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Geffen Records was founded in 1980 by music industry businessman David Geffen who, in the early 1970s, had founded Asylum Records. Geffen stepped down from Asylum after being diagnosed with a cancerous cyst, but following confirmation that the growth was benign, he returned to work and struck a deal with Warner Bros. Records to create Geffen Records. Warner provided 100 percent of the funding for the label's operations, while Geffen retained 50 percent of the profits, and distributed its records. (International distribution outside the US and Canada, meanwhile, moved from WEA in 1982 to CBS until 1990.)
Geffen Records' first signee was disco superstar Donna Summer, whose gold-selling album The Wanderer became the label's first release in 1980. The label followed it up with Double Fantasy by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It was Lennon's first album of all-new material in several years. Two days after it entered the charts, Lennon was assassinated in New York City. Subsequently, the album went on to sell millions and gave Geffen its first number-one album and single (the rights to the album are now owned by EMI).
As the 1980s progressed, Geffen Records continued to sign a handful of established music icons, including Elton John, Cher, Don Henley, Wang Chung, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, and Jennifer Holliday. Toward the end of the decade, the company also began making a name for itself as an emerging rock label, thanks to the success of Whitesnake (US only), Guns N' Roses, Tesla and the mainstream comeback of '70s era rockers Aerosmith. This prompted Geffen to create a subsidiary label, named DGC Records in 1990, which focused on more progressive sounds and would later embrace the emergence of alternative rock. Geffen also distributed the first incarnation of Def American Recordings through Warner Bros. from 1988 to 1990.
Acquisition by MCA
After a decade of operating through Warner, when its contract with the company expired, the label was sold to MCA Music Entertainment in 1990. The deal ultimately earned David Geffen an estimated US$800 million in cash and stock, and an employment contract that ran until 1995. Following the sale, Geffen Records operated as one of MCA's leading independently managed labels. Geffen stepped down as head of the label in 1995 and collaborated with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg to form DreamWorks SKG, an ambitious multimedia empire dealing in film, television, books, and music. Geffen Records would distribute releases on the new operation's DreamWorks Records subsidiary.
MCA, through its then-parent Seagram, acquired PolyGram in 1999, which created the Universal Music Group, resulting in a corporate reorganization of labels. Geffen Records, along with A&M Records, was subsequently merged into Interscope Records. Although Geffen continued to exist as its own imprint, it was now reduced in size and stature to fit into the greater expansion of Interscope.
By 2000, despite Geffen Records no longer being independently operated within UMG and taking a more submissive position behind Interscope, it continued to do steady business—so much so that in 2003, UMG folded MCA Records into Geffen. Though Geffen had been substantially a pop-rock label, its absorption of MCA (which also included the ABC Records, Dunhill Records, Song Bird Records, Duke Records, Peacock Records, Back Beat Records and Hickory Records, and Famous Music Group, which included Dot Records and Paramount Records, among other back catalogues) led to a more diverse roster; with former MCA artists such as Mary J. Blige, The Roots, Avant, Blink-182, and Common now featured on the label. Meanwhile, DreamWorks Records also folded, with artists such as Nelly Furtado and Rufus Wainwright being absorbed by Geffen as well. DGC Records was folded in 2003 and now only functions to reissue Nirvana’s recordings.
Geffen’s absorption of the MCA and DreamWorks labels, along with its continuing to sign new acts such as Ashlee Simpson, Angels & Airwaves, and Snoop Dogg, as well as the recently signed hip-hop artist The Game, have boosted the company to the extent that it is now gaining equal footing with the main Interscope label, leading some industry insiders to predict that it might revert to operating as a dominant imprint at UMG again. At the end of 2007, however, Geffen Records was absorbed further into Interscope, laying off 60 employees. In 2008, the label signed an exclusive deal to distribute American King Music, including Mims.