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July 20, 2010

Naxos founder Klaus Heymann upbeat about classical recording industry

Klaus HeymannBack 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

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:52 AM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

He's wrong about CD obsolescence, though it's taking longer than I would have expected. (I've stopped buying CDs entirely, except where absolutely necessary -- and I haven't found such a scenario in almost a year.)

First, I have too darn many (and am in the process of selling a great mass of 'em) - the LAST thing I need is to add more of the dang things to my collection. They take up space while wasting paper and plastic. (In my case, they occupy an ENORMOUS amount of space!)

Second, downloads _work_. If you buy high-quality MP3 or (even better) FLAC or AAC recordings, the difference between these and CD quality is unnoticeable (read: negligible to nonexistent). And PDFs of the covers and/or booklets work just as well as the "real things." (In fact, I can blow them up and get _larger_ images and easier-to-read text -- usually, these are made at larger-than-CD-booklet size, anyway!)

One thing I always hated: waiting for music to arrive from mail or internet order! I'm sorry, but the miracle of "instant gratification" makes me MUCH happier.

The same phenomenon is happening in paper, too (and I have an ALMOST equally-large book collection):

http://www.electronista.com/articles/10/07/19/amazon.hits.milestone.as.e.reader.overtakes.paper/

I sure do share your feelings about the space this stuff takes up. And as for the speed of download, I understand this attraction, too, since I'm the type of soul who feels that instant gratification takes too long. TIM

Being a music student, I would be lost without the online Naxos music database. It truly is a life-saver!

Also, I think there is still something to be admired to have an actual hard-copy of a recording. To me, while the instant gratification of an mp3 is quite satisfying, having that hard copy and displaying it in a collection is truly admirable.

Thanks for the comments. TIM

For listeners, it is a wealth of music. For musicians, it is a legacy. That recordings can still be made, and distributed, is a positive sign that classical treasures (known and unknown) are being recorded, sold and enjoyed.

Count me among those stubborn who hang into their CD collection and who will continue to purchase CDs.

I would have loved to hear more details about plans for upcoming recordings (I heard rumor of possible CDs dedicated to André Caplet, but these are just that: rumors...)

"The BSO/Alsop recording of Dvorak's 'New World Symphony' has sold extremely well, about 10,000 units..."

Well there you are - the definition of success in CD sales for serious and classical music. So if the typical list price is $10 (Amazon), you can do the math on how much the artist/composer would realize in different scenarios. Self-produce and somehow hang on to 50% of the list price and you have a decent income. But unless you create, produce, promote and consistently sell at that level, the income from CDs selling, say, in the low thousands starts to look like a lot less.

For new music the CD - even digital download only - is more of a collection and promotional tool than an income stream.

I suppose this is not exactly news, but it always bears repeating.

It is a sobering picture, to be sure. But even the lack of a profit path doesn't seem to stop many people from recording. The urge to leave something permanent behind remains strong. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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