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Naxos: A No-Frills Label Sings to the Rafters

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October 7, 2007

A No-Frills Label Sings to the Rafters

By ANNE MIDGETTE

WHEN Naxos started issuing recordings in the late 1980s, the releases seemed to trumpet their budget-label status with a no-frills design: the CDs, with their chunky type, white ground and small picture at the bottom, are distinctly unbeautiful. No great cover art, no big-name artists: it was all about the music.

The music has won. Naxos has by now upgraded the design of some marquee releases, like the Brahms symphony cycle conducted by Marin Alsop. More important, it has shown an uncanny ability to sell tens of thousands of its old, clunky-looking CDs, many by unknown artists and of increasingly offbeat repertory, like violin concertos by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges or Samuel Barber. (Each has sold more than 50,000 copies to date.) And this in a market traditionally centered on superstar musicians, and in a climate in which many classical releases are lucky to have sales in the hundreds.

Bucking conventional wisdom has made Naxos not only a successful classical record label, but also, within the last few years, a profitable one. This year, having become a force in the digital market as well, Naxos is celebrating its 20th anniversary. In 1987, when the German businessman Klaus Heymann started the company, which is based in Hong Kong, few thought that it would get this far, including Mr. Heymann.

“I didn’t think it was a long-term business,” Mr. Heymann, 70, said last month in his Manhattan hotel suite. “I thought it was a simple commercial opportunity that might eventually run its course.”

Seeing classical music as a commercial opportunity was enough to brand Mr. Heymann as a maverick. It is a title he appears to embrace. A passionate music lover who had a business selling audio equipment in Asia, he began his first label, Marco Polo, in 1982, in part to feature his wife, Takako Nishizaki, a violinist. When he decided to start a budget label, Naxos, he sat down with a record catalog and marked every piece that had been recorded more than 10 times. “And that’s what we did,” he said. Selling popular works at discount prices proved a good formula; Ms. Nishizaki’s recording of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” has since sold more than a million copies.

For years, many people in the industry tended to view Mr. Heymann as a kind of snake-oil salesman out to make a fast buck. But his ideas have helped carry the company to the forefront of the business. From recordings of the most popular music, Naxos has branched out, aiming to record the complete works of significant composers, like Haydn, as well as others who are neglected, like the Mozart contemporary Leopold Hofmann, and Americans like George Whitefield Chadwick and Edward MacDowell.

Mr. Heymann has also been a digital pioneer. Naxos was the first company to put its entire catalog online, and it has since introduced, among other ventures, an iTunes-like downloading site for classical music (classicsonline.com) and the Naxos Music Library (naxosmusiclibrary.com), which ultimately aims to provide subscribers with access to every classical recording ever made.

All of this has earned Mr. Heymann a grudging respect.

“Originally when I was approached by Naxos,” Ms. Alsop said, “the agents and managers and people in the business all said: ‘You don’t want to go with a budget label. There’s such a stigma attached to that.’ The perception of Naxos has done a 180 over these last 20 years.”

Naxos’ largest obstacle to respectability has been its reputation for exploiting artists. The label has no exclusive contracts. It works with a large stable of “house artists” who are paid the same flat fee — no royalties, no special deals — for all rights to a given recording. That fee — from $1,200 to $1,600, depending on what currency a given artist has chosen to be paid in — has not changed since it began.

“I think my cleaning lady had a better hourly rate,” said the pianist Arnaldo Cohen, who recorded the first disc in Naxos’ series of the complete works of Liszt before decamping to the label Bis. “Naxos is not interested in the artists. What they try is to fill the repertoire.”

Yet Mr. Cohen was pleased with his recording, which, he said, sold 22,000 copies. And he points out that Naxos has its strengths. “I think Naxos is a very clever invention,” he said. “And the great coup of Naxos is how to become a great company without having the big names.”

Mr. Cohen may have left Naxos, but in a sense he did not go too far. Naxos is also the world’s leading distributor of independent labels, including Bis.

The decline of the classical recording business has helped Naxos’ image. A low pay rate doesn’t appear so bad to artists whose alternative is not to record at all. Today Naxos’ house artists are no longer predominantly Eastern European unknowns; they include significant talents, both rising (the conductor Vasily Petrenko) and established (the conductor Leonard Slatkin).

“I had absolutely no problem about the terms,” said Philippe Quint, a violinist who made a recording of William Schuman’s Violin Concerto for Naxos in 2000, while still a student at the Juilliard School, and who released his fourth album for the label in September. “I was just very happy to have a debut recording. The conditions didn’t matter to me at all. And to be honest, they still don’t matter. In a world where a lot of artists are paying labels to get recordings out, I am fortunate to have a label to record.”

That Naxos has been run by the same person for 20 years also makes it appear an island of stability in the volatile business.

“At Deutsche Grammophon, every year there’d be a new head of A&R,” said the cellist Matt Haimovitz. “One year Boulez is hot. The next year, ‘We want to do a new Beethoven cycle, and why are you doing Ligeti?’ ” By contrast, Mr. Haimovitz, who has such strong views about artists’ rights to control their own recordings that he started his own label, Oxingale, describes Naxos, with which he has not recorded, as “reliable and consistent.”

Those words would hardly have been used to describe the label, or Mr. Heymann, in 1987. But Mr. Heymann is far more than a smooth operator. Artists who work with him speak warmly of his commitment to music. Both Ms. Alsop and JoAnn Falletta, another conductor who has recorded for Naxos, use the word inspiring to describe the long phone calls during which they discuss choices with the encyclopedically knowledgeable Mr. Heymann. Both said they feel he makes it possible for them to do projects they care about.

“One thing about Klaus,” Ms. Falletta said, “is he’s very loyal to people that he’s worked with. He’s also interested in what a conductor is interested in. If I tell him I’m in love with the Dohnanyi violin concertos, he finds a way to do that. He never imposes repertory unless he feels you’re excited and will bring it to life.”

Certainly Mr. Heymann is a pragmatist. He recognizes that in today’s digital market success lies less in individual CDs — “it doesn’t really matter anymore how many we sell,” he said — than in a range of platforms. His current idea is to provide Web sites that would enable orchestras and others to sell their own downloads while Naxos takes care of the housekeeping.

Naxos remains a family affair. Ms. Nishizaki listens to the masters together with Mr. Heymann. And the company is branching out into indie rock because it’s the passion of their son, Henryk.

Behind Mr. Heymann’s entrepreneurial spirit, one glimpses an inner romantic.

“It sounds like it’s just a machinery, not a business,” he said. “But it’s still all about classical music. That’s the passion of everybody in the company. But we’ve turned it into a real business. And it’s now very profitable — finally.”

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Thanks for posting. Naxos has aslo released some top shelf film music albums, such as the Stromberg/Moscow Symphony recordings of Steiner's "King Kong" and "The Egyptian" by Herrmann and Newman.

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They've done some nice jazz things too.

The Ellington DVD they've just released looks interesting.

EDIT: Weird... I just went back to the site today and this DVD seems to have disappeared from the catalog. Go figure.

Edited by Bill Barton

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Count me as a skeptic who slowly became a Naxos-lover. The label has put out all sorts of wonderful music for bargain prices.

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I've always found browsing the Naxos section at my local Borders a lot of fun. I've bought a few random things I'd never heard of here and there, and have found some gems. I'm positive I wouldn't have otherwise found this music without there being a Naxos. :tup

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I've always found browsing the Naxos section at my local Borders a lot of fun. I've bought a few random things I'd never heard of here and there, and have found some gems. I'm positive I wouldn't have otherwise found this music without there being a Naxos. :tup

I used to be able to browse the catalog at Best Buys but after they destroyed the local music stores I'm left with the internet.

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As every other label they have recordings that are splendid and others that are superfluous.

They showed the majors that it can be done without asking for the big bucks. Meanwhile some of the most renowned players are with Naxos, like cellist Maria Kliegel - she told in an interview that several of the colleagues didn't think highly of her when she signed, but now they see why: she sells more CDs than them all.

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Shame the jazz side of Naxos folded. There were issued a few nice things (as well several that were quite ordinary) in their short life. I'm thinking particularly of the New York Jazz Collective.

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As every other label they have recordings that are splendid and others that are superfluous.

They showed the majors that it can be done without asking for the big bucks. Meanwhile some of the most renowned players are with Naxos, like cellist Maria Kliegel - she told in an interview that several of the colleagues didn't think highly of her when she signed, but now they see why: she sells more CDs than them all.

Uh, does she receive any money from those CD sales? (Serious question)

Granted, the sales could have ancillary benefits...

I've been down on Naxos for a long time, and almost never buy their CDs. When the discs were much cheaper, I'd use them to experiment on new repertory, but anything I really liked, I eventually repurchased on other labels due to performance and sound quality (orchestral recordings used to be particularly problematic). I also have some issues with the label's non-payment of artists and other financial issues, but then nobody's forcing artists to sign with the label...

My opinion of Naxos has gone up over the past couple of years, as they've reissued a lot of American classical repertory that was originally on other labels. Still, I usually say "no thanks", although that attitude has caught some flak on various forums.

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