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Island Records is a major record label that operates as a division of UMG Recordings, Inc. (Universal Music Group). It was founded by Chris Blackwell, Graeme Goodall and Leslie Kong in Jamaica in 1959. Blackwell sold the label to PolyGram in 1989. Both Island and another label recently acquired by PolyGram, A&M Records, were both at the time the largest independent record labels in history, with Island in particular having exerted a major influence on the progressive UK music scene in the early 1970s.
Three Island labels exist in the world: Island UK, Island US, and Island Australia, the main label operating out of London. Notable artists on the UK roster include Ariana Grande, U2, Mumford & Sons, Amy Winehouse, Ben Howard, Florence + The Machine, John Newman, Hozier, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Disclosure, AlunaGeorge, Keane, James Morrison, Annie Lennox, ThatPoppy and PJ Harvey.
Current key people of Island Records include Island president Darcus Beese, OBE and MD Jon Turner. Partially due to the label's significant legacy, Island remains one of UMG's pre-eminent record labels. In a 50-year anniversary documentary, Island Records artist Melissa Etheridge stated: "If you want to look at world music, music of the last fifty years that changed the world, you need look no further than Island Records."
Island Records was founded in Jamaica on 4 July 1959 by Chris Blackwell, Graeme Goodall and Leslie Kong, and partially financed by Stanley Borden from RKO. Its name was inspired by the Harry Belafonte song "Island in the Sun". Blackwell explained in 2009: "I loved music so much, I just wanted to get into it, or be as close to it as I could."
Tom Hayes, the label's sales manager between 1965 and 1967, referred to the early period of the label in the UK as "organized chaos". "My Boy Lollipop", sung by Millie Small, was the label's first success in the UK and led to a world tour that also involved Blackwell. Blackwell explained in a 50-year-anniversary documentary that he was only interested in building long-term careers at that stage in time, rather than short-term projects.Suzette Newman has been a close colleague of Chris Blackwell's since working together in the early days of Island Records, and while there she ran the Mango world music label.Suzette Newman and Chris Salewicz were the editors for the book "The Story of Island Records: Keep On Running".
Blackwell relocated to England in May 1962 to garner greater levels of attention after the local Jamaican sound systems proved to be overwhelmingly successful. The vast majority of the artists who had signed to Blackwell's fledgling label while he was in Jamaica agreed to allow the musical entrepreneur to release their music in the UK. While in England, Blackwell travelled throughout the city carrying his stock with him and sold to record stores in the city. He did not provide any copies to radio stations, as they would not play any of the Island music; the music was also not reviewed by the press. Meanwhile, Goodall left to start the Doctor Bird record label in 1965.
Blackwell signed the Spencer Davis Group to the label (at that time, many Island releases were being distributed by Philips/Fontana). The group became very popular and Island started their own independent series to spotlight UK rock talent. They signed artists like John Martyn, Fairport Convention, Free, and greatly influenced the growing FM radio market. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were a major label in England with artists like Roxy Music, King Crimson, Traffic, The Wailers, and many others. (In the US, many of their releases were issued on A&M prior to Island signing up an unsuccessful distribution deal with Capitol. After that failed, Island was largely an independently distributed label in the US.)
For Toots and the Maytals, the group that introduced the term "reggae" in song with their 1968 single "Do the Reggay",Chris Blackwell was the one who decided on the line-up of the group before introducing them to an international audience. Blackwell had signed Bob Marley, and now Toots and the Maytals. In November 2016, Jackie Jackson described the formation of the group in a radio interview for Kool 97 FM Jamaica. Accompanied by Paul Douglas and Radcliffe "Dougie" Bryan in studio, Jackson explained,
"We're all original members of Toots and the Maytals band. First it was Toots and the Maytals, three guys: Toots, Raleigh, and Jerry. ...And then they were signed to Island Records, Chris Blackwell. And we were their recording band. One day we were summoned to Chris' house. And he says, "Alright gentleman, I think it's time. This Toots and the Maytals looks like it's going to be a big thing". By this time he had already signed Bob (Marley). So in his camp, Island Records, there was Toots and the Maytals / Bob Marley; we were talking about reggae is going international now. We kept on meeting and he (Blackwell) decided that the backing band that back all of the songs, the recording band, should be the Maytals band. So everything came under Toots and the Maytals. So we became Maytals also. And then we hit the road in 1975...we were the opening act for the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne. We were the opening act for The Who for about two weeks."
The first Toots and the Maytals album released and distributed by Chris Blackwell's Island Records was Funky Kingston. The Maytals had recently added a full time backing band which included drummer Paul Douglas and bassist Jackie Jackson, and Chris Blackwell joined the group in the studio as a co-producer for the album. Music critic Lester Bangs described the album in Stereo Review as "perfection, the most exciting and diversified set of reggae tunes by a single artist yet released." As Blackwell says, "The Maytals were unlike anything else...sensational, raw and dynamic."Blackwell had a strong commitment to Toots and the Maytals, saying "I've known Toots longer than anybody - much longer than Bob (Bob Marley). Toots is one of the purest human beings I've met in my life, pure almost to a fault."
Despite the initial establishment work that Blackwell completed almost single-handedly, Island struggled as a business in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bob Marley's 1981 death was detrimental to the company, especially after its having engineered Marley's international breakthrough only a few years earlier, while Irish rock band U2, which had signed to Island in March 1980, was growing in popularity, but had not yet reached the international superstar status that was to come. In 1982, Paul Morley and producer Trevor Horn started the ZTT label under the Island banner and Blackwell was known to approve excessive spending by the label. Morley recalls in a 2009 book about Island Records:
I eventually grew to appreciate how Chris Blackwell, and therefore Island Records, was not about one thing, or one style, or one system, or one way of doing things ... [I began] reflecting how the world functions and reinvents itself precisely because it is a fluid, sometimes dangerous, always exhilarating union of systems and beliefs and the best way of allowing the world to progress is to mix up and place in glorious conflict these various systems and beliefs.
In 1983, Blackwell also used the label to finance a new film production and distribution company called Island Alive. In August 1987, the company was not able to pay a US$5 million sum that it owed to U2 in royalties for The Joshua Tree album, as it had diverted the funds to finance several unsuccessful films. U2 responded by negotiating a deal whereby they invested the unpaid royalties into the company in exchange for a stake in the company that was estimated to be around 10 per cent.
The label's 4th & Broadway division, operating since the mid-1980s, achieved some success marketing alternative hip hop and dance-pop music with artists such as Eric B and Rakim and the Stereo MCs. Mango (Chaka Demus and Pliers) was another Island dance-oriented subsidiary, while it was singer Robert Palmer who achieved worldwide success with the rock song "Addicted to Love" in 1986. African musicians such as King Sunny Ade and Angélique Kidjo were also championed by Blackwell.
In July 1989, Blackwell sold Island Records and Island Music to the PolyGram UK Group for £180 million (US$300 million)--he explained in 2009: "It had gotten too big and too corporate for me and I couldn't really handle it." Following the sale, Island was no longer an independent company, but Blackwell was given a position on PolyGram's board and stayed on as CEO of PolyGram's new Island Entertainment division for ten years. PolyGram immediately began reissuing much of the Island back catalogue on compact disc and expanded Island's reach through its global manufacturing and distribution network, but the label was relatively unfocused in the 1990s.
Blackwell eventually ended his association with the company in 1997, as the corporate life hindered the independent ethos of his personal life. "I never really had a job until I sold Island to PolyGram in 1989. It had gotten too corporate," he commented afterwards. Blackwell left to found the Palm Pictures company and run a chain of boutique hotels in Miami, US and the Caribbean, including the very exclusive Goldeneye estate, once the Jamaican home of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. Then in May 1998, all of Polygram and its associated labels were purchased by Seagram which announced its plan to integrate Polygram with UMG to produce an estimated cost savings, within a couple of years, of between US$275 million and $300 million annually. Seagram further explained that the acquisition would unite a significant international presence with a thriving domestic business, as more than three-quarters of Polygram's sales were outside the US.
In December 1998 and the first three months of 1999, UMG placed three divisions under the management of the Island brand: one in the UK, one in the US, and one in Germany. In each territory, these companies were merged under umbrella groups:
However, in 2001, UMG was merged with French company Vivendi S.A. to create Vivendi Universal S.A.; but the music company remains named Universal Music Group (UMG).
In the US, Island became a predominantly pop/rock label, as their urban artists were assigned to either Def Jam or Def Soul, a new Island/Def Jam R&B imprint. Following the takeover of Island by UMG, flagship band U2 were dissatisfied after chief Jason Iley moved to the Mercury label in the mid-2000s and signed with Mercury for the UK and Interscope Records for the US. However, successful artists such as Tricky and PJ Harvey were impressed by the label and signed on as artists. Tricky explained: "I knew I could get freedom. I knew I could do what I wanted to do.", while Harvey later stated:
I came to work with them, sort of fully formed--the way that I looked, the way that I sounded: that was already there. And I felt, like, that they just supported where that was going to go.
The label celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009.
In 2009, Island Records marked the 50th anniversary of its foundation in Jamaica by Chris Blackwell with a series of live concerts and an exhibition under the Island 50 banner. The events were a celebration of the street-cool, independent outlook and striking visual imagery at the label's creative core. These festivities centred around a week-long run of shows at Shepherd's Bush Empire and Bush Hall in London. The concerts featured performances tracing the label's history from its reggae and jazz roots to the modern era. Among the artists who appeared were Sly & Robbie, Ernest Ranglin, Paul Weller, The Compass Point All Stars, The I-Threes, Aswad, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Grace Jones, Steel Pulse, Keane, Tom Tom Club, Toots & The Maytals, The Mighty Diamonds, Yusuf / Cat Stevens, Bombay Bicycle Club, Baaba Maal and U2. Another Island 50 tribute event was held over four nights at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, with Marianne Faithfull, Grace Jones and Sly & Robbie all appearing, and Chris Blackwell holding a Question & Answer session.
There was also a major exhibition at the Vinyl Factory Gallery in Soho, held in an open space beneath the record shop Phonica. The exhibition featured a display of treasured musical artifacts, including the Trabant car from the sleeve of U2's Achtung Baby, Nick Drake's guitar, the dress worn by Amy Winehouse at the 2008 Grammy Awards, the handwritten lyric sheet for Winehouse's song Love Is A Losing Game and Bob Marley's passport application form. The exhibition contained 800 prints showcasing the work for Island of the photographers Adrian Boot, Jean-Paul Goude, Anton Corbijn, Gered Mankowitz, Keith Morris and Brian Cooke, and the London exhibition also featured live performances at the Vinyl Factory Gallery by DJ Shadow and PJ Harvey.
Following its 50th anniversary in 2009, Island Records entered its sixth decade on a tide of optimism. The years that followed saw fresh success for a number of established acts, including PJ Harvey, Keane, Paul Weller and Bombay Bicycle Club and an exciting wave of new signings. In its largest live production since its 2009 anniversary, the label also staged a concert by The Weeknd and Jack Garratt on Osea Island, a small island in Essex, as part of a bespoke one-day festival for 400 guests, including label staff, media and 200 fans who obtained tickets via a ballot.
2016 proved a particularly successful year for the label in the UK: over a seven-week period between April and June, four separate Island acts spent at least one week at number one. The albums concerned were PJ Harvey's The Hope Six Demolition Project, Drake's Views (which spent two weeks at number one), Ariana Grande's Dangerous Woman and Catfish & The Bottlemen's The Ride.
PJ Harvey's eighth studio album, 2011's Let England Shake, was one of the key records of Island's sixth decade. Made in a cliff-top church in Dorset, it won the 2011 Mercury Music Prize, making Harvey the only artist to land the prestigious award twice (she had prevailed ten years previously with Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea). Mumford & Sons, who grew out of a series of jam sessions in London in 2007, signed a licensing deal with Island in 2009. Heralded as standard bearers for a vibrant new wave of folkish, countrified rock, their debut album, Sigh No More, sold two million, reaching number two in Britain and America. It also won best British album at the BRIT Awards in February 2011. The follow-up, Babel, did even better in 2012, becoming the UK's fastest-selling album of that year, going to number one in Britain and the US and winning album of the year at the 2013 Grammy Awards. Island also secured the signing of Florence + The Machine after songwriter Florence Welch dropped out of her local art college in Camberwell, South London. Her 2009 debut album, Lungs, sold four million and spent over 12 months in the UK chart before being crowned British album of the year at the BRIT Awards in 2010. Lungs was followed by 2011's theatrical Ceremonials, and 2015's more introspective How Big How Blue How Beautiful.
Keane were another of the big successes of Island's sixth decade. Having topped the charts with their five million-selling debut album Hopes and Fears in 2004, they went on to secure five consecutive number one albums in the UK (a feat bettered only by The Beatles) with subsequent releases Under the Iron Sea (2006), Perfect Symmetry (2008), Night Train (2010) and Strangeland (2012) all topping the charts. Paul Weller's relationship with Island dates back to his fourth solo album, 1997's Heavy Soul, and its 2000 follow-up Heliocentric. He returned to the label in 2008 and began an outstanding trilogy of releases that contained some of his strongest solo work 22 Dreams (2008), the Mercury Music Prize-nominated Wake Up The Nation (2010) and Sonik Kicks (2012).
North London quartet Bombay Bicycle Club also released four albums on Island, with each one signalling a change of direction: the indie-rock of 2009's I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose paved the way for 2010's folkier Flaws, the modern rock of 2011's A Different Kind Of Fix and the broad-based invention of 2014's So Long, See You Tomorrow. Having built a loyal live following, Catfish & The Bottlemen signed to Island in 2014. After reaching platinum sales status in the UK with their Top Ten debut album, The Balcony, the Welsh rock band won the BBC Introducing Award at the first BBC Music Awards in 2014 and were crowned British Breakthrough Act at the BRIT Awards in 2016 (an award voted for by Radio 1 listeners). Their second album, 2016's The Ride, was a UK number one.
Island was also responsible for securing major British breakthroughs for two of the 21st century's biggest international superstars in Drake and The Weeknd. The success of Toronto hip hop artist Drake came after the label had worked patiently to build his profile over a number of years, culminating in the success of his fourth album Views and its attendant singles in 2016. "One Dance", Drake's first number one single in the UK, had 1.95 million sales to become Britain's biggest-selling single of 2016. The single's 15-week run at number one equalled the mark for the second longest in UK chart history. With the Island-signed Mike Posner having held the number one spot with "I Took a Pill in Ibiza" for four consecutive weeks before being replaced by One Dance, Island held the top spot in the UK singles chart for 19 consecutive weeks between March and August 2016. To crown a record-breaking year, Drake was named the world's best-selling recording artist of 2016 by international music industry organisation IFPI in February 2017.
Canadian singer and songwriter The Weeknd also cemented his position as one of the world's leading recording artists, with the 2016 success of his third album Starboy. Its success was the culmination of a strategy that had seen Island build his UK profile over a four-year period that dated from his 2013 studio album Kiss Land. Island's commitment to further nurturing the careers of global superstars was reiterated in June 2016 with the signing of Sean Paul. The Jamaican singer, rapper and songwriter released "No Lie", his first single for Island, in November 2016.
Signed to Island via a licensing deal with independent label PMR, Disclosure were formed by two brothers from Reigate in Surrey, Guy and Howard Lawrence. The duo discovered the joys of nineties house, techno and two-step garage while studying music production at college, and went on to enjoy success with their two Island albums Settle (2013) and Caracal (2015), making extensive use of an array of guest vocalists including Sam Smith, Jamie Woon, Eliza Doolittle, Lorde and Gregory Porter. One of the acts who guested on Settle was AlunaGeorge, a boy-girl duo from London (singer Aluna Francis and musician and producer George Reid), who released their debut album, Body Music, on Island in 2013. Like Disclosure, Jessie Ware signed to Island through a link with independent label PMR. A soulful singer-songwriter from Brixton, Ware was nominated for the 2012 Mercury Music Prize with her smooth debut album, Devotion, and enjoyed further success with 2014's Tough Love. Another Island act to enjoy a significant breakthrough was Yorkshire singer John Newman, who topped the UK charts with his first solo single, "Love Me Again", and his debut album Tribute.
Island World Communications, under the leadership of Blackwell and Andy Frain, created Manga Entertainment Ltd, the anime and live action Japanese film division of Island in 1991. In that year, Laurence Guinness, the Senior VP at Island World Communications bought the distribution license for Akira from ICA Projects in London, and the distribution of what was the label's first release is considered a crucial milestone in the establishment of anime in the UK. In 1994, Island sold the distribution licenses for most of Manga's releases to Siren Entertainment, an independent entertainment company in Australia. Those rights were then given to Madman Entertainment in 1999 when Siren became solely an acquisitions company.
The recording roster of Island Records, both past and present, has been and continues to be diverse. The label continues to champion new music, a practice that was highlighted at the Island Records 50th anniversary event, at which new artists provided the entertainment.
This list is probably incomplete, and some of the dates are uncertain.
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