Olivia Records Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A lesbian-feminist collective, which formed the company Olivia Records, provided recording opportunities for women and produced some of the first recordings to include the lyrics of out lesbian songwriters.

Summary of Event

In 1973, Cris Williamson performed a concert at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Meg Christian, a musician who had popularized Williamson’s music among the local lesbian-feminist community, later invited her to do a radio interview on a show called Sophie’s Parlor. During the interview, conducted by Christian and Ginny Berson, they discussed the challenges facing women artists in the mainstream recording industry. Williamson made an offhand suggestion that they start a women’s record company. [kw]Olivia Records Is Founded (1973) [kw]Records Is Founded, Olivia (1973) Olivia Records Music;lesbian feminist Lesbian feminism;and music[music] Economics;women-owned businesses[women owned businesses] Women-owned businesses[Women owned businesses] [c]Economics;1973: Olivia Records Is Founded[0950] [c]Arts;1973: Olivia Records Is Founded[0950] [c]Feminism;1973: Olivia Records Is Founded[0950] Christian, Meg Williamson, Cris Berson, Ginny Dlugacz, Judy Gair, Cyndi Harris, Helaine Winter, Kate Woodhul, Jennifer

Cris Williamson.

(Irene Young)

Christian and Berson happened to be part of a group of lesbian feminists who were deciding how to put their politics into practice. Spurred by Williamson’s suggestion, they decided to form Olivia Records, a company that would record music by and for women. They took the name for their company, Olivia, from the title of a 1949 lesbian pulp novel.

Although incorporated as a nonprofit organization, Olivia Records was run as a collective. The group was committed to creating a nonhierarchical organization that reflected feminist values. The collective initially included ten women, most of whom lived in Washington, D.C. After six months, the number had decreased to eight, including Berson, Christian, Judy Dlugacz, Cyndi Gair, Helaine Harris, Kate Winter, and Jennifer Woodul. The majority had been affiliated with The Furies, Furies, The a radical lesbian-feminist organization.

Christian continued to tour, and she spread the word about Olivia, leading to small donations for the recording company. Joan Lowe, the owner of a small recording company in Oregon, offered to put her own current projects on hold in order to engineer Olivia’s first release, a single that featured Christian singing “Lady” by Carole King and Gerry Goffin and, on the flip side, Williamson singing “If It Weren’t for the Music.” Women did all the work on this record, with the exception of the pressing. They conceived of this first effort as a fund-raising strategy, sending copies out to selected individuals to solicit contributions. Although they raised only $250 in donations, they learned of many women who wanted to purchase the record. The revenue from mail-order sales and a loan allowed Olivia to cut Christian’s first album, I Know You Know. I Know You Know (Christian) The goal was to sell five thousand copies over the record’s lifetime. They surpassed that goal within a few months and sold more than ten thousand copies within the first year after the record’s release.

When Olivia’s collective decided to move the company to California, its membership decreased again. Christian, Berson, Dlugacz, Winter, and Woodul left their jobs and moved to Los Angeles, where they lived collectively in a shared house that also served as their office. Particularly during the first few years, Olivia was largely dependent on the revenue from Christian’s concert tours.

In the summer of 1975, after raising $18,000, Olivia released its second album, Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed. Changer and the Changed (Williamson) Given the success of Christian’s I Know You Know, they hoped to sell ten thousand copies of this new release. Once again, their hopes were surpassed, as the album garnered critical acclaim. Olivia sold between 40,000 and 50,000 copies in its first year, and by 1988 they had sold more than 250,000 copies.

This early success spurred Olivia to continue its expansion, but subsequent recordings did not achieve the same level of success. In 1977, Olivia relocated to Oakland, California. By the end of 1978, with fourteen women in the collective, they faced serious financial difficulties. The combination of ambitious goals with a lack of business expertise left Olivia without enough money to produce more copies of The Changer and the Changed, its most popular recording. Following the advice of a consultant, Olivia went through a major reorganization and moved away from the collective model. Christian departed in 1984 to devote herself full-time to Syda Yoga, leaving Dlugacz as the only remaining founder. In 1995, Olivia ceased its recording activities, changed its name, and changed its product to vacation packages for lesbians. Olivia Records is now Olivia Cruises.

Significance

Olivia Records received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from women who connected with the music and heard their own lives reflected in lyrics for the first time. The number of records sold was remarkable for such a small company, as were the sold-out Carnegie Hall concerts that marked Olivia’s tenth and fifteenth anniversaries. Olivia’s recordings avoided sexist, racist, homophobic, and ageist imagery and were particularly notable for portraying lesbian relationships. Their messages empowered women and spurred activism for women’s and lesbian rights. Olivia also engaged in their own creative activism, releasing Lesbian Concentrate, Lesbian Concentrate (Olivia Records) a compilation album responding to Anita Bryant’s Bryant, Anita antigay and antilesbian crusade in the 1970’s.

Olivia is notable as an example of lesbian-feminist collective organizing. The structure of the company was as integral to its members’ activist goals as it was to the music. The collective envisioned creating an alternative workplace that would allow women to achieve financial independence in a nonoppressive environment. They advocated collective decision making, a nonhierarchical structure, sharing of skills with other women, and a system of compensation based on personal need. Olivia hoped to encourage women to spend their money within the community, thus building an independent financial base.

At times these efforts drew the criticism of women who believed that feminism and capitalism were fundamentally incompatible. Because of their commitment of accountability to their community, members of the collective often found themselves exhausted by the amount of energy required to defend their decisions. They held workshops and discussions where they accepted compliments but also received criticisms on topics ranging from their use of a capitalistic business model to their employment of a transsexual recording engineer.

Despite these criticisms, Olivia Records was an integral part of the women’s music movement that comprised several small recording companies, distributors, and a festival circuit. They created opportunities for women musicians, contributed to the development of women’s music, and deeply affected the lives not only of their members but of their listeners as well. Olivia Records Music;lesbian feminist Lesbian feminism;and music[music] Economics;women-owned businesses[women owned businesses] Women-owned businesses[Women owned businesses]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crow, Margie, Margaret Devoe, Madeleine Janover, and Fran Moira. “The Muses of Olivia: Our Own Economy, Our Own Song.” Off Our Backs 49, no. 9 (September 30, 1974): 2.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dlugacz, Judy. “If It Weren’t for the Music: Fifteen Years of Olivia Records, Part 1.” Hot Wire 4, no. 3 (July, 1988): 28.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “If It Weren’t for the Music: Fifteen Years of Olivia Records, Part 2.” Hot Wire 5, no. 1 (January, 1989): 20.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harper, Jorjet. “Fifteenth Anniversary Bash: Olivia Records at Carnegie Hall.” Hot Wire 5, no. 2 (May, 1989): 32.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holden, Stephen. “Olivia Records Is a Success in ’Women’s Music.’” The New York Times, November 4, 1983, p. C16.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodul, Jennifer. “From Olivia: What’s This About Feminist Business?” Off Our Backs 6, no. 4 (June 30, 1976): 24.

September, 1975: Anna Crusis Women’s Choir Is Formed

August 20-22, 1976: Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival Holds Its First Gathering

1977: Anita Bryant Campaigns Against Gay and Lesbian Rights

1981-1982: GALA Choruses Is Formed

June 6-June 20, 1981: San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Concert Tour

December 8, 1981: New York City Gay Men’s Chorus Performs at Carnegie Hall

1991: Stone Publishes “A Posttranssexual Manifesto”

1992-2002: Celebrity Lesbians Come Out

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