Back in the early days of compact discs, when there still were a fair number of retail music stores (anyone else remember them?), some classical music shoppers were a little wary of the unfamiliar record labels that started popping up in the bins, especially the ones with rock-bottom prices. One budget label, in particular, stood out for its eye-catching, straightforward look and abundance of titles: Naxos.
The names of the performers back when the label was launched in 1987 did not necessarily ring many bells on these shores (lots of Eastern Europeans), but the performances could be taken very seriously. And the product just kept growing and improving. These days, no sensible person sneers at a Naxos release. And, as more and more artists and ensembles lost their recording outlets with other companies over the years, more and more of them have turned up under the Naxos banner.
This is easily one of the biggest success stories in a business that was supposed to be dead and buried long ago. With more than 2,500 digital releases (none devoted to tawdry crossover projects, by the way), Naxos is now the world's dominant classical music label.
Here in dear old Baltimore, Naxos has been a particularly significant force. The label prominently features the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director Marin Alsop. There have also been Naxos recordings by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and Peabody Conservatory Wind Ensemble.
I caught up with Klaus Heymann, the German-born, Hong Kong-based founder of Naxos, by phone when he was in New York the other day. He didn't sound at all like a man on the verge of a collapsing industry.
"In the U.S., our figures are
up for the first six months this year," he said, "six percent up on CDs. DVDs are down three percent. But the general outlook is stable worldwide." And while download sales are flat, online usage of the Naxos Music Library is growing, Heymann said.
This is not a heady era of mega-sellers for classical labels. A few superstars will always chalk up strong figures, but "the big numbers aren’t there," Heymann said. "Major companies are not doing so well with classical, and they are not putting out a lot of new titles. I don’t see huge sales of individual CDs anywhere. There are exceptions, of course, such as the blind pianist [Nobuyuki Tsujii, a winner of] the Cliburn Competition; his CD sold 100,000 copies in Japan. Sales of 10,000 is very good; 15,000, and I’m almost deliriously happy. That’s very rare now. And I’m talking lifetime sales."
The BSO has been helping maintain Heymann's disposition. One of the Naxos best-sellers is Bernstein's "Mass," a hit with critics, too. "It has sold about 20,000 [two-disc] sets," Heymann said, "which is pretty good in this kind of market." The BSO/Alsop recording of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony "has sold extremely well, about 10,000 units," Heymann said. "I’ve been surprised by how good the recording is. I remember driving [in New Zealand] and listening to the radio playing the 'New World' and wondering who the hell is that? It was Marin’s recording. That they were playing that recording in far-away New Zealand is a good sign for the orchestra."
The BSO's recent recording of Dvorak's 7th and 8th symphonies is about to get a second incarnation; it will be among the first group of Blue Ray audio releases from Naxos this fall.
Although seeing a profit from recordings is never a sure thing (the "Mass" release will need to sell a lot more copies to make up for copyright fees), Naxos seems well-positioned to withstand whatever the next chapter in the industry may be.
"We started as a budget label, but we are now a mixed service provider to the industry," Heymann said. "We provide logistical services for DVD labels. We distribute many independent labels. Warner will come to us in September. The last thing I wanted was to be a distributor. It’s a headache, but it allows us to do other things."
There's been a lot of talk about the obsolescence of compacts discs, that downloading is all that counts now. Heymann begs to differ. "I don’t see downloads replacing CDs sales at all," he said. "Maybe a 20- or 25-year-old doesn’t own a CD player anymore, but the audience for classical music recordings is older." Naxos certainly tries to keep up with the times. "When we offered an iPhone ap for Naxos Music Library, the usage shot up," Heymann said.
As for the long-range future of the business, "no one knows what the mix [of products] will look like," he said. "The trend will be to some kind of subscription system, with one payment a month or a year made to your electric company or cable company. Somehow, we’re all going to get our music on a subscription basis. It's like in the newspaper business -- the jury is still out on what will prevail."
Meanwhile, Naxos will keep churning out recordings. "I have a curious mind," Heymann said. That's reflected in a product line that covers what is, by any measure, a remarkable range of repertoire, from the earliest to the ink-almost-still-wet-on-the-page variety.
"We release 30 a month, quite a few digital only," Heymann said. "There are 149 orchestral recordings in the pipeline now; 174 chamber music, 148 instrumental, 85 vocal/choral. More than 700 in all. I told my staff not to take on new projects for a year, maybe a year and a half."
Among the projects that will be put on hold is a Mahler symphony cycle with Alsop and the BSO that had been discussed. A Prokofiev series is still on track to begin next season. "Most people think an orchestra should still have a recorded presence," Heymann said. "A recording is not just a physical product. You get airplay all over the world. Every generation wants to leave recordings for posterity."
Looks like a lot of classical musicians will be gaining their posterity with a Naxos label attached. "We will still produce recordings and we will have a very good business," Heymann said. "And classical music will survive."
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NAXOS