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The company was formed in 1979 by Rod Smallwood and Andy Taylor, who had first met as undergraduates at Trinity College, Cambridge, and later organized dance events for students together. In 1979, they discovered (in a London pub) and then managed Iron Maiden. They consequently named the record company after the band's song “Sanctuary", a 1980 single later included on the reissued version of their 1980 eponymous debut album.
Sanctuary Records is noted for preferring to sign artists with long-term appeal, usually the artists are those considered heritage acts, being artists that have had a long career and steady fan base.
Between 1989 and 1991, Sanctuary was co-owned by the Zomba Group, whose music publishing arm still held the music of Iron Maiden in 2001.
In 1994, the company diversified. Amongst the new media interests included a joint venture with screenwriter and producer, Raymond Thompson, which evolved into the Cloud9 Screen Entertainment Group.
Iron Maiden's back catalog was re-issued by Sanctuary in conjunction with Columbia/SME Records in the US in 2002.
Kenny Rogers's 1980s back catalog (originally released on RCA Records) was re-issued by Sanctuary's Castle Music label in conjunction with Kenny Rogers' Dreamcatcher Records in the UK. The albums were only available as imports in the US. Rogers' 2003 release "Back To The Well" was released by Sanctuary in the UK.
Mayan Records was an imprint of Sanctuary Records, under which Lordi's UK album The Monster Show was released.
After a £110m loss in 2005 pressure from the UK financial and business leaders led to Smallwood becoming merely a general manager of the company, Taylor becoming Chief Executive and former British Airways chief executive Bob Ayling being installed as the new Chairman. On May 26, 2006, Ayling dismissed Taylor from the company over severe problems and inaccuracies in previous years' accounting. Sanctuary Group PLC shares had already become drastically reduced in value after a restructuring designed to deal with the previous year's huge loss. In late 2006, Smallwood left the company, taking with him Iron Maiden's management interests.
In April 2007 Billboard reported that Sanctuary Records would cease to exist as a new release label in the US that summer, though catalog, licensing, and new media operations would continue. On October 22, 2007, the record company was absorbed by Universal Music Group. By December 2007, it appeared that the Sanctuary name had begun to be airbrushed away, with both Morrissey and Robert Plant being transferred to the Universal-owned Decca Music Group for future releases.