The Polydor label was founded on 2 April 1913 by German Polyphon-Musikwerke AG in Leipzig and registered on 25 July 1914 (Nr. 316613). The company was founded as Firma Brachhausen & Riesener in 1887 by Gustav Adolf Brachhausen and Ernst Paul Riessner, for manufacturing their new mechanical disc-playing music box Polyphon, invented in 1870. During World War I on 24 April 1917, Polyphon-Musikwerke AG acquired the German Deutsche Grammophon-Aktiengesellschaft record plant and company from the German government. The German state had taken over British-held Grammophon as enemy property during World War I.
Polydor was originally an independent branch of the Polyphon-Grammophon-Konzern group. It was used as an export label from 1924. After the British and German branches of the Gramophone Company were separated during World War I, Deutsche Grammophon claimed the rights to the Nipper-dog and gramophone trademark for Germany, where HMV recordings were to be released under the Electrola trademark replacing the company lost during the war.
1920s vintage Polydor export label with its double-horn gramophone logo
In turn, Deutsche Grammophon records exported from Germany were released on the Polyphon Musik and Polydor labels. New foreign branches were founded, for example in Austria, Denmark, Sweden and France.
In 1941, Deutsche Grammophon (including Polydor) was purchased by Siemens & Halske.
Polydor became a popular music label in 1946, while the new Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft label was to become a classical music label in 1949. The previously used label, Grammophon, was disbanded. DGG gave, by an agreement dated 5 July 1949, an exclusive license from 1 July 1951 to use the Nipper-dog with gramophone to the original owner's company Electrola, the German branch of EMI. (In Germany, it was impossible to sell only the trademark only without also selling the company.) Polydor remained Deutsche Grammophon's export label, including classical music, in France and the Spanish-speaking world for the remainder of the long-playing era, as a result of language and cultural concerns. DGG established a subsidiary in London called Polydor Records Ltd. in 1954.
In the early 1960s, orchestra leader Bert Kaempfert signed unknowns Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers—who later became known as the Beatles—to Polydor. Popular International entertainers such as James Last, Bert Kaempfert, Kurt Edelhagen, Caterina Valente and the Kessler Twins appeared on the Polydor label, as well as many French, Spanish and Latin-American figures.
Siemens entered into a joint venture with Philips in 1962 creating the Grammophon-Philips Group, of which Polydor became a subsidiary label.
Polydor opened a United States branch in 1969, but did not become a real presence in the United States record industry until its purchase of the recording contract and back catalog of R&B superstar James Brown in 1971, and the absorption of the MGM Records label by its parent company PolyGram in 1972.
In 1970, Polydor acquired the Hong Kong-based Diamond Records, which had been owned and founded by the local Portuguese merchant Ren da Silva in the late 1950s.
In 1954 Polydor Records introduced their distinctive orange label.
In 1972, The Grammophon-Philips Group (GPG) reorganized to create PolyGram. The Polydor label continued to run as a subsidiary label under the new company. The name PolyGram is a portmanteau of Polydor and PhonoGram. Throughout the 1970s, Polydor became a major rock label, releasing chart-topping hits from hard-rock bands such as Slade but it also championed disco, being home to such platinum-selling disco acts as the Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor.
Into the 1980s, Polydor continued to do respectable business, in spite of becoming increasingly overshadowed by its PolyGram sister label Mercury Records. Polydor took over management of British Decca's pop catalog. A&R manager Frank Neilson was able to score a major top ten hit in March 1981 for the label with "Do The Hucklebuck" by Coast to Coast as well as signing Ian Dury and Billy Fury to the company. In 1984, the company name was parodied in the rockumentary film This Is Spinal Tap (whose soundtrack album was distributed by Polydor), where "Polymer Records" was the band's record company.
By the early 1990s, Polydor had begun to underperform. PolyGram subsequently trimmed most of Polydor's staff and roster, and shifted it to operate under the umbrella of PolyGram Label Group (PLG), a newly constructed "super label" specifically designed to oversee the operations of PolyGram's lesser performing imprints, which included Island Records, London Records, Atlas Records and Verve Records at the time.
In 1994, as Island Records recovered from its sales slump, PolyGram dissolved most of PLG into it. Meanwhile, Polydor Records and Atlas Records merged, briefly called "Polydor/Atlas", and began operating through A&M Records, another PolyGram subsidiary. In 1995, Polydor/Atlas became simply Polydor Records again.
Twilight years in the United States
Over the next few years, Polydor tried to keep itself afloat with new artist signings, new releases, and reissues, while still becoming more and more dormant. In 1998, PolyGram was purchased by Seagram and absorbed into its Universal Music Group. During the consolidation of these two music giants, Polydor's United States operations were folded into Interscope-Geffen-A&M, while its overseas branch remained intact, with its records continuing to be distributed domestically through Interscope and A&M. Today, in America, the Polydor Records name and logo is mostly used on reissues of older material from its 1960s and 1970s heyday. However, starting in the 2010s, Interscope Records has been signing acts such as Azealia Banks and Lana Del Rey jointly to Polydor and its logo has been seen on both releases.