How to rock the classical world

6. Roger Lewis In the last of our series, Malcolm Hayes looks at the 'demon' behind the company that gave us Nige, the Spanish Monks and Vanessa-Mae; 'So, horses for courses? And who decides which thoroughbred enters which promotional race? '
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Once upon a time, EMI used to be seen as the most classical of record companies. In the post-war years this was the organisation which, on the HMV label (with its famous "dog and trumpet" symbol), bequeathed to the musical world the recorded legacies of Maria Callas, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Yehudi Menuhin and Otto Klemperer, plus a substantial part of Herbert von Karajan's. Classical records sold, steadily rather than massively, to people who liked classical music. And while the concepts of cross-over and hype already existed (as they have since the Stone Age), the buzz-words themselves didn't. Yet.

Times change - at least in the sense that the attitude of modern multinational corporations towards margins, budgets and the annual balance sheet has changed. So EMI is now the company which, over the past six years, has bequeathed to the musical world such phenomena as Nige(l) Kennedy, complete with blow-dried haircut and huge cross-media marketing campaign. The result was worldwide sales of over 5 million copies of his recording of The Four Seasons (composed by one Antonio Vivaldi).

This exercise has since been followed up by the advent to world fame of the hitherto obscure Spanish monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, whose monks recorded, some 20 years ago, an album of plainchant entitled Canto Gregoriano. Two decades and another formidable marketing campaign later, this CD and its successors (Canto Noel, Canto Live and so on) have international sales running into seven figures.

Most recently (and notoriously) of all, a teenage Singaporean violinist by the name of Vanessa-Mae was projected into the international spotlight, thanks to a cross-over CD album whose success has had much to do with its associated promotional trappings. These included a photograph of the artist standing in the sea, sporting an understandably wet chemise whose outlines left rather less to the imagination than anything you'll find on the cover of one of Maria Callas's opera recordings. (Sales of Vanessa- Mae's album so far: 1 million plus.)

The end of civilisation as classical music knows it, then? Not entirely. These lucrative promotional antics do say something about the sheer power of a record company to awake a hitherto dormant market for its products, rather than merely to influence an already existing one. But meanwhile EMI continues to rake in the proceeds of its unrivalled back catalogue of recordings - now classic as well as classical. It continues also to promote by far the bulk of its new classical releases (where sales of 3,000 copies per country are considered quite healthy) in the traditional way, ie straight. For instance, the Vanessa-Mae treatment has conspicuously not been applied to the budding career of another, even younger violinist with pretty oriental looks who has also been signed up by EMI.

The latest recording by American-born Sarah Chang is of Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending. This was issued recently as a filler to Bernard Haitink's CD of the same composer's Fifth Symphony. Haitink's and Vaughan Williams's names are on the cover in larger letters than Chang's, and her head-and- shoulders portrait - not a wave or wet T-shirt in sight - is printed on the back cover only, and the size of a postage stamp.

Horses for courses, then? And who, within the corridors of power at EMI, decides which thoroughbred is entered into which promotional race? The company's corporate tentacles spread out from the New York office of Jim Fifield, head of EMI Music Worldwide, to subsidiary and affiliated companies in 36 territories.

A key player in the decision-making process is Peter Alward, EMI's Senior Vice-President, Artists and Repertoire (or A&R, as it's known in the trade). "Yes, I think it is a case of horses for courses," he tells me. "If the company wants to promote an artist in an up-front commercial way, then that artist has to be a willing accomplice. If not, I'd fight the idea." He is sanguine, too, about the effects upon EMI's future activities of the recession-influenced decline in consumer spending over recent years.

"Marketing difficulties lead to pressure to take short cuts, and I don't like that. When I'm considering how to cast an opera recording, for instance, I'm always trying to take the long view. Of course we can't take only that view with everything we do. But the trouble with working with the kindergarten society is that it can be counter-productive when they grow up. The public loses interest, and that's bad for the artist and bad for us."

Vanessa-Mae's album was launched under the auspices of Roger Lewis, managing director of Premier, the group which has emerged from EMI's latest restructuring in control of a dozen different labels covering everything from classical music to rock via country-and-western. Lewis is by now used to being demonised in large areas of the classical music press as the man who is ruining EMI's credibility in this department. In a speech at the launch of EMI's "British Composers" series in 1991, he memorably proclaimed: "Now, we've got to sell these blooming records." Which was nothing if not honest.

Lewis refuses to concede that the company need mount a defence of its Vanessa-Mae operation, but he has a reasonable one to hand anyway. "What the classical music press doesn't seem to want to take on board," he says, "is that the record was never aimed at the classical market anyway. It's a rock album, played on an electric violin, and it was always presented like that." (He has a point: the album has only one track entitled "Toccata and Fugue in D minor", with the rest along the lines of "Tequila Mockingbird".)

So what comes next? "We're thinking about a classical release," says Lewis, "which we hope Vanessa will record in April. She's keen to do Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, so that will probably be part of it." And how, given existing form, will EMI market it? "That's a challenge," Lewis admits, adding that it will be done "in a way that's appropriate to Vanessa".

Corporate-speak takes more of a back seat when Lewis, who is honest about the mass-marketing banana-skins that have also interrupted EMI's progress through the 1990s, recalls the company's brief attempt to change the engagingly shaggy-bearded image of Peter Donohoe. One of this country's finest pianists, Donohoe had already undergone the make-over treatment, complete with a scrupulously effete portrait on the cover of his latest CD, before Lewis arrived at EMI in 1990. "I had misgivings about that," Lewis says. "And you can't force an artist to persist with something they're not interested in."

Donohoe himself, whose northern directness is a salutary presence on the metropolitan music scene, has recently left EMI and can therefore afford to be blunter. "The whole idea was thought up by inexperienced and immature people at EMI, who naively assumed that it would work," he tells me. "It worked with Nigel [Kennedy] because it suited him, and anyway it originated with Nigel and his publicist, John Stanley - not with EMI. It's diametrically the opposite of what I'm about. I've spent my life trying to avoid the core-repertoire bandwagon.

"You have to see this whole mass-marketing trend," Donohoe continues, "as part of the larger picture. Mine was really the last generation that was a product of the post-war drive to rebuild the country, and there was a set of values that went with that. Education. And knowledge. And curiosity. Now we have a public that's ill-educated and media-dominated. But I've no grudge against EMI. They have to live and work in this world like you and me and everybody else."