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In 1929, 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. With Victor, RCA acquired New World rights to the famous Nipper trademark. While in Shanghai China, RCA-Victor was the main competitor with Baak Doi.
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. Also in late 1931, RCA Victor developed and released the first 33⅓-rpm records to the public (known as "Program Transcriptions"). These had the standard groove size identical to the contemporary 78-rpm records, rather than the "microgroove" used in post-World War II 33⅓ "Long Play" records. The format was a commercial failure at the height of the Great Depression, partially because the records and playback equipment were expensive. The system was withdrawn from the market after about a year. (This was not the first attempt at a commercial long play record format, as Edison Records had marketed a microgroove vertically recorded disc with 20 minutes playing time per side the previous decade; the Edison long playing records were also a commercial failure.)
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.). In 1932, Bluebird Records was created as a sub-label of RCA Victor. It was originally an 8" record with a dark blue label, alongside an 8" Electradisk label (sold at Woolworth's). Neither were a success. In 1933, RCA reintroduced Bluebird and Electradisk as a standard 10" 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). The same musical couplings were issued on all three labels, and Bluebird survived long after Electradisk and Sunrise were discontinued. RCA also produced records for Montgomery Ward during the 1930s. RCA sold its interest in EMI in 1935, but EMI continued to distribute RCA recordings on the HMV label. RCA also manufactured and distributed HMV classical recordings on the HMV label 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 performances by the NBC Symphony Orchestra with 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 developed and released the first 45 rpm record to the public, answering CBS/Columbia's 33⅓ rpm "LP". The 45-rpm record became the standard for pop singles with running times similar to 10-inch 78-rpm discs (less than four minutes per side).
RCA also introduced record players to exclusively play the 45 rpm format in a heavy promotion, as well as issuing issuing most of the 45's in colored vinyl (as opposed to the standard black vinyl for records) specific to the music genre: classical music was issued on red vinyl, country music on green vinyl, children's music on yellow vinyl, pop music on blue vinyl, etc. with a total of eight colors of discs over as many music formats.
RCA also released some "extended play" (EP) discs with running times up to 7 minutes per side, primarily for classical recordings. (One of the first of the extended 45-rpm recordings was a disc by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra featuring Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave and Ketèlbey's In a Persian Market.) Additionally, many boxed sets of four to six 45's in a box, essentially the same amount of music as an LP over a collection of smaller discs.
In 1950, realizing that Columbia's LP format had become successful and fearful that RCA was losing market share, RCA Victor began issuing LPs themselves. 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 later issued classical stereo albums (in 1958), they used the prefix "LSC." Non-classical stereo albums were issued with the prefix "LSP."
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, usually 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 the label 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's Manhattan Center with Leopold Stokowski conducting a group of New York musicians in performances of Enesco'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 taping 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-21¼ 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 300-3½ 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.
The Toscanini stereo albums, however, were never issued by RCA (they were the last two concerts he conducted with the NBC Symphony Orchestra). They were not issued until 1987 and 2007 respectively, when they appeared on compact disc on the Music and Arts label, and betrayed no sign whatsoever of the Maestro's apparent memory loss in the last concert, probably because the rehearsals had also been taped in stereo and portions of them were included in the final edit.
In 1955, RCA purchased the recording contract of Elvis Presley from Sun Records for the then astronomical sum of $35,000. Elvis 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 (later RCA Victor) label. This had the lightning bolt logo instead of the His Master's Voice Nipper logo (now owned by HMV Group plc in the UK as EMI transferred trademark ownership in 2003). RCA set up its own British distribution in 1971.
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.
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. This campaign eventually failed by early 1962.
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 & 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 background of the labels, which had always been black for its regular series (as opposed to its Red Seal line), switched to bright orange (becoming tan later in the early 1970s). Possibly in response to customers' complaints, RCA Records reinstated Nipper to most of its record labels beginning in 1976 in countries where RCA had the rights to the Nipper trademark. The famous "shaded" label used on RCA's "Living Stereo" albums was revived in the 1990s for a series of CDs devoted to the historic triple-track stereophonic recordings.
In late 1969 RCA introduced a very thin, lightweight vinyl LP known as DynaFlex (the name has nothing to do with the gyroscope). This type of pressing claimed to overcome warping and other problems in conventional thicker pressings, but it had a controversial reputation in the industry. At about the same time John Denver recorded his first RCA LP: Rhymes & Reasons.
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 1971, primarily of classical music, 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 labels also adopted the Quadradisc format, but they, 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.
When General Electric acquired RCA in 1986, the company sold its 50% interest in RCA/Ariola International to its partner Bertelsmann and the company was renamed BMG Music for Bertelsmann Music Group. BMG brought back the 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. The only RCA unit GE kept was the National Broadcasting Company. BMG also revived the "RCA Victor" label for musical genres outside of country, pop and rock music.
Many artists such as Eurythmics, indie-popsters The Bongos, and Rick Astley recorded with RCA in the 1980s. Charlie Rich had several recordings produced by RCA as well as Charley Pride. Co-writer Marvin Walters worked closely with both artists producing hit songs such as "Set Me Free" for Rich and "Pretty Girl" for Pride. Walters left RCA when it sold its interest to BMG.
In the 1990s, RCA's corporate structure basically remained the same. Also, RCA had marked success in the contemporary jazz genres with artists such as Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts, Opafire and Hugh Masekela, as well as an explosion of urban talent, such as Tyrese, SWV, Chantay Savage, and others. Some of these artists, such as Mobb Deep, recorded for the RCA label via a distribution deal with Loud Records, which remained distributed by RCA until 1999. Many of these artists have since left RCA for a number of reasons, such as SWV's breakup and Tyrese's move to J Records. Also, artists of other genres, such as Christina Aguilera and The Dave Matthews Band were launched by the RCA label in the '90s. The Foo Fighters joined the label in 1999.
RCA saw continued success with artists such as Christina Aguilera, Dave Matthews Band, the Foo Fighters, and later The Strokes. New acts that signed to the label included Kings of Leon and various American Idol contestants such as Kelly Clarkson and David Cook. Early in the decade the label became part of the RCA Music Group which also included Arista Records and J Records. The company was headed by Clive Davis until April 2008.
In 2004, BMG and Sony merged their music holdings into a joint venture called Sony BMG. Because Sony Music was the successor to the old CBS record division, this merger meant that RCA Records, once owned by parent RCA, was now under the same umbrella as the label once owned by RCA's rival, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), Columbia Records.
In 2006, Sony BMG merged its Broadway music labels, including RCA Victor to the new Masterworks Broadway Records.
In 2008, Sony acquired Bertelsmann's interest in the record company which was officially renamed Sony Music Entertainment at the start of 2009. RCA became part of the newly formed RCA/Jive Label Group (also known as RCA Records Group) as a result.
The early 2010s saw RCA as part of the RCA/Jive Label Group which was headed by Barry Weiss. More recently RCA has introduced Ke$ha as one of its new artists on its roster. She has enjoyed widespread commercial success. Since 2011, RCA no longer signed contestants from American Idol, but the company continues to achieve great success with Idol alumni such as Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry, David Cook, and Adam Lambert. The RCA/Jive Label Group had been signing contestants from the show since it started in 2002 when the music group was still BMG. In 2011, Idol contestants signed to Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records of the Universal Music Group.
RCA Records was restructured in 2011 and took in artists from Arista and J Records and multiple artists from Jive Records, as those labels closed down.
The RCA Music Group was separated from the Jive Label Group in July 2011. Multiple Jive artists became part of a restructured Epic Records as Jive moved under the RCA Music Group. The RCA Music Group later continued its operations and contained "marquee" Jive acts such as Britney Spears and Pink. In 2011, Peter Edge became the new CEO of the RCA Music Group. RCA Records will start releasing all releases by RCA Music Group artists. In October 2011, the RCA Music Group shut down J Records, Jive Records and Arista Records. All artists moved under RCA Records, making it a standalone label under Sony Music. As of March 2012, RCA Records was home to 77 artists.