Why cutting-edge classical music is the preserve of the minors

Michael Church
Thursday 26 October 2006 00:00

When Hyperion were hit by a copyright lawsuit last year - and lost their case - they were almost put out of business. All the money they would normally have spent on producing new CDs, was spent on lawyers. They survived by a whisker and are now once more afloat, thanks largely to the extraordinary support they have received from musicians and composers. For 25 years they had been ploughing a brave and lonely furrow, putting out superb records of forgotten classics which the big labels wouldn't have touched with a bargepole. Whereas the latter now base their strategy on the mass-marketability of their stars, independents like Hyperion are repertoire-driven: both in terms of music from the past, and the new music of today.

Gavin Bryars, whose Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, in which a tramp's accidentally-recorded song was put through a labyrinthine series of transmutations, is one of our best-selling contemporary composers. Yet since he began putting out his works on small labels "who were ready to take works from experimentalists like me, who the majors saw as beyond the pale", he has regarded those majors as a more of a curse than a blessing. Jesus' Blood, put out on a branch of Philips in the Nineties, has sold half a million copies, but since the costs of jetting an orchestra round the world were so huge, he hasn't seen a penny in profits. "And if I was recording now with a major label, I'd be lucky to do an album every two or three years. Moreover, the executives of that company would choose the repertoire. I prefer to control my own destiny," he says.

And he now does. Using his own label, GB Records, for which his wife does the design and a friendly American production company helps out, he is now re-releasing existing recordings to which he owns the masters, and making new ones with the aid of licensing deals with Latvian Radio musicians. "I do these records partly to keep things in print, partly to control the output, and partly to invest in subsequent recordings. It's not so much about making money, as ensuring the music is heard."

The composer Jonathan Harvey - the subtle dynamics of whose works are always fastidiously calibrated - swears by Sargasso, the independent record company he uses, which is itself run by a composer. "Each time I work with them, I am involved in the montage, the editing, and the post-mastering, so I am able to get exactly the kind of sound I want. I could never have worked like that with a big label - they keep composers very much at arm's length. I tell my students that the job of a composer is not finished until the disc is completed, and they must be part of that process."

For Julian Anderson, who is with Thomas Adès one of the hottest guns among young British composers, the independents are literally the breath of life. "As a listener," he says, "I rely entirely on companies like Hyperion, NMC, and Auvidis, who on very small budgets manage to do huge amounts of repertoire, and get it into the shops. None of us would have heard of Hildegard of Bingen if it hadn't been for Ted Perry (founder of Hyperion) suddenly hearing it while he was still driving a taxi and saying 'This is extraordinary, I must release it on my little record label.' And suddenly Hildegard became news. This is what the business of music is really about. And let's not forget that many great composers were minority causes during their lifetime, and for a long time afterwards. If you don't have a small company like this supporting you - and they don't have to be rich, they just have to be determined and resourceful - God help us all."

His latest CDs, Book of Hours and Alhambra Fantasy, have been released respectively on the NMC label (which supports new British composers) and on the Finnish label Ondine, whereon hangs a tale. "Alhambra Fantasy was originally meant to be done by a very large record company, but since they were busily cutting projects and artists at the time, Oliver Knussen (his conductor) advised me to quit them for Ondine. I looked into their track record, and discovered that they don't delete much, whereas large companies delete anything which doesn't sell fast in the shops. I was very impressed that in shops around the world I could find CDs from Ondine's list which had been released 15 years ago, so I knew they were serious. And they've been wonderfully stalwart in supporting and publicising this record."

For a view from the bridge, I seek out Radio 3's Rob Cowan, who readily confirms what these composers have said. He notes that in the recent Building a Library programme on Chopin's Studies, the big labels' brand leader Maurizio Pollini shared top honours with the obscure (and recently deceased) Joyce Hatto, whose recordings had been made by her husband and are now released on the little-known Concert Artists label.

"But the costs of recording are now so low," says Cowan, "that virtually anybody can go into a studio and manufacture a sizeable number of CDs, and their quality will be good. People often send me CDs of very respectable recordings they have made themselves. We've got a real fight on our hands, to maintain this industry." It's not that fewer people are listening to classical music, he adds - the audience is growing. "But in the era of do-it-yourself and downloads, the question is: what is the carrier going to be? My two children are in pop bands, and both make records and bring them home at night. And these are technically as good as things made by the majors 15 years ago. These days you don't need a record company at all."

Simon Perry, who has succeeded his father as boss of Hyperion, sees a different threat from the download phenomenon. "Retail record shops, on whom the classical labels depend, survive by selling pop CDs, but as downloads eat into that market, they may close. We will have to find other forms of distribution, and downloads - which can't carry the liner notes which are what our clientele require - are not sufficient." That is the challenge.

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