Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, employees of the Beggars Banquet record store and label, founded Axis Records in late 1979 as a property of Beggars Banquet that was run by the two. After the first four Axis singles in early 1980, the name was changed to 4AD when it became apparent that the name Axis was already being used by another music company. The solution to this problem came from a promotional flyer that they had printed up to call attention to the new releases. The flyer’s designer had added some typography that played on both the new year and the idea of progress:
Quickly scrambling for a new name, Ivo glanced at the flyer and suggested “4AD.” Peter Kent agreed, and, with that split-second decision, 4AD was born.
An initial idea for the label was that it would be a “testing ground” for Beggars Banquet; successful acts would graduate up to Beggars Banquet after a year at 4AD. The only band to follow this path would be Bauhaus, who were signed to Beggars Banquet in late 1980 right before Ivo and Peter purchased the label outright.
The two were the sole owners for about a year. Kent sold his share to Watts-Russell at the end of 1981, and started a new Beggars Banquet subsidiary, Situation Two Records. Watts-Russell would maintain ownership of the label, and act as its president, until the late 1990s.
Watts-Russell invited the graphic designer Vaughan Oliver to create sleeve art for the label, and as a result, 4AD quickly acquired a visually distinctive identity. Its artists, like Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance, developed substantial cult followings in the mid-1980s, but 4AD continued to evolve, and, after signing Throwing Muses and Pixies, the label increasingly concentrated on underground American rock music. In 1983, 4AD had a minor hit in America with the Modern English single “I Melt With You”. In 1987, 4AD had a UK number-one hit with the collaged “Pump up the Volume” by M|A|R|R|S (licensed to 4th & B’Way/Island Records in the US).
In the 1990s, 4AD established an office in Los Angeles and enjoyed success with bands such as The Breeders, Red House Painters, Unrest, and His Name Is Alive. In 1999, Watts-Russell sold his share in 4AD back to the Beggars Group (as it had by then become), but the label continued to release music and add new artists to its roster.
Although fans will greatly debate the exact year the “classic 4AD” period ends, a popular theory places the end with the release of the final Cocteau Twins 4AD album in 1990. Still, 1991 saw the final Throwing Muses album with Tanya Donelly (The Real Ramona, CAD 1002), the final This Mortal Coil album (Blood, DAD 1005), His Name Is Alive’s Home Is in Your Head (CAD 1013), and the Pixies’ Trompe le Monde (CAD 1014), all of which are generally considered to be “classic 4AD.”
Even in 1992, new signings like Belly and Red House Painters produced records that are also considered among the classic era of 4AD. However, the label’s deal with Warner Bros. Records in the United States in 1992 would start the beginning of a truly new phase in 4AD history. By 1995, whatever remnants of the classic era that were left were dying out, as evidenced by the final 4AD release for Red House Painters (Ocean Beach, CAD 5005), and the last albums and break-ups of Belly and The Wolfgang Press. New signings that year included American underground acts Kendra Smith, Tarnation, Air Miami and The Amps.
In 2008, the Beggars Group recognised that 4AD was its most prestigious and successful label, and re-aligned itself so that several labels (including Beggars Banquet itself) were folded up on to the 4AD label. Bands like Stereolab and The National were signed to 4AD as a part of this merger.