Magazine article Opera Canada

Game Changer: When Klaus Heymann's Naxos Label Made Its Debut a Quarter Century Ago, Nobody Dreamed It Would Become a Global Leader in Classical Recording

Magazine article Opera Canada

Game Changer: When Klaus Heymann's Naxos Label Made Its Debut a Quarter Century Ago, Nobody Dreamed It Would Become a Global Leader in Classical Recording

Article excerpt

In the popular Greek mythological legend of Ariadne, her lover Theseus abandons the princess on the desolate island of Naxos. In some versions of the tale, Ariadne wastes away on Naxos, eventually committing suicide. But in the 1916 "opera within an opera" Ariadne auf Naxos by librettist Hugo von Hofinannsthal and composer Richard Strauss, Ariadne's life is renewed by the arrival of the god Bacchus, who in turn, through the love of Ariadne, attains his full godhood. Her grotto on Naxos is transformed into a blissful island retreat. What was once desolate and bleak is changed into hope and joy.

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In the fickle world of the recording industry, and the even-more bizarre classical-music recording industry, the international label Naxos has fought off stiff competition and emerged as a successful model for the present and future of the business. Almost an island unto itself, the Naxos label in 2012 celebrated the 25th anniversary of its founding in 1987 by the German-born, Hong Kong-based entrepreneur and classical music lover, Klaus Heymann. He still plays an active role in the operation of all aspects of his company and headlined the 25th anniversary celebrations. He and his wife, violinist and Naxos recording artist Takako Nishizaki, toured the globe, wining and dining, giving interviews, explaining and hyping the label, its legacy, importance and future. The British classical music journalist Nicolas Soames has written The Story of Naxos, published recently by Piatkus, tracing the birth, development and evolution of the label, how it changed the classical-recording business, our perception and use of recordings, its current operations and future plans.

In the late 1970s, even before the advent of CDs, the classical recording business was dominated by a handful of major labels like Philips, Decal, EMI, Deutsche Grammophon, RCA and CBS. Each had its own stable of artists and ensembles, mostly exclusive, promoted and marketed as the greatest musicians of the day-until the next generation came along and all was repeated. Consumers tended to acquire recordings, LPs in those days, for these names, for posterity Karajan, Solti, Bernstein, Ashkenazy, Pollini, Menuhin, Stern, Sutherland, Pavarotti, the Berlin Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and the Amadeus String Quartet are just some examples of talents developed into a star system of marketing and promotion. I remember a label representative at the time, answering a question about why the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was not being recorded by the majors, replying that "Labels don't record works or orchestras, they record conductors." Recordings of mostly standard repertoire were full-price, although as artists and ensembles gave way to new arrivals, they would then become part of the back catalogue, eligible for mid-price re-releases or compilations, and more money to be made with little effort or expense. Working outside the majors were smaller independent labels trying to find a niche in the system through specialization Nimbus, Harmonia Mundi, BIS and Telarc aimed their efforts at a smaller market of record collectors by concentrating on worthy but more obscure repertoire.

Then, in the early 1980s, the arrival of the compact disc changed everything. With the increased length and the perceived (though arguable) higher fidelity, classical-music lovers were enticed into repurchasing all their favorite recordings, then being reissued on CD. The back catalogues of the labels became profitable goldmines along with the new releases, both sold at fill] price. Heymann, a shrewd businessman with a keen sense of timing, saw an opportunity and started Naxos as a budget-priced label that concentrated on repertoire instead of artists. With the arrival of the CD came a whole new market of people who might pick up a classical CD of works by Beethoven while shopping for a pop music CD. The majors realized this, too, and began to reissue from their back catalogues, hoping their star performers would continue to attract. …

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