Chris Blackwell Reflects On 50 Years Of Island Records

Chris Blackwell with Bob Marley i i

Blackwell (right) with, from left, reggae singers Junior Murvin, Bob Marley and Jacob Miller. Nathalie Delon/Courtesy of Universe Books hide caption

itoggle caption Nathalie Delon/Courtesy of Universe Books
Chris Blackwell with Bob Marley

Blackwell (right) with, from left, reggae singers Junior Murvin, Bob Marley and Jacob Miller.

Nathalie Delon/Courtesy of Universe Books

Island Records turns 50 this year. It's the label that brought reggae from Jamaica to the world, while also showcasing British folk rockers from the '60s and '70s and a lot of influential pop artists. A new book, The Story of Island Records, is filled with essays and memorable album artwork. Chris Blackwell, Island's founder, tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that the role of record labels has changed from when he was growing up listening to music.

I don't know what record labels there are now that mean what they used to be to me when I was a fan. For example, Blue Note Records: I love Blue Note Records, because Blue Note Records was a guarantee of quality. They signed great musicians, and they recorded them absolutely brilliantly. Atlantic was a label that I loved; they had the best R&B music. King Records I loved; they had James Brown. There was a certain kind of identity with each label. That can happen when you're independent. When it's a major company, they can't do that in the same way. It's changed really a great deal, because also people don't even see a label. It used to be something where, you know, you saw that Motown record spinning around; there was a kind of excitement about it. You knew what you were going to get, that Motown sound. That doesn't exist now, so it's changed completely. For the artist, they are now really able, providing they're patient, to retain control and ownership of their work, their copyrights, their masters. They can sell their music; they can market themselves on the Web. Takes a long time, because it's sort of going bit by bit, but they can promote their concerts, and they can gather e-mail addresses or Facebook pages ... and grow like that. [They can] have a very successful career and own their own masters. They don't need to give that up to a record label, which happened in the old days.

You can hear more from Blackwell by listening to the interview at the top of the page, including the story of his first signing, the moment he decided to branch out from reggae, how he discovered U2 at a pub in London, his days scheming with Cat Stevens and much more.

Bonus: Hear Blackwell tell a story about meeting a group of Rastafarians outside of Kingston.

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