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Classical Music: Ted's excellent adventure

Hyperion makes `high-quality records that need to be made, that no one else will make'. Then shifts them in abundance. Edward Seckerson meets founding father Ted Perry
You'll find Hyperion Records on a run-down trading estate in New Eltham, south-east London. If you're lucky. "Be careful of the dog-leg bend in the main road - that can take you into Sidcup... and look for white gates and a sign which says Stanleys." Well, at least I won't make the mistake of looking for a sign which reads "Hyperion". The pearl-white Cadillac is far more visible. You don't see too many of those in this part of the world. This one belongs to the company's founding father and managing director, Ted Perry. Find that and you're getting warm.

You'll most likely find Perry in amongst the product (old habits die hard for the man who used to pack up LPs on his kitchen table). At the very least he likes to keep an eye on its comings and goings. And in this set-up, it's hard to do otherwise. From his glass-fronted office - one of several running the length of this capacious warehouse - that's all you can see: mountains of product. "The discs come through that door from the factories," he tells me. "Celia tells the world about them, and out they go through the same door to our distributors." And onwards to some 45 countries as far-flung as Taiwan and Venezuela. Unlikely destinations, you may think, for the King's Consort's latest album of Purcell's Anthems and Services. But you'd be wrong.

Hyperion, as in "son of Uranus and Gaea, father of Helios (sun), Selene (moon), and Eos (dawn)", is a small company with a big influence. You could say that it got big by thinking small. A wall-chart in the sales manager's office chronicles the company's fortunes through its first 15 years. And you don't have to be a statistician to see at a glance that unit sales, which began back in 1980 at floor and skirting board level, are currently through the roof, or to be more precise, halfway across Mike Spring's ceiling. The label's share of the UK's classical market is way out of proportion to its size. Hyperion is a cottage industry with a corporate identity, still functioning on a basic staff of 11 (that's an increase of only one in recent times: Nick took charge of editorial matters - sleeve notes and the like - last year) and still with only one overriding purpose: "to make high quality records that need to be made, that no one else will make". So says Ted Perry.

"Ted", as he's universally known in the business, is among the last remaining dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts making records for others like himself. He's a hearty, hail-fellow-well-met sort of chap with the bewildered air of a disorderly boffin. Don't you believe it. He knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. His enthusiasm is matched only by his single-mindedness, his instincts - musical and otherwise - by a natural sense of what might or might not gel. His nose, for artists, for repertoire, for the right combination of the two, is as sharp as any in the business. He describes his own musical tastes as "pretty indiscriminate", meaning eclectic, and that much is certainly reflected in Hyperion's extraordinary catalogue: some 750 titles (including nine Gramophone Award winners - the highest achieved by an independent classical label for different titles), the sacred, the profane, the beautiful and the arcane, the gamut of Early Music - with a special emphasis on English choral music and song; the great, the good, and the obscure of the Romantics (as witness the exhaustive exhumations of the "Romantic Piano Concerto" series: Bortkiewicz, Scharwenka, Sauer, Henselt, Hiller . .?); and modern masters like our own indefinable Constant Lambert. Perry insists that he's never formulated a "policy" concerning repertoire (he dislikes even the sound of the word), only that he wasn't about to record the 101st version of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. It helps to know the market. Why buy into the Scandinavian repertoire when the Swedish label BIS is doing a perfectly fine job? Better to channel your resources into an English Nielsen or Sibelius, like Robert Simpson. The serious record-buying public applauds him for that.

Actually, Perry began his career catering for just such a public from behind the counter of the most famous London record store of the day: EMG "Handmade Gramophones" of Newman Street. This discerning institution published a "monthly letter": anonymous reviews "by committee" full of priceless declarations like "we are not enamoured of this record". After EMG, Ted's big adventure began in earnest. Stints at Deutsche Grammophon, a distribution outlet in Australia, and Saga Records convinced him that it was only a matter of time before he went it alone. In 1977, he came close, setting up the Meridian label with the engineer John Shuttleworth. Soon afterwards, Hyperion was born. His one-man show at last.

Perry borrowed pounds 12,000. "With that kind of money you don't go into Berkeley Square and buy your potted palms and electric typewriters," he says. So he set up shop in the backroom of his house, boosting his cash-flow with a spot of mini-cabbing at night. That was March 1980. Unbelievably, he launched in September - "a satisfactory opening salvo of eight titles". He didn't make them all - he couldn't afford to. So to supplement English Anthems from Ely Cathedral and an outlandish organ version of Pictures at an Exhibition, he had to buy in. Among his acquisitions was a winning coupling of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and Quintet, played on the basset horn by Thea King. Now King had a thing about cows. So Perry found her a nice cow picture for the sleeve. He's convinced that won him the disc. It went on to become the second best-selling Hyperion release of all time.

Perry's only serious crisis came with the advent of CDs. He was too small to get into the European pressing-plants. He had to go to Japan - but at a price (minimum order of 3,000 per release at pounds 2 per disc, plus freight). He started with four releases - that's an outlay of pounds 25,000, up front. He hoped he'd chosen the right four. He had. One in particular can fair claim to have turned Hyperion around. That was something called A Feather on the Breath of God - The Music of Hildegard of Bingen.

Perry first heard this "ethereal music" on the radio one evening while doing the washing-up. It haunted him. A couple of weeks later, he got a call from Christopher Page of Gothic Voices. They met, but only after talking for a while did it dawn on Perry that this was the group behind the BBC's Hildegard programme. "Do you want a Hildegard record?" said Page. "Rather," came the reply. It was made in a day, the cheapest record Perry has ever made. Before it was even in the shops, someone kindly mentioned the number on Radio 3. Very soon Perry's distributor was asking - "What is A66039? It's on every single order." To date, Hildegard has clocked up sales of well over 250,000. Perry calls her the Patron Saint of Hyperion.

Independents like Hyperion are having their day right now. With lower overheads and proportionately lower break-even points, they can afford to be more adventurous, publicly to indulge their private passions - and those of their customers - and in so doing, steal a march on the "big boys". "My biggest advantage," says Perry, "is speed and flexibility. I don't have to go through an international planning committee to get a project the go-ahead. When an idea comes my way, I can make up my mind that minute. If I decide to record the Arriaga Symphony, Joanna can be on the phone to the ECO and I can be calling Sir Charles Mackerras in the time..." - in the time it would take someone at Sony to draft a memo?

Today's serious record-buyers are less interested in duplicating "core repertoire" (is that in itself a comment on the impersonal nature of so many recordings?) than embarking upon voyages of discovery. We live in the age of the series. Hyperion currently has several on the go: the Romantic Piano Concertos, Robert King's Purcell, Graham Johnson's Schubert Songs, Leslie Howard's Liszt (currently at volume 34). As a marketing concept, it's working - though more by accident than design. Each new release generates interest in earlier releases, each conspires to keep the whole series alive. But at the root of it all is trust. Right now there are Hyperion groupies, Hyperion junkies the world over. In Richmond, Virginia, one Dave Fox has logged the entire Hyperion catalogue on to the Internet: that's colour reproductions of the sleeves, content details, timings, notes, artist profiles, discographies - everything. Another satisfied customer? Idolatry, more like. They're awfully grateful to Dave over at New Eltham.