His first business venture was a magazine called Student at the age of 16. In 1970, he set up an audio-record mail-order business. In 1972, he opened a chain of record stores, Virgin Records, later known as Virgin Megastores. Branson’s Virgin brand grew rapidly during the 1980s, as he set up Virgin Atlantic Airways and expanded the Virgin Records music label.
Branson is the 4th richest citizen of the United Kingdom, according to the Forbes 2011 list of billionaires, with an estimated net worth of US$4.2 billion.
Branson started his record business from the crypt of a church where he ran The Student. Branson advertised popular records in The Student Magazine and it was an over night success. Trading under the name “Virgin”, he sold records for considerably less than the “High Street” outlets, especially the chain W. H. Smith. Branson once said, “There is no point in starting your own business unless you do it out of a sense of frustration.” The name “Virgin” was suggested by one of Branson’s early employees because they were all new at business. At the time, many products were sold under restrictive marketing agreements that limited discounting, despite efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to limit so-called resale price maintenance. In effect, Branson began the series of changes that led to large-scale discounting of recorded music.
Branson eventually started a record shop in Oxford Street in London. In 1971, Branson was questioned in connection with the selling of records in Virgin stores that had been declared export stock. The matter was never brought before a court and Branson agreed to repay any unpaid tax and a fine. Branson’s mother, Eve, re-mortgaged the family home to help pay the settlement.
Earning enough money from his record store, Branson in 1972 launched the record label Virgin Records with Nik Powell and bought a country estate, in which he installed a recording studio. He leased out studio time to fledgling artists, including multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield, whose debut album Tubular Bells (1973) was Virgin Records’ first release and a chart-topping best-seller.
Virgin signed such controversial bands as the Sex Pistols, which other companies were reluctant to sign. It also won praise for exposing the public to such obscure avant-garde music as Faust and Can. Virgin Records also introduced Culture Club to the music world. In the early 1980s, Virgin purchased the gay nightclub Heaven. In 1991, in a consortium with David Frost, Richard Branson had made the unsuccessful bid for three ITV franchisees under the CPV-TV name. The early 1980s also saw his only attempt as a producer—on the novelty record “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, by Singing Sheep in association with Doug McLean and Grace McDonald. The recording was a series of sheep baaing along to a drum machine produced track and even made the charts at number 42 in 1982.
In 1992, to keep his airline company afloat, Branson sold the Virgin label to EMI for £500 million. Branson says that he wept when the sale was completed since the record business had been the birth of the Virgin Empire. He later formed V2 Records to re-enter the music business.