Miles Copeland III, the son of CIA agent Miles Copeland Jr., played many roles in the U.K. punk rock and new wave music industry of the middle to late 1970s: agent, manager, producer, magazine publisher, record company and label owner. His brother Ian was the head of a talent agency, Frontier Booking International (F.B.I.), while his brother Stewart played drums for The Police, a band that Copeland managed. The Police's first album was released on A&M Records in 1978 with a hit single, "Roxanne", that Copeland called a turning point in his life.
Building on success with the Police, Copeland convinced Jerry Moss, co-owner of A&M, to establish the I.R.S. division in 1979. I.R.S. stood for International Record Syndicate.
From 1983 to 1987, I.R.S. Records sponsored a monthly MTV show called I.R.S. Records Presents The Cutting Edge, hosted by Peter Zaremba of The Fleshtones. The series concentrated on bands that recorded for the label. The show concept would later evolve into the alternative rock program 120 Minutes, which was launched in 1986 and co-existed with Cutting Edge for about a year and a half.
I.R.S. releases were distributed by A&M until 1985, then by MCA Records until 1990, and by EMI until the label folded in 1996. In 1985, Copeland brokered a deal to switch the label's distributor to MCA Records. Under the agreement, A&M continued to release the label's pre-1985 catalog, much of which still can be found under the A&M banner.
The Go-Go's "We Got the Beat" in 1982 and Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy" in 1989 were each at #2 on the Hot 100 during the week that Federal income taxes were due to the namesake IRS. "Crazy" was at the summit on 15 April 1989, which would have been the due date that year, except that it fell on a Saturday. Otherwise, neither The Go-Go's nor any other I.R.S. act reached the Hot 100's summit.
The label folded in May 1996, with its last release being All Set by the Buzzcocks, issued two weeks before the closure. Shortly after, Copeland formed Ark 21 Records.
In 2011, EMI revived the label; as of 2012, the new label had Chiddy Bang and Foxy Shazam on its roster. In October 2013, shortly after the integration of EMI into its successor, Universal Music Group, the label was revived again as I.R.S. Nashville, with Striking Matches, Marc Scibilia and Cowboy Jack Clement on its roster before being shut down once again in 2015.