Why 'own label' releases are a vital tool for classical musicians

The big-name "own labels" are the most visible signs of a practice that has been widespread at grassroots level for years. For musicians or ensembles that spend much of their life playing and touring to audiences that range from under a hundred to a few thousand, the economic facts are subtly different.

There is, of course, a classical independent sector in the traditional sense, and it's a thriving one: companies such as Naxos, Chandos, Hyperion and BIS are, in terms of repertoire and releases, a dominant force. However, at grassroots level, particularly for smaller groups or individual musicians, the key factor is that the investment has two purposes: sales and promotion.

Anybody can hire a room or a producer. After some post-production in a professional studio, the CDs are run off. Then they go into the touring kit. One batch becomes part of the marketing pack, others are sold in the concert foyer. The rest are sold through the musicians' website. At this grassroots level they really can't lose; and the public gets to have recordings that otherwise wouldn't be available.

However, for the more ambitious, there is a role model in the cunningly titled ArtistLed label. This creation of the US cello-piano duo David Finckel and Wu Han started in 1997 and has released eight CDs. Because of the name it's guaranteed to come up in internet searches. Styling itself "classical music's first musician-directed, internet-based recording company", the founders say ArtistLed is "a means for musicians to record what they want the way they want, and to offer their records directly to the public".

Philip Glass ran Point Music in collaboration with Polygram for a decade. The deal was that half the releases were expected to be commercially effective while the others could be less so, and since the composer's own music was a mainstay of the Nonesuch catalogue at the time, Point Music concentrated mainly on other composers: "Music that I liked that might not sell very well, and I would balance that with records that I also liked that would sell very well. We ended up making about 60 records - about half of them are good in the sense that they are music that would not have been recorded had we not done it."

Other composers on the label included Gavin Bryars and Jon Gibson, and Glass's own Low Symphony (based on themes from Bowie's Low) was one of the releases intended to boost sales. Eventually, Polygram bought out the company. Glass was philosophical: "I would take a 10-year contract with anyone - you can achieve a lot in 10 years." But when he formed another label, Orange Mountain Music, the model was significantly different.

Founded to release some of his own archive recordings, Orange Mountain runs from his New York studio. The label is distributed internationally and sold through Amazon. The idea was to extend into other composers' music, but in the last couple of years it has become the label of choice for Glass's new concert works. In the UK, Gavin Bryars has GB Records, which has reached half a dozen releases now sold through the trade, though "autographed copies" are available on his website. Michael Nyman launched MN Records last year with rather more fanfare and grumbles about the rigid schedules and unsatisfactory marketing of his works on major labels.

Star tabla player Zakir Hussain set up Moment Records in 1991, preserving performances by himself and colleagues plus a compilation by Shakti, the group he formed with John McLaughlin. Sir John Eliot Gardiner founded his label Soli Deo Gloria specifically for a 51-CD project to record all Bach's cantatas which his then company Deutsche Grammophon had unceremoniously dumped.

This year the label has extended to "SDG On The Night", a venture which involves recording the first half of a concert, burning CDs during the interval, and selling them to the audience as they leave. The Bach project has own-label competition from another cantata cycle conducted by Ton Koopman: the recordings appear on his Antoine Marchand label, a "sub-label" of the Dutch company Challenge. Both cycles sell directly online.

London orchestras, joined by regional ones and most recently by the Wigmore Hall as a chamber-music promoter, have rushed down the same path. The pioneer was the Royal Philharmonic, which started releasing its own recordings back in the vinyl days, but it's the LSO Live label that has inspired the current rush.

The breakthrough was that the players agreed to make recordings at their concerts and to work for royalties on sales instead of up-front fees. The CDs could then be sold direct to audiences for less than half the price of traditional releases. What has resulted is a catalogue of around 80 CDs, including works by Brahms, Elgar, Beethoven and Berlioz, with conductors Sir Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink prominent. Treated with initial suspicion by the media, the releases now regularly show up as top recommendations.

The London Philharmonic, the Hallé and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic now have their own labels. Not yet the Philharmonia, which instead became the first orchestra to provide a live concert webcast, giving itself a head start in a field that the classical world has been slow to exploit - a different form of independent distribution that in the long run has even more potential than home-grown CDs.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions