Geffen Records was started in 1980 by music industry businessman David Geffen who, in the early 1970s, had founded Asylum Records. Geffen stepped down from Asylum in 1975, when he crossed over to film and was named a vice president of Warner Bros. Pictures. He was fired from Warner circa 1978, but remained locked in a five-year contract, which prevented him from working elsewhere. He returned to work in 1980 and struck a deal with Warner Bros. Records to create Geffen Records. Warner provided 100 percent of the funding for the label's operations and distributed its releases in the United States and Canada; Epic Records handled distribution in the rest of the world until 1985, when Warner Bros. also took over those territories. Profits were split 50/50 between Geffen and the respective distributors.
Geffen Records' first artist 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 new album since 1975. Two weeks after it entered the charts, Lennon was murdered 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 would later be taken over by EMI, which eventually was absorbed by Geffen's parent Universal Music.
As the 1980s progressed, Geffen would go on to have success with such acts as Berlin, Kylie Minogue, Enya, Quarterflash, Oxo, Asia, Wang Chung and Sammy Hagar. In the meantime, the label continued to sign a handful of established music icons, including: Elton John, Irene Cara, Cher, Debbie Harry, Don Henley, 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 (U.S. and Canada only), The Stone Roses, Guns N' Roses, Tesla, Sonic Youth and the mainstream comeback of 1970s-era rockers Aerosmith. This prompted Geffen to create a subsidiary label, DGC Records in 1990; which focused on more progressive rock and would later embrace the emergence of alternative rock—Nirvana being an example. 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 (later renamed Universal Music Group) in 1990. The deal ultimately earned David Geffen an estimated US$800 million in stock (until the Japanese conglomerate, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd.'s cash acquisition of MCA in 1991, made Geffen a billionaire) 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 to collaborate 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.
Universal Music Group acquired PolyGram in 1999, resulting in a corporate reorganization of labels. Geffen Records, along with A&M Records, was subsequently merged into Interscope Records. Although Geffen would continue to exist as a brand, it was downsized to fit into the greater expansion of Interscope. At the same time, international distribution of Interscope and Geffen releases switched to ex-PolyGram label Polydor Records, which had already been distributing A&M releases overseas (in return for A&M handling Polydor releases in the U.S.).
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 (and its back catalogs) led to a more diverse roster; with former MCA artists such as Mary J. Blige, The Roots, Blink-182, Rise Against and Common now featured on the label. Meanwhile, DreamWorks Records also folded, with artists such as Nelly Furtado, Lifehouse and Rufus Wainwright being absorbed by Geffen as well. During this time, DGC Records was also folded into Geffen, with retained artists now recording for Geffen directly (DGC was reactivated in 2007, however it would now operate through Interscope Records instead).
As the 2000s progressed, Geffen's absorption of the MCA and DreamWorks labels, along with its continuing to sign new acts such as Ashlee Simpson, Angels & Airwaves, Snoop Dogg and The Game, had boosted the company to the extent that it began gaining equal footing with the main Interscope label, leading some industry insiders to speculate that it could revert to operating as an independently managed imprint at UMG again. At the end of 2007, however, Geffen was absorbed further into Interscope, laying off sixty employees.
In 2009, it was announced that Geffen Records had signed an agreement with the Holy See to produce an album of Marian songs and prayers from Pope Benedict XVI.
Jimmy Iovine relaunched the Geffen imprint in 2011, moving its headquarters from California to New York City. Gee Roberson was appointed chairman.
In March 2017, Neil Jacobson was appointed President of Geffen Records to oversee the relaunch of the label via new signings as well as reinvigoration of the label's legendary catalog.