Badge engineering: labels and sub-labels

Badge engineering comes from the motor industry. It works like this. Start with a basic car, the BMC 1100 for example. Do two identical versions, one with a Morris radiator grill, one with an Austin grill. This exploits residual brand loyalty in older customers with fond memories of a first fondle in one or the other. Then do another one with a little bit of wood on the dashboard, leather seats and a small lighted sign in the more elaborate grill. We’ll call that a Wolseley. Put twin carbs and a tachometer on the next one, paint it red and put on a wooden gear stick top and fake Fablon wood on the dashboard. That’s the MG. Mix and match the comfy chairs of the Wolseley and the splash of dash of the MG, put on a two-tone paint job and you have a Riley. Throw in the lot and get someone who once had an uncle whose mate worked at Rolls-Royce in Derby to look at it and take a sharp intake of breath and call it a Vanden-Plas.This will have several sub-sections.

Hillman Minx … the finest?
Apart from the Singer, Sunbeam and Humber versions

The Rootes Group did the same … from Commer to Hillman to Singer to Sunbeam to Humber. The spare parts were the same but priced differently.

General Motors’ Vauxhall brand had two sections, Vauxhall for cars, Bedford for vans.

Ford just stayed solidly Ford on everything in the UK.

The Japanese can’t understand why we need to call the top version of a Toyota a Lexus, or a better Nissan an Infiniti. To them, Toyota has enough prestige on its own. They like conglomerates that make everything. You get out of a Mitsubishi taxi, ascend to your room in a Mitsubishi lift, take a piss in a Mitsubishi toilet and turn on the Mitsubishi taps to wash your hands in the Mitsubishi sink.

EMI and Pye were the BMC and Rootes of the 1960s record industry.

Pye were like the British Empire in India … let the Maharajahs keep their titles and finery (let Cameo Parkway, Chess, Colpix etc have their own sleeves) but keep ruling them.  

Both Decca and Phillips had more sympathy with the Mitsubishi point of view.

Labels begat labels. EMI distributed MGM, which distributed Verve. Pye managed to acquire American distribution deals from the competition by giving them the prestige and presence of their own UK labels … Cameo-Parkway, Colpix, Kama Sutra, Chess.

Decca was stolidly there with Decca, London-American as a catch-all label and Brunswick, which was American Decca.

Philips soldiered on for years content with just the Philips and Fontana brands.

As the conglomerates grew bigger, Balkanization of labels was inevitable. With some companies, the instinct to produce new labels was inbuilt. Trojan had over thirty reggae labels;

Island (also Jamaican influenced) was fond of spawning offshoots like Jump Up, Aladdin, Sue, Mango, Tuff Gong, Blue Mountain, Antilles, Dragon, Fourth & Broadway.

Both the British and Americans reject the Mitsubishi style, and prefer to believe they’re shopping in an individualized boutique than a department store.

Columbia / CBS and Warner Bros. (initially) were closest to the Vauxhall model, with two basic brands each, CBS and Epic, and Warner Bros. and Reprise. EMI tried the same in the 80s, pulling several labels into a single EMI brand.

Polygram united Philips of the Netherlands and Polydor / Deutsche Grammophon of Germany in one group. Polydor edged their way into the UKL main market by funding and distributing producer and manager labels, like Marmalade, Immediate and Track.

The demand for boutique branded labels was fuelled by managers, producers and artists wanting to stamp their identity on a label, so that by the late 1970s there were around 450 UK record labels. The Polygram group, desperately trying to gain market share were keen to promote new independents. Philips initially distributed Intermediate. Polydor did it for Track Record and Planet.

The labels proliferated as independents found it easier to access manufacture and distribution, but also to disguise the formation of the conglomerates. 

There is this major label v boutique label mood hovering over the 60s and 70s. Was it better to be a big fish on a small label (The Small Faces on Immediate, Cream on Reaction, Hendrix on Track, Traffic on Island … then with a staff of four, among them Muff Winwood as new head of A&R), or a minor part of the big label?  There’s a rock snob aspect. The Clash signed to CBS in 1977 … and ‘the death of punk’ it was said at the time. There are accounts of the folk community being shocked when Dylan signed with CBS / Columbia, believing specialist label Vanguard was his natural home …  the label with the credibility. 

Big labels come out better in chart books, but if you take (say) 1965, Decca in the UK released 260 singles, and 14.6% made the Top Thirty. It’s easy for an artist to get totally lost and fail to get any marketing attention among five single releases a week.

On the other hand, the American big labels were adept at taking over the counter-culture in the 60s … Jefferson Airplane on RCA, The Byrds on CBS, Grateful Dead on Warner Bros, Steve Miller on Capitol, The Band on Capitol, The Mothers of Invention on Verve (i.e. MGM), Eric Burdon on MGM, Neil Young on Reprise, CSNY on Atlantic. 

The reaction of the majors in Britain to the success of Island, Track Record and others was to create boutique labels for progressive material, Decca was first with Deram, Philips had Vertigo, EMI had Harvest, Pye had Dawn and RCA had Neon. MGM very briefly had Music Factory, then realized they might as well use Verve, as they already had it sitting there.

Boutique prog labels from the majors … click to enlarge

In the 70s, every American major decided it wanted its own presence in Britain, and the smaller soul labels followed. Only to a degree … Miami’s TK label had just the one British imprint covering its TK, Alston, Blue Candle, Cat, Dade, Dash, Drives and Glade US sub-labels.

Punk spawned a vast array of labels, some are valuable because they only managed a release or two. It is estimated that 5000 labels have existed between 1951 and the present.

By the time the conglomerates had got down to three / four, certain old names were utilised for groups within them.

So Universal Music Group chose Island and Mercury from among the vast range of brands they owned to head up groups. Fontana and Parlophone were plucked from the past and given new life. Decca suddenly reappeared from the mists of time.