In the mid-1980s, when compact discs were new and exciting, Rykodisc became known as the record industry’s first CD-only label. Located on Pickering Wharf in Salem MA, the company was founded by four men with ties to the music business. One was Don Rose (who formerly ran a local label called EAT Records, specializing in cult bands like Human Sexual Response). The others were his brother-in-law Rob Simonds, who ran a Minneapolis-based business specializing in Japanese import albums (at that time, many CDs and albums were manufactured in Japan); Douglas Lexa, also an importer and marketer of Japanese records, based in Los Angeles; and Arthur Mann, a music industry attorney based in Philadelphia. They were attending a music conference in France in 1983, and one topic of discussion was whether compact discs, which offered enhanced sound quality, would soon catch on with the album-buying public. The four men decided the time was right for an all-CD label, and they invested $1,000 to get it started in 1984. They named their new company Rykodisc (the name ‘ryko’ was a Japanese word that meant “sound from a flash of light”), and the first CD they released was “Comin’ and Goin’,” by Native-American jazz musician Jim Pepper.
Rykodisc was successful through the 90's but the CD environment was changing.
Don Rose and his team tried to adapt, but ultimately, being an independent label became financially untenable. After months of rumors, it was announced in late July 1998 that Rykodisc was being sold to former Island Records president Chris Blackwell’s new company Islandlife. At first, the word was that Rose and the offices in Salem would remain, but by late September 1999, it was announced that George Howard, formerly head of Slow River Records (an imprint of Rykodisc), had been named Rykodisc’s new president, and the label was being relocated to New York.
It did not go well. In fact, the merger (and the move) turned out to be such a bad fit that by early 2002, the two companies separated and Rykodisc’s operations moved back to Massachusetts, this time relocating to Gloucester, where George Howard lived. But the hope that Rykodisc could return to prosperity was short-lived. By the end of the year, Howard was no longer label president, and the staff of ten was down-sized to only four. In a world that was now dominated by digital downloads, labels like Rykodisc no longer had a niche. By 2006, the once-unique label was no more: Rykodisc was purchased by the Warner Music Group for $67.5 million.
(by Donna L. Halper)
- The Music Museum article on Rykodisc
"Rykodisc announces decision to leave Salem" Salem Evening News, Aug. 6, 1999, p. A1