Logo used prior to Arista's 2018 relaunch
After being fired from CBS Records, Clive Davis was hired by Columbia Pictures (which later became sister to the former CBS Records in 1989) in June 1974 to be a consultant for the company's record and music operations. By November 1974, and with a 10 million dollar investment from Columbia Pictures, Davis folded the various Columbia legacy labels (Colpix Records, Colgems Records, and Bell Records) into a new entity named Arista Records, ultimately owning 20 percent of the company. The label was named after Arista, New York City's secondary school honor society (of which Davis was a member at Erasmus Hall High School). In early 1975, most of the artists who had been signed to Bell were let go, except David Cassidy (left for RCA Records), Tony Orlando and Dawn (left for Elektra Records), and the 5th Dimension (departed for ABC Records). Others, such as Suzi Quatro and Hot Chocolate, were farmed out to the Bell/Arista-distributed label, Big Tree. Several Bell acts, such as Barry Manilow, the Bay City Rollers, and Melissa Manchester continued with Arista. The British Bell label kept that name for a couple of years before changing its name to Arista. The label was immortalized in the 1978 Rockpile song "They Called It Rock," in the lyric, "Arista says they love you/But the kids can't dance to this."
In addition to Outlaws, Patti Smith, Eric Carmen, Air Supply, The Kinks, Lou Reed, Alan Parsons and Dionne Warwick, Arista signed Aretha Franklin in 1980, after her long relationship with Atlantic Records ended. The label's most significant acquisition came in 1983 when Davis signed Warwick's cousin, Whitney Houston. Houston would eventually become Arista's biggest-selling recording artist, with sales of 200 million records worldwide, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Subsidiary imprint labels
Arista had an imprint label in the 1970s called Arista Novus, which focused on contemporary jazz artists. It distributed two other jazz labels, Arista Freedom, which specialized in avant-garde jazz and, until 1982, GRP Records, which specialized in contemporary jazz and what came to be known as smooth jazz. A country music division, Career Records, was merged into the Arista Nashville division in 1997. Arista Austin was used in the late 1990s as a country label. Additionally, Arista was the North American distributor of Jive Records from 1981 until 1987. During the 1990s, Arista also distributed Logic, Rowdy and Heavenly Recordings.
Looking to stave off bankruptcy, Columbia Pictures sold Arista to German-based Ariola Records, a unit of Bertelsmann, in 1979. But after Arista lost $12 million in 1982, Bertelsmann sold a 50% interest in the company to RCA Records in 1983. In 1985, RCA and Bertlesmann merged their music operations to form RCA/Ariola International; RCA owned 75% and Bertlesmann owned the remainder. After General Electric absorbed the RCA Corporation in 1986, GE sold off various RCA assets, including all of its interest in RCA/Ariola to Bertlesmann, and it was renamed Bertelsmann Music Group, though Arista's U.S. releases would not note BMG until 1987.
Into the 1980s, Arista continued its success, including major UK act Secret Affair. Over the years it acquired Northwestside Records, deConstruction Records, First Avenue Records, and Dedicated Records in the UK. In 1989, Arista entered into a joint venture with Antonio "L.A." Reid and Babyface in the creation of LaFace Records, record company of Toni Braxton, Usher, and TLC, which it acquired in 1999. In 1993, Arista also entered into a joint-venture with Sean "Puffy" Combs to form Bad Boy Records. In 1997 Arista acquired Profile Records, the home of Run-D.M.C. and Poor Righteous Teachers.
Milli Vanilli controversy
In 1989, Arista signed Milli Vanilli, a duo consisting of Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan that was based in Germany. The label released its debut album, Girl You Know It's True, which was a remixed and re-edited version of All or Nothing, which had been out in Europe the previous year. The album was certified sextuple platinum in the U.S., and charted five top-ten singles, three of them reaching the number one position. In 1990, Milli Vanilli won two American Music Awards and a Grammy Award for Best New Artist. Carol Decker, lead singer of the band T'Pau, was interviewed after their performance on MTV and said that Milli Vanilli had used a Synclavier and were not singing. Later that year, Frank Farian, Milli Vanilli's producer, said that the duo hadn't performed a single note on their album.
This revelation caused a firestorm in the music industry, as recording artists, particularly bubble-gum pop acts that heavily relied on electronic processing and over-dubbing (what they referred to as "studio magic"), were now under scrutiny and subsequently forced to cut back on lip-synching to show that they were authentic. Milli Vanilli's Grammy Award was subsequently revoked. Clive Davis promptly released the duo from its contract and deleted the album and its masters from their catalogue—making Girl You Know It's True the largest-selling album to be deleted. A court ruling in the U.S. allowed anyone who had bought the album to get a partial refund.
In response to the scandal, Arista's position was that the company had been completely unaware of Morvan and Pilatus having not themselves recorded their album. In a post-debacle interview, Morvan defended himself by saying, "[Before Milli Vanilli] I was working at a McDonald's. What would you have done?"
At the end of 2000, following its 25th anniversary, BMG pushed Davis out as label head and promoted L.A. Reid as its new President and CEO. Under Reid, the label had success with newer acts such as Avril Lavigne, Pink and Adema, as well as legacy acts like TLC and Usher. Reid, however, seemed to lose focus when it came to promoting its established acts such as Whitney Houston, who had been the label's biggest seller over the years. Reid's extravagant spending, meanwhile, caused the company to lose money. After the formation of the joint venture of BMG and Sony Music Entertainment (the former CBS Records) in 2004, Reid was let go. Arista, always an independently managed front line label at BMG, was merged with J Records in August 2005 and began operating under the newly formed RCA Music Group—of which Davis had become CEO, and thus again became in control of Arista. The Arista label continued to be used for new releases, although heavily scaled back, while its reissues are released through Sony Music's Legacy Recordings. Also, as a result of the Sony-BMG merger, Arista once again became related to Columbia Pictures, which is fully owned by the Sony Corporation of America (through Sony Pictures Entertainment) - who would buy out BMG's share in 2008.
Dissolution and revival
After L.A Reid left for Def Jam over at Universal Music, Arista began to operate weakly; while at the same time the label began losing numerous artists, original Arista acts such as Avril Lavigne were moved to RCA Records, at the same time LaFace Records was revived, this time operating under the JIVE Label Group. The revival of LaFace caused most or if not all of its original acts to return to the LaFace label, acts such as Pink, Usher, YoungBloodZ, TLC, Kenny Lattimore, and Chante Moore.
During the summer of 2011, the RCA Music Group underwent a restructuring that saw the elimination of the Arista name later on that year, along with sister labels Jive and J. RCA Records started releasing all RCA Music Group releases under RCA Records. Arista Nashville continued to operate through Sony Music Nashville and was not affected by the closing of Arista Records.
Arista Records France was founded in September 2012, making it the last active remnant of the label.
In July 2018, Sony Music revived Arista as a frontline label, making it the fourth flagship record label alongside Columbia, RCA, and Epic. The company has hired former Island Records president/CEO David Massey to lead Arista.