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Cautious Optimism, Ambitious Pragmatism: An Interview with Klaus Heymann


Naxos Records’ founder and CEO Klaus Heymann meets me in a café, downstairs in the midtown hotel where he’s staying in Manhattan. Heymann is on a trip to the US in which he’s doing press meetings and presentations in New York, followed by meetings with the Naxos America team at their base of operations in Franklin, Tennessee. Then he’s off to the West Coast for still more meetings. Finally, he gets to go back to his home in Hong Kong. When I remark about the seemingly whirlwind nature of the trip, Heymann says, “International travel is expensive these days. It’s best to take care of all the business I can in a single trip.”

But while Heymann is averse to wasting money on the jet-setting model of yesterday’s record labels, he’s certainly willing to invest the label’s resources where it counts: on the music! The imprint has a catalog of nearly 4000 titles, boasting both tremendous depth of repertoire and many fine performances. And it’s growing continuously. When I suggest that we discuss the projects in the offing, Heymann brings out a list of recordings that is jaw dropping in its comprehensiveness. Of course, I ask first about the area dearest to my heart (and most germane to my writing beat).

“Let’s see, the American Classics series: we have 73 titles ‘in the pipeline,’” says Heymann.

The list of American recordings on the way includes a number of famous figures: Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Richard Danielpour, and Michael Torke among them. But there are a number of projects by composers who, while they may be discussed on Sequenza 21, certainly aren’t yet household names: Paul Moravec, Roberto Sierra, David Post, and too many others to recount here.

I notice a couple of Sequenza 21’s contributors on the list too: Judith Lang Zaimont and Lawrence Dillon. There’s a significant commitment to diversity. Women composers such as Zaimont and Jennifer Higdon and conductors such as Jo Ann Falletta and Maren Alsop feature prominently in Naxos’ future plans, as do artists from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. And Heymann doesn’t seem to have a style agenda: Naxos presents both Uptown and Downtown composers and seemingly everything in between. I’m particularly excited to hear about a forthcoming recording by the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble (including Elliott Carter’s Tintinnabuli!).

Is there a composer who’s conspicuous in his absence? “No more John Adams for a while,” says Heymann. Seeing my eyes widen, he continues, ”He made some very disparaging comments about Naxos in an interview … budget label … mediocre performances. It was very hurtful to a number of people at the label who’ve advocated for his music.”

This is the first I’ve heard of the interview, which I later find online in Newsweek. Given that Naxos’ recently released a fine recording of Nixon in China, the ingratitude is stunning. (In trying to reach Adams for comment, I’m told that he’s on “media blackout” while finishing a commission).

In addition to our appetite-whetting discussion of upcoming recordings, Heymann enthuses about a variety of methods for delivering music to consumers. On the day of our meeting, he’s is also booked to demonstrate Naxos’ first Blu-ray audio recordings. The initial run of ten titles is slated for release in Fall 2010. They include a recording of a contemporary American work: John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus.

Heymann says, “When we recorded Circus Maximus, I promised John that we would release it in surround – that’s how it was meant to be heard! SACD seems to be a declining format, so we waited … and now will release it on Blu-ray.”

While Naxos has remained committed to releasing recordings via physical media – CD, DVD, Blu-ray – they are also continuing to diversify their collection, providing a plethora of format offerings for the digital age, from conventional MP3s to streaming services such as Naxos Audio Library and Naxos Radio.

“I’m very interested in the technology side of things,” says Heymann. “When the iPod first came out, I was certain early on that it would be a transitional device – that streaming would be the wave of the future. And as the technology improves, we’re streaming better and better quality audio online.  Sales of our streaming services are improving while downloads seem to be stagnating. Of course, no one knows what the future will bring, so we’re remaining flexible. We’ve even recently released a recording on a USB stick: five hours of Chopin. The packaging looks like a CD jewel case, but the stick delivers higher quality audio – and more of it – than a conventional CD.”

The Audio Library is available through my university, and I’ve found it to be an invaluable resource in the classroom. It doesn’t just contain Naxos’ recordings; there are over 200 labels represented. I mention wishing that so many of the historic recordings in its database weren’t barred in the US.

“Me too,” says Heymann ruefully. “But that’s something to take up with your congressman; the laws in America are restrictive in that regard.”

Naxos has recently added a Video Library. It currently has around 400 titles. “There are more to come,” says Heymann. “It won’t have 44,000 titles like the Audio Library does, but our near term goal is to get it up to around a thousand. In addition to operas, we’re planning to include educational programs and plays.”

Despite the myriad challenges facing the record industry, Naxos seems to be a flexible player poised to take classical music into the future. Heymann says, ““People talk about piracy and illegal downloading: both of which are indeed problems. But seeing the amount of young people who are studying classical music, I remain optimistic about music’s future.”

He continues, “We don’t make a lot of money on most of our recordings. Things like The Best of Chopin sell well. But then consider most of the recordings in the American Classics series; we don’t release them because they’re lucrative, but because it’s important to do so. Naxos has created a catalog that I’m proud of – one that‘s now an intrinsic part of the classical music landscape.”

Comments

Comment from Armando Bayolo
Time: July 27, 2010, 12:51 pm

That last paragraph is encouraging! Reminds me of the business model for Deutsche Gramophon, back in the day. It’s telling of the state of the classical recording industry that such a traditional attitude about classical recording is seen as groundbreaking. It is certainly courageous and Naxos has certainly grown beyond its initial “budget label” identity.

And what’s with John Adams these days? Is it me, or do his public utterances seem almost self-destructive at times?

Comment from Paul H. Muller
Time: July 27, 2010, 2:24 pm

You want to root for Naxos – they seem to be trying to do the right thing for serious music. Ann Midgette interviewed Mr. Heymann on July 16, and some actual sales numbers were discussed:

“[As for regular sales:] right now, in the first five months our recording of the Spohr concerto for 2 violins sold 7,000 worldwide. Then Vaughan Williams, “Dona nobis pacem,” 6,000 in only 3 months. 4,500 Vaughan Williams Sacred Choral Works. Alsop Dvorak Symphonies 7 and 8, 4,000 in only two months. Petrenko Shostakovich 8 Liverpool also about 4,000 in only 2 months. Khachaturian cello concerto also about 4,000. Haydn Stabat Mater from Trinity New York also 4,000, but that’s not selling so strongly any more. Roussel Symphony No. 4 also 4,000 in 4 months.

It’s a very odd repertory nowadays. It’s in many ways gratifiying that all this material [is selling]. Of course with sales of 4,000, you’re not making any money. [What really sell are things like] The Best of Chopin, which is is probably now up to 300,000 or 400,000 in total. Most of what is downloaded on iTunes is this kind of thing. They download the whole album. [As for our other releases,] many of these things will eventually reach 6, 7,000. Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem with orchestra and chorus, in copyright, probably loses us $10,000 or $15,000. But long term, with all our other revenue sources, we’ll probably break even…”

The full article is here: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-classical-beat/2010/07/the_future_of_the_recording_in.html

So Naxos needs to sell between 5 and 10,000 CDs just to break even or make a small profit – even assuming production costs are low. I want to see Naxos prosper, but it is hard to see how they are in a position to advance the cause of new music. For those on the cutting edge of the art form, CD sales by Naxos would not seem to be part of the equation.

Comment from Christian Carey
Time: July 27, 2010, 7:55 pm

Paul,

You raise good points and I enjoyed Ann’s article very much. Thanks for linking it!

Are composers concerned with making money on their recordings or with gaining wider awareness of their music? For many of the composers featured in the American Classics series, I imagine that breaking even and getting their work out there is the goal of releasing a CD. This is increasingly the case in pop music too; the acts make their money off of touring, not recording!

But for Heymann and his colleagues at Naxos, the calculus in the coming years will need to be as follows: how many ‘loss-leaders’ can they afford on the backs of the sales of ‘Best of Chopin’ discs and Naxos Library subscriptions? At what point does the market for the American Classics series get saturated? Who makes the cut at that point?

Other labels are increasingly having to sharpen their pencils too; who will be recording American music in the future?

Unrecorded composers such as myself watch nervously and hope that the classical record industry will still be around when we’re ready to release a debut CD…

______________________________

Armando,

For me, the issue with John Adams isn’t so much about how his remarks impact his own working relationship with the label; that’s his affair. But in the Newsweek piece, which I’ve linked above, he sounds off about both young composers and Naxos in a very negative way. Given that this article (from 2009) is appearing in Newsweek, a mainstream publication that doesn’t regularly cover contemporary classical music, this is troubling. It’s hardly likely that this interview will encourage Newsweek readers to seek out music by young composers or, for that matter, a classical recording of any sort.

Whether he likes it or not, Adams is the spokesperson for contemporary classical music that media outlets seek out. His lack of temperance and prudence in interview comments is not doing any of his colleagues – or the next generation of contemporary classical composers – any favors.

In the Newsweek piece, he seems to relish being a curmudgeon, but I prefer his advocacy as a composer and conductor, where his energy and commitment to American music is much more positive.

BTW Although I understand the pressures of a deadline, I’m sorry Adams didn’t have time to comment on the Heymann interview. It would be nice to see that fence mended.

Comment from Opus111
Time: August 1, 2010, 2:03 pm

Thanks to you and to Paul for these revealing interviews. I, too, would have liked to hear Adams respond to the comments in this interview. It’s as though he’s been reading too much Christopher Hitchens. And for being so proudly misguided, he deserved a little bop on the nose. Kudos to Heymann and to his company: Like it or not, it will be Naxos (and not Adams) who plays the more decisive role in the future direction of classical music. And they have done more for it already. The podium, the baton, is theirs.

Comment from Chris Sahar
Time: August 3, 2010, 11:19 am

Mixed feeling about Adams comments at Newsweek. I like his freedom in expressing his opinions and regarding naxos in particular, I think he has a right to criticize the releases of his own music BUT I am disturbed he throws such a blanket statement. Naxos has put out both wonderful performances as well as mediocre. So I am on the fence about his comments about Naxos. Will it do harm? Probably not. I know that my friends and family will take more seriously a recommended Naxos CD than John Adams.

Also, Adams accusation of young composers “dumbing” down though I think is true in some instances is a paradoxical statement – many music lovers would point to Adams ‘ works as the start of dumbing down classical music (I neither agree or disagree with that statement, honestly. I think at times he does so unintentionally).

Finally, you have to wonder what was left out – I mean Newsweek for space consideration definitely edited Adam’s comments.