Classical: An industry in crisis? Not quite

Scholl's defection from Harmonia Mundi to Decca is predictable, if annoying. The big record labels can still sign cheques like football clubs
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Classical record industry in crisis! Or not, as the case may be. New releases may be plummeting but, since everyone plays the numbers game differently, there is hot debate about the real volume of sales. So here, instead, is a tale of four labels, which together may give some hint of the way the wind is blowing.

We will begin at the beginning, with Deutsche Grammophon, which a hundred years ago really was the record industry. Nobody has a backlist like DG's, and its 60-CD Centenary Collection is predictably impressive. But so serious is its present plight that even its promotional bumf hints darkly at cutbacks and layoffs.

Sober, serious Karsten Witt is the man on the company throne in Hamburg, who proclaims at the start of our interview that "DG can only succeed if it takes its educational role seriously". How on earth does he square this with the promotion of Twilight of the Gods: The Essential Wagner Collection (emblazoned with gunships from Apocalypse Now) through gun- freak magazines in London? "That was a local initiative, and we in Germany were very surprised. In Germany it would have been unthinkable to put Wagner in such a context. Maybe we don't understand the British sense of humour. I assume it was meant to be funny?" When I point out that it has sold a seriously large number of records, he sighs. "In the marketing business there are many things we would rather not know about."

Witt is fastidious, too, about compilations - "the Classic FM syndrome, tasteless, disgusting!" - but draws a sharp distinction between "My 20 Best Operatic Orgasms" and a compilation of piano tracks called Fur Elise: My First Recital which DG has just released with a CD-Rom. "OK, this is a compilation too, but it's designed to draw people in. It's interactive - like our Pollini Beethoven project, it lets you follow the score, and even change its speed or key, or print out a version with your own fingering. It's not passive."

The point is well made, and Witt goes on to promise richer fare in future; new music, world music, no more rehashes of flogged-to-death classics. But when pressed on how the company plans to survive, as opposed to winning Brownie points, his answer is depressingly predictable: simply a harder sell. "Anne-Sophie Mutter is giving 80 recitals this year to support the Beethoven sonata CD we're releasing next month, and she's also done a TV documentary. She's the ideal artist for us." So is the new German super-soprano Christine Schafer, obligingly singing in a Prom next week to launch a release. So is the super-baritone Bryn Terfel, as media-friendly as they come.

Witt really does intend to yank the German battleship around. "We're speeding up our production, and doing more rush-releases." By this he means things such as the sacred-music CD he put out last year in France to coincide with the Pope's visit, and Abbado's New Year bash with the Berlin Phil, which included a posse of DG soloists. "Selling records on the back of such events is the only way forward for us."

Which, when you think about it, sounds desperate - and a far cry from the bullishness of Harmonia Mundi, which is about to release its 40th anniversary edition. This classical label packs a punch out of all proportion to its modest size, and its prosperity is based, in part, on a local brainwave: its own chain of shops in France and Spain. "We looked at the mismatch between declining record sales and the growth of the music-loving public," says its founder, Bernard Coutaz, from his base in Arles. "And we decided to open our own boutique here, where there was no record shop. The experiment worked, so over the next five years we opened 30 more in other French towns, then two in Spain." And in Britain? "I've asked our local people. I'm awaiting their reply."

Harmonia Mundi also sells books, but its biggest weapon is plain, old- fashioned talent-spotting, from Alfred Deller to Anonymous 4, via the leading lights of the Baroque. A while ago, they heard a 23-year-old counter- tenor called Andreas Scholl. "And we thought, a gifted boy. Let's keep an eye on him." Scholl was well worth keeping an eye on: this year, egged on by Classic FM, the wider world has tumbled to the ethereal beauty of his voice, and his Clark Kent features adorn the covers of music magazines everywhere. He, too, is media-friendly, submitting to public interviews in HMV stores after which punters buy records by the van-load. As Harmonia Mundi's sales manager, Ian Lambert, ecstatically puts it, Scholl's recording of the Vivaldi Stabat Mater is "flying in the shops".

"But now," adds Lambert with a growl, "after all this time and effort on our part, he ups and goes to Decca." Just as the conductor William Christie, another Harmonia Mundi discovery, defected to Warners. All very annoying, but also predictable: the big labels may be in trouble, but they can still sign cheques like football clubs. Lambert brightens again: "At least we've got more Scholl recordings in the pipeline. He's our man till next April."

Meanwhile, a strange missive flies in through my letterbox, more like a party invitation than a CD, though that's what it turns out to be. This is the preview record with which a label called SoundCircus is announcing its birth, and it contains a wonderful pianistic medley: from boogie by Nikki Yeoh to gamelan-style Cage to William Byrd done straight. No prizes for guessing its begetter: the protean pianist Joanna MacGregor, making her debut as a record producer.

This is an idea, she says, born of years of frustration. "I got very tired of playing to large audiences all round the world and finding that there were never any records for people to buy afterwards in the foyer. Classical companies make recordings in a void. They don't make the necessary link with concerts." This is ironic, given Deutsche Grammophon's belated conversion.

"I wanted to question every part of the recording process, including the packaging of the product," she says. "We're not selling in the shops, which means we don't have to use that horrible little plastic box which splits and falls apart. It also means we can marry styles in a way the big labels and record shops - which pigeonhole rigidly - can never contemplate." MacGregor's first products will bring in the jazz of Django Bates, the electronics of Jonathan Harvey and all points between. "I'm just hoping to cover my costs. I don't want to fall into the trap of having to price things at the same level as everyone else."

MacGregor will sell by mail order, linking up with the celebrated subscription- only music journal Unknown Public. She will also sell on the Internet. "In five years' time, we'll probably be downloading all our music from it." But none of this, she says, is new.

"Everything I'm talking about is going full speed in Amsterdam, for example. In Britain, we're still in thrall to American ways of doing things. We need to become more European, more adventurous.'

The final label, Blue Snow, might equally have been named "Philip Sheppard" since it was called into being to disseminate a recording that this prolific young cellist wants the world to hear. The Glass Cathedral puts his custom- built electronic cello through its paces, and very interesting these are: from birdsong to the groaning of ships' timbers, from detuned harmonics to weird melodic whistles. At present available by mail order only, it should be in the shops by October, but Sheppard is not too bothered.

"I've done a lot of recordings for big labels, and I've seen how much people pay for a thing which is absurdly cheap to make. I've printed a thousand, which cost me pounds 700; I spent pounds 1,500 in the studio. And when I break even, I'm going to give them away. If I shift 500, that's great. For all I care, the others can be novelty beer-mats. Why should I charge pounds 15 for a thing that cost me pounds 5 to make? I'm actually not prepared to buy my own commercial recordings - they may be great, but they're too expensive." Perhaps he protests too much, but the message is clear. "There are a lot of musicians who think as I do about this: we're getting back to what the musical entrepreneurs in the 18th century did; financing our work by friends promising to buy it."

Four labels, with two philosophies, and all addressing the same broad public. Perhaps they should talk to one another. Meanwhile, one thing is sure: reports of the record industry's death are greatly exaggerated.

SoundCircus CDs are available from P0 Box 354, Reading, RG2 7BR. website:

The Glass Cathedral is available by telephoning 0467 810 560