Major Labels: A Beginner’s Guide

One of the most confusing things about the music industry is how all the different record labels fit together. It’s taken me years to get to grips with it and there are plenty of people working in the industry who aren’t totally sure what’s what. So here, for those of you who want to work in music or just want to understand more about how this all works, is a beginner’s guide to the major labels of the UK.

Warning: There could be some mistakes as the relationships between labels are complicated and ever-changing – if you see anything that’s wrong, please let me know!

Until recently, there were four major label groups: Sony Music, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and EMI Music. However, in November 2011 EMI Music was bought by Universal, meaning that there would now be just three majors. With Sony and Universal being much larger than Warner, Warner was given the name “the mini-major” by the industry press. So, let’s start with the mini-major:

1. Warner Music Group

Here are the labels that are part of Warner Music Group in the UK, with Atlantic and Warner Bros being the two largest:

14th Floor – indie/rock e.g. The Wombats, Biffy Clyro

679 – indie-pop e.g. Marina and the Diamonds, Oh My!

Atlantic – a mix of commercial genres but their British artists are mostly bore-pop with Ed Sheeran, Paolo Nutini and James Blunt all signed

Within Atlantic: B-Unique (Kaiser Chiefs, Primal Scream), Elektra (Little Boots, Cee-Lo)

Also released by Atlantic for the UK: Big Beat (Skrillex, Wynter Gordon)

Rhino – mostly reissues, nothing exciting

Roadrunner – rock and metal ranging from Korn to Nickelback

Warner Bros – a bit alternative but not much, with lots of up and coming artists at the moment e.g. Clement Marfo, Stooshe, Marlon Roudette

Within Warner Bros: A&E (Muse, Peter Andre – weirdest combination ever?)

Also released by Warner Bros for the UK: Nonesuch (bands my dad likes), Reprise (Michael Bublé, Josh Groban)

2. Sony Music

Here are the labels that are part of Sony Music in the UK:

Columbia – Lots of big names, mostly quite Radio 1 e.g. Calvin Harris, Kasabian

Epic – Big pop and R&B names including JLS and Olly Murs

RCA – A mix of urban and mum music e.g. Will Young, Loick Essien

Within RCA: Phonogenic (The Script, Natasha Bedingfield), Major Label (Hurts)

Sony Classical – classical music released by Sony – simple!

Sony CMG – reissues and compilations

Syco – Simon Cowell’s label, home of X Factor and BGT singers e.g. One Direction, Susan Boyle

3. Universal Music Group

Here are the labels that are part of Universal Music Group in the UK:

Decca – Universal’s classical music division

Within Decca: Verve (jazz music)

EMI – technically owned by Universal but still run separately so far

Within EMI: Parlophone (Tinie Tempah, Kylie), Virgin (Laura Marling, Professor Green), Blue Note (jazz), Positiva (David Guetta, Nervo)

Also released by EMI for the UK: Capitol (Katy Perry, Lady Antebellum)

Island – founded in Jamaica, artists tend to be the cooler side of pop e.g. Amy Winehouse, Florence and the Machine

Also released by Island for the UK: Cash Money (Drake, Nicki Minaj)

London Records – this label, which has been dormant since the early ’00s, is soon to be relaunched but there’s been no news of any signings yet

Mercury – a mix of commercial genres e.g. Pixie Lott, Chase & Status

Within Mercury: Future (Gary Barlow’s label – The Struts, A*M*E), Vertigo (Amy MacDonald, Noisettes)

Also released by Mercury for the UK: Def Jam (Rihanna, Kanye West)

Polydor – lots of pop here e.g. Take That, Girls Aloud

Within Polydor: Fiction (Snow Patrol, Elbow), A&M (Duffy, Nicola Roberts)

Also released by Polydor for the UK: Interscope (Nicole Scherzinger, Lana Del Rey), Hollywood Records (Selena, Miley)

UMTV – compilation albums, reissues and one hit wonders

Within UMTV: All Around The World (N-Dubz, Cascada)

Side note: Publishing

While record labels own the rights to recordings made by the artists they sign, they do not own the rights to the actual songs. A songwriter, whether they record the songs they write or write them for others to record, can choose to sign a contract with a publishing company which passes over the copyright of the writer’s songs to that company. The publisher then makes sure the writer gets the royalties they are due, and helps them to earn more money by pitching their songs to artists to record and suggesting them for synch deals (to appear on TV shows, adverts etc).

Each of the major record labels shares their name with a publishing company, but the relationships between those companies differ. Warner Music Group owns the publisher Warner Chappell and Universal Music Group own the Universal Music Publishing Group. However, Sony/ATV Music Publishing is owned directly by the Sony Corporation, which also owns Sony Music as well as Sony Ericsson, Sony Pictures and many other Sony things. When EMI Music was sold to Universal, EMI Publishing was sold to a group of investors led by the Sony Corporation and is therefore expected to be merged with Sony/ATV in the future.

Phew! That was all pretty confusing, right? No wonder it took me so many years to learn. In fact, some of it I only just learned right now on Wikipedia. And we’re just going to pretend that independent labels don’t exist or we’ll actually be here all week. Anyway, to make it a bit easier to understand, I’ve drawn a map. Click on the image to see a bigger version.


  1. There are the same major labels in the US as the UK, but the divisions within the labels are different. There's lots of info on Wikipedia about it.

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