The lesbian-feminist record label Olivia Records released its first "fund-raiser" 45 rpm single in 1974, featuring Meg Christian singing "Lady" by Carole King on one side and Cris Williamson singing her composition "If It Weren't for the Music" on the other. Olivia Records went on to become one of the most successful of several women-owned-and-operated record labels that emerged during the women's movement of the 1970s, releasing over forty albums in twenty years. Declining record sales, due in part to a shift in the politics and musical tastes of younger lesbians, forced Olivia to supplement and, eventually, replace music with another business enterprise. In 1990, Olivia transformed itself into a lesbian vacation company, Olivia Cruises and Resorts; over the next decade the company phased out its recording enterprise altogether.
Olivia Records began as an attempt to put lesbian separatist ideology into practice. In the early 1970s in Washington, D.C., a separatist collective calling itself The Furies published an influential eponymous newspaper that frequently articulated the goals of "cultural feminism": the development of women-identified arts, religions, communities, and economic institutions. The May 1973 issue of The Furies featured a bold and controversial article entitled "Building Feminist Institutions" by Helaine Harris and Lee Schwing, which advocated feminist entrepreneurship and businesses (euphemistically called "institutions"). Theoretically, feminist institutions would offer economic self-sufficiency to the women's community, which would allow structural economic and social changes. Harris, along with two other Furies members Ginny Berson and Jennifer Woodul, were casting about for an appropriate feminist institution to found; eventually, they joined forces with local folk singer Meg Christian and members of the Radical Lesbians of Ann Arbor to create the Olivia Records collective in January 1973. The idea of a record company apparently grew from a chance remark made by Cris Williamson during a radio interview with Christian and Berson, but it was Christian who, in 1974, recorded Olivia's first full-length album of songs, I Know You Know, released in 1975.
The First Recordings of Women's Music
Two important feminist recording projects preceded Olivia's first album. In 1972, the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band and New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band joined forces to release Mountain Moving Day (on the independent label Rounder Records), with each band recording one side of the album. Despite choosing the idiom of rock music, dubbed and spurned as sexist "cock rock" by feminists in the middle 1970s, both bands promoted the establishment of an alternative women-identified culture and worked to open up previously closed opportunities for women as musicians and musical technicians. One year later, folk singer Alix Dobkin, along with flautist Kay Gardner and bassist Patches Attom, formed the group Lavender Jane and within the year released the first album entirely produced and nationally distributed by women. Lavender Jane Loves Women first hit lesbian turntables in early 1974, at the same time Olivia Records released its inaugural single.
By the 1970s stylized or "urban" folk music had a strong association with grassroots leftist politics, established by activist musicians such as Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and the young Bob Dylan. This musical idiom, with its emphasis on sing-along refrains and message-laden lyrics over musical virtuosity, became a powerful consciousness-raising and community-building device for the Old and New Left, and later for cultural feminism. Christian's I Know You Know follows this tradition of political music, although her classical guitar training remained a prominent feature of her arrangements and a selling point for the album. On the back cover of the album and in interviews for feminist presses, Olivia Records publicized Christian as a serious performer "with a degree in music" and the album as "high quality women's music." The company also disclosed its ideological goals to provide technical training, decent and equal pay, and nonoppressive working conditions to women. However, as was evident in the marketing of its first album, the tension between professionalism and profitability on one hand and activism and equanimity on the other plagued Olivia Records throughout its early years.
I Know You Know unexpectedly sold more than ten thousand copies within the first year. A grassroots network of fans, resulting from Christian's rigorous cross-country tour of women-only venues, volunteered to act as regional distributors. About six months after the release of I Know You Know, Olivia Records released its second album, Williamson's The Changer and the Changed (1975), which remains the company's best-selling album. Williamson had recorded a commercial album in 1971 on the Ampex label that had become an underground hit in lesbian-feminist circles due in part to Christian's performances of those songs in concert. In contrast to the acoustic guitar-based style of Christian, Williamson's piano and rhythm-section ballads expanded "women's music" into soft rock styles. Furthermore, whereas most of Christian's songs on I Know You Know provided realistic details of lesbian desire and relationships—a youthful crush on a gym teacher, the gray area between shared and separate property within a lesbian relationship, secrecy within the family, and scars from social oppression—Williamson's more abstract lyrical themes on The Changer and the Changed largely concerned women's spirituality, internal emotional lives, and connection to the environment and cosmos. Within the first year of its release, Williamson's album for Olivia sold well over twice as many copies as Christian's and became the financial cornerstone of the Olivia Records catalog.
Problems with Success
In 1976 the four "big names" in women's music—Meg Christian, Margie Adam, Holly Near, and Cris Williamson—launched a "Women on Wheels" tour that began drawing audiences in the thousands, consolidating a sizeable niche market that would later that same year attend the first separatist Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. But by this time Adam, the pianist for Olivia Record's first two releases, had formed her own label, Pleiades Records, and Near had several years earlier formed Redwood Records with her parents. The women's music "industry" soon became mired in capitalistic competition. At one point Olivia Records even attempted to monopolize the network of volunteer distributors, who eventually formed their own separate organization, the Women's Independent Label Distributors (WILD). More important, however, within the next several years Olivia had to scale down its effort to produce the work of an array of unknown struggling female musicians and concentrate on its top-selling "stars." Despite the steady attempt to integrate African-and Latin-derived musical styles in the company catalog, the market for Olivia Records in the late 1970s and early 1980s remained largely white, middle-class, and aesthetically conservative. African American Olivia artists such as Mary Watkins and Linda Tillery, composing in the idioms of jazz, soul, and funk, sold poorly in comparison to the staple recordings of Christian and Williamson.
By the early 1980s a financially shaky Olivia Records reorganized into a more efficient, hierarchical corporate structure and created the subsidiary label Second Wave Records, featuring nonseparatist artists who often used male musicians, wrote less political lyrics, and composed more mainstream pop and rock songs. Ironically, the first release on Second Wave Records was a return to Olivia's roots: the double-album live recording of Christian and Williamson in concert at Carnegie Hall, celebrating Olivia Records' tenth anniversary. Second Wave's catalog notably includes three albums by the veteran sound engineer and studio musician Tret Fure (Terminal Hold, 1984; Edges of the Heart, 1986; Time Turns the Moon, 1990) and Hocus Pocus (1984) by Alicia Bridges, who had previously recorded the 1978 disco hit "I Love the Night Life." Despite the intention to produce mainstream-friendly artists under its Second Wave subsidiary, Olivia Records still shied away from harder-edged rock sounds, rejecting an audition tape sent to them, for instance, by a then-little-known Melissa Etheridge.
Although Olivia Records struggled with and ultimately succumbed to mainstream capitalist pressures, the artists and ideology of its early years had a profound impact on the landscape of popular music, especially in the middle to late 1980s with the rise of androgynous and lesbian-coded female folk-based singer/songwriters who recorded on major labels or healthy independents. These included "out and proud" artists such as Phranc (Island), Two Nice Girls (Rough Trade), Indigo Girls (Epic), and bisexual Ani Di Franco (who followed Olivia Records in creating her own label, Righteous Babe Records), as well as "keep 'em guessing" artists such as Tracy Chapman (Elektra) and Michelle Shocked (Polygram). The short-lived Riot Grrrl scene that developed in Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Washington, in the early 1990s also deserve mention. These women musicians, playing a furious punk-and grunge-derived rock and preaching feminist and antihomophobic messages, formed support networks and independent labels maintained through underground publications ('zines) and mini-festivals, reviving the grassroots feminist spirit of The Furies and the economic/musical activism of their foremothers at Olivia Records.
Armstrong, Tony. "Olivia Turns Twenty." Hot Wire 10, no. 1 (January 1994): 24–26, 46–47, 62.
Dlugacz, Judy. "If It Weren't for the Music: 15 Years of Olivia Records (Part 1)." Hot Wire 4, no. 3 (July 1988): 28–31, 52.
Dlugacz, Judy. "If It Weren't for the Music: 15 Years of Olivia Records (Part 2)." Hot Wire 5, no. 1 (January 1989): 20, 22–23.
Grimstad, Kirsten, and Susan Rennie, eds. The New Woman's Survival Sourcebook. New York: Knopf, 1975.
Kort, Michele. "Sisterhood Is Profitable." Mother Jones 8, no. 4 (1983): 39–44.
Lont, Cynthia M. "Women's Music: No Longer a Private Party." In Rockin' the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements. Edited by Reebee Garofalo. Boston: South End Press, 1992, pp. 241–253.
Moira, Fran. "The Muses of Olivia: Our Own Economy, Our Own Song." Off Our Backs 4 (August/September 1974): 2–3.
Peraino, Judith A. Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press (forthcoming).
Pollock, Mary. "The Politics of Women's Music: A Conversation with Linda Tillery and Mary Watkins." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 10, no. 1 (1988): 14–19.
Schwing, Lee, and Helaine Harris. "Building Feminist Institutions." The Furies (May/June 1973): 2–3.
Woodul, Jennifer. "Olivia Records." In The New Woman's Survival Sourcebook. Edited by Susan Rennie and Kirsten Grimstad. New York: Knopf, 1975, pp. 177–178.
Judith A. Peraino
see alsobusinesses; furies; music: women's; transgender organizations and periodicals.
selected discography of olivia and second wave records, 1975–1984
Meg Christian, I Know You Know (Olivia, 1975)
Cris Williamson, The Changer and the Changed (Olivia, 1975)
BeBe K'Roche, BeBe K'Roche (Olivia, 1976)
Various Artists, Lesbian Concentrate (Olivia, 1977)
Meg Christian, Face The Music (Olivia, 1977)
Trish Nugent, Foxglove Woman (Olivia 1977)
Woody Simmons, Oregon Mountains (Olivia, 1977)
Teresa Trull, The Ways A Woman Can Be (Olivia, 1977)
Linda Tillery, Linda Tillery (Olivia, 1978)
Mary Watkins, Something Moving (Olivia, 1978)
Cris Williamson, Strange Paradise (Olivia, 1978)
Teresa Trull, Let It Be Known (Olivia, 1980)
Meg Christian, Turning It Over (Olivia, 1981)
Cris Williamson, Blue Rider (Olivia, 1982)
Meg Christian and Cris Williamson, Meg and Cris At Carnegie Hall (Second Wave, 1983)
Alicia Bridges, Hocus Pocus (Second Wave, 1984)
Meg Christian, From the Heart (Olivia, 1984)
Tret Fure, Terminal Hold (Second Wave, 1984)
Cris Williamson, Prairie Fire (Olivia, 1984)