1977 and dropping them a week later, the company let them keep the $400,000 signing bonus and gave them an extra $200,000 as an added incentive to make it snappy and not hassle the secretaries on the way out. Their lone possible sin was pushing poor Peter Frampton so hard.

Giant Cash Bonanza: After Alpert & Moss sold the company to MCA, A&M was Polygripped for $460 million in 1989.

Former Great Indie Record Label: Island Records
Founder: Chris Blackwell
Founder's Connection to Music: This Jamaican native sold ska records in a Kingston market.

Humble Starting Point: After incorporating for about 1,000 pounds, Blackwell sold the first Island releases out of the trunk of his Mini Cooper.

Label's Identity: Every reggae legend from Bob Marley to Toots and the Maytals to Sly and Robbie called Island home. Soon the label would expand to licensing American R&B records on the Sue Records subsidiary. Although many of Island's British rock acts such as Traffic, Cat Stevens, Roxy Music and Jethro Tull were licensed to other U.S. labels, Island had them in other territories. For many years, U2 carried this label and had the privilege of near-bankrupting it with the money-losing Pop album and tour. Lemon, anyone?

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: Island showed savvy but cruel business sense by dropping Sparks before every other major and minor label did.

Giant Cash Bonanza: Sold to PolyGram for $272 million.

Former Great Indie Record Label: Motown Records
Founder: Berry Gordy
Founder's Connection to Music: Gordy wrote many of Jackie Wilson's earliest hits, including "Reet Petite," "Lonely Teardrops" and "That Is Why (I Love You So)." Probably still hasn't gotten the money he should've earned for them.

Humble Starting Point: Berry borrowed $700 from his sister to start Motown Record Corporation.

Label's Identity: "The Sound of Young America," or, more aptly, "The Sound of Young Black America for Young White America."

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: The lessons Gordy learned of not getting paid fairly by record labels he leased masters to he passed down on his artists, most of whom were kept on salary and prevented from seeing the company's bookkeeping. His most successful songwriters, Holland-Dozier-Holland, were the first to publicly gripe, suing Gordy for $22 million for deceit, conspiracy and fraud.

Giant Cash Bonanza: Gordy sells out to MCA for $61 million. After a few years, MCA parlays that into a $325 million PolyGram payday.

Former Great Indie Record Label: Chess Records
Founders: Leonard and Phil Chess
Founders' Connection to Music: Leonard actually took a bulky tape recorder all over Chicago's south side to scout the best blues talent. Music lover? Apparently.

Humble Starting Point: Leonard formed Aristocrat Records, soon to become Chess, and delivered records from his car trunk to barbershops, shoeshine stands, grocers, liquor stores and, yes, even record stores, all over Chicago. No one is more amazed than he when Muddy Waters' first single, "I Just Can't Be Satisfied," sells 80,000 copies.

Label's Identity: Marketing black music to white audiences. All the blues greats (Howlin' Wolf, Little Milton, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry) called 2120 Michigan Avenue home.

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: Stiffs Berry Gordy on a few licensed Miracles singles.

Giant Cash Bonanza: Sold to GRT Tape Corporation for $10 million in 1967. Long after it stopped being an ongoing label, its rich back catalogue was gobbled up by MCA, which sold to PolyGram for $6.6 billion in 1990.

Former Great Indie Record Label: Verve Records
Founder: Norman Granz
Founder's Connection to Music: Jazz impresario who staged Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and created the label to release recordings of those concerts.

Label's Identity: Leading jazz label with a roster that included Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: Verve always had financial trouble. Its first venture in pop, releasing Ricky Nelson's first single, was a bust because he was a minor and was able to sign with another label. Verve was almost bought by Sinatra, no stranger to the cutthroat.

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