How Japan’s Sony Music is Closing in On Global Dominance
April 2, 2020
When you think of Sony, you probably think of the Walkman, televisions, Playstation, or that whole Spider-Man franchise drama with Disney over the summer. But what you may not know, Sony helped revolutionize the music industry as early as the late 1950s and they’ve been on a buying spree. The Japanese conglomerate purchased EMI Records, BMG Records, Arista Records, owning the Beatles music rights and much more. More than half the music you listen to is either owned by Sony Music or Universal Records.
Sony was founded in September 1945 inside a bombed-out department store in Tokyo, Japan. They got their start tuning Japanese radios, so the Japanese population could bypass Imperial Military Police (Kempeitai) radio modifications that prevented them from listening to Allied propaganda during the war. Working with radios allowed Sony engineers and scientists to gain the experience necessary to improve upon American transistor technology in the future.
The Americans initially beat Sony to the punch, with the world’s first handheld portable radio, the Regency TR-1 in 1954. However, there was a huge drawback to the TR-1. American transistor technology was very weak and inefficient and the Regency TR-1 suffered from extremely low volume and sold very poorly because of that flaw. Sony released its first handheld radio, the TR-55 with improved Japanese transistor technology that allowed its radios to reach high volumes. However, the Americans would not allow Sony to sell their radios unless it was under an American brand name. Sony refused, so the TR-55 was only sold in Japan.
In 1957, Sony released its first handheld radio in America, the TR-63, the most advanced radio in the world at the time. Nearly every American teen had one and it was instrumental in the rise of Elvis Presley and rock n’ roll music. Teens no longer had to sit in the living room around a huge radio and listen to what their parents wanted to listen to, they could listen to rock n’ roll with their portable Sony radio.
The amount of money Sony made with their radios allowed them to research television technology and dominate the television market, a few decades later they developed Betamax (they lost to Toshiba’s VHS format), the Walkman, and co-invented the CD (Compact Disc) with Philips in 1982. With this revenue stream, Sony purchased CBS Records in 1987 for $2 billion and Columbia Pictures from Coca-Cola in 1989 for $3.4 billion. Sony later invented the Blu-Ray disc and 4K format and supplies cameras to Hollywood and Apple’s iPhones.
Sony now owns Columbia Records, RCA Records, Epic Records, Arista Nashville, RCA Records Nashville, Columbia Nashville, Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Latin, Masterworks, EMI Records, and BMG Records. What does all that mean? It means over 50% of the artists you listen to are from Sony Music. From Harry Styles, Khalid, Mariah Carey, Adele, 24KGoldn, Beyoncé, John Legend, Childish Gambino, 21 Savage, DJ Khaled, Travis Scott, Camila Cabello, Pittbull, Brad Paisley, J.Lo, Beatles, Prince, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Queen, and the list goes on-and-on.
I’m sure many of you visualized a scene from Empire or a bunch of old white dudes in a board meeting figuring out what the next music trend it will be. It’s none of the above. It’s actually a bunch of Japanese guys in Tokyo overseeing a music empire that started with a pocket-sized transistor radio in 1957.