a media industry resource

EMI Group


This profile looks at UK music recording and publishing group EMI.

It covers -

  • The group
  • Corporate history
  • Studies

The group

The EMI group comprises over 100 recording labels in all continents except Antarctica. It is the second-largest global music publisher (ie music scores).

An indication of EMI holdings as of September 2001 is here.

Corporate history

EMI traces its history to 1898 when William Owen of the US National Gramophone Company set up a rival business in the UK under the name The Gramaphone Company, offering gramophones and sound recordings (along with typewriters for a few years at the turn of the century) under technical director Fred Gaisberg.

In 1920 it became a subsidiary of the US Victor Talking Machine Company, which merged with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1929. In 1931 RCA merged Gramophone with the Columbia Gramophone Company - independent of Columbia Pictures and CBS - and the Parlophone Company. The new Anglo-American group was established as Electric & Music Industries Ltd. In the thirties and forties its interests ranged from lightbulbs, gramophone and radio production for consumer markets through to radar systems and broadcasting electronics.

After the 1939-45 war impresario Walter Legge dominated EMI Records, founding the Philharmonia Orchestra. During the 1960s EMI recorded the Beatles, licensed several labels in the US (including the MGM label) and established the Music For Pleasure and World Record Club mail-order operations.

During the 1970s it acquired the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) and a chain of provincial cinemas, making films such as The Deerhunter and Murder on the Orient Express before leaving Hollywood after significant losses.

In 1979 it merged with electronics manufacturer and leasing group Thorn to form Thorn EMI. Units were bought and sold with little sense of a coherent corporate strategy, as the chronology suggests.

In 1992 Thorn EMI bought the Virgin Music Group from Richard Branson and Japanese conglomerate Fujisankei for £560m. One executive is supposed to have quipped that

"We are all very, very sad. But some of us are also very, very rich."

In 1994 it bought David Balfa's Food music group for £475,000. A year later it swallowed the Hatchards bookshops and Dillons bookselling chain (the second largest UK book retailer) for upwards of £56 million.

In 1996 the ailing electronics business was demerged into a separate company, Thorn, and the music recording and retailing arms were renamed EMI Group. In 1998 EMI sold its 271-strong HMV retail business, along with the Dillons bookstore chain, to HMV Media for £500m. EMI took a 42.5% stake in HMV and around £382m in cash.

In 2004 EMI announced that would cease self-manufacturing CDs and DVDs in Europe and the United States, subsequently transferring its associated assets in the Netherlands to MediaMotion, closing its manufacturing plant in Illinois and selling its Australian CD manufacturing unit (a joint venture with Warner Music) to Summit Technology Australia.

In 2006 EMI and Warner Music engaged in a bizarre, bitter takeover battle with each rejecting an unwelcome US$4.6bn bid from the other. EMI announced that it had turned down an offer to be acquired by Warner Music, its smaller rival, calling the proposal "wholly unacceptable" and increasing its offer for Warner Music (in turn rebuffed).

EMI and Warner Music had a long history of attempted unions. In 1998 Edgar Bronfman Jr held talks with EMI about merging Seagram's Universal music arm with its London-based rival. Discussions were abortive; Bronfman led Universal into a takeover by Vivendi (later using some of his greatly diminished fortune for a stake in Warner Music when that group was spun off by Time Warner in 2003).

During 2000 AOL Time Warner failed to acquire EMI. Discussions for acquisition by Bertelsmann's BMG did not proceed, with Bertelsmann eventually offloading its music arm to a joint venture with Sony.

A chronology of the group is here.

More detailed information on selected EMI group labels is here.


There are no major studies on the group as a whole. For perspectives on the early recording industry see the works highlighted in the Caslon Analytics Revolutions profile. Examples are Michael Chanan's Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music (London: Verso 1995), Norman Lebrecht's When The Music Stops (New York: Simon & Schuster 1996) and Robert Burnett's The Global Jukebox: The International Music Industry (London: Routledge 1996).

For Gaisberg see his The Music Goes Round (New York: Arno 1972) and Jerrold Northrop Moore's A Matter of Records: Fred Gaisberg & the Golden Era of the Gramophone (New York: Taplinger 1976). For the unlovable Mr Legge see his own Walter Legge: Words & Music (London: Duckworth 1998) and the account by his wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf On & Off the Record; a memoir of Walter Legge (New York: Scribners 1982). Geoffrey Jones' brief The Gramophone Company: An Anglo-American Multi-National, 1898-1931 in Business History Review (1985) is suggestive.

Ross Laird's Sound Beginnings: The Early Record Industry in Australia (Sydney: Currency Press 1999) is the major account of Australian developments to the late 1920s.

For more recent times see Abbey Road (London: Omnibus Press ) by Brian Southall & Peter Vince. Since Records Began: EMI's First One Hundred Years (London: Batsford 1997) by Peter Martland is a celebratory official history.

For Thorn see Anatomy of a Merger: A History of GEC, AEI & English Electric (London: Cape 1970) by R Jones & O Marriot and From Making to Music: The History of Thorn-EMI (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1996) another, more formal official history by S A Pandit.

For Richard Branson there is a somewhat indulgent account in Tom Bower's Branson (London: Fourth Estate 2000) and Tim Jackson's Virgin King (New York: HarperCollins 1994). Branson's own Losing My Virginity: The Autobiography (London: Virgin 1998) is for us a long advertorial; see Mick Brown's Richard Branson: The Inside Story (London: Michael Joseph 1988) instead.

For Blue Note see Richard Cook's Blue Note Records: The Biography (London: Secker & Warburg 2001).