In a little over twenty years the Hong Kong based German entrepreneur Klaus Heymann has redefined the classical recording industry. An innovative business model allied to repertoire-based artistic policy has made his budget-price Naxos label synonymous with Classical Music around the world, through subscription streaming and downloads as much as through those distinctively designed CDs themselves.
Yet there’s nothing of the global grandee about the man. First impression is of a meticulous old-world courtesy and personal elegance. Next comes awareness of the astute business entrepreneur, precise in detail but sure in conceptual grasp. Last, not least, comes the abiding sense of a man who is ‘one of us’, passionately committed to the music he promotes and markets: “Not all our recordings will pay their way. About 90% will do so, in the longer run. But 10% we do for ourselves…” By “ourselves”, Heymann means not some labyrinthine, suited bureaucracy, but a tight administration able to turn on a sixpence, working closely with quality free-lance recording producers and engineers, and of course with the “Naxos family” of soloists, choirs and orchestras themselves. This is a man whose success is based on a winning combination of business sense, respect and love.
One of the curious things about Naxos is that every country sees the label as ‘their’ label, ‘their’ company. This is partly because their catalogue boasts rare repertoire from so many national schools, and partly of course because of their competitive pricing policy. Beyond that, Heymann believes being based in the Far East is a reason for this strong consumer loyalty: “I think that Hong Kong is, in a way, seen as a neutral place to be. We’re not exclusively identified with one of the major musical centres, so everyone can feel that we’re their own local company.”
One of the least predictable of Heymann’s initiatives has been the impressive number of issues – well into three figures – of Hispanic music on Naxos and its premium-price specialist sister label Marco Polo. For most music lovers, Spanish music meant Albéniz, Granados and de Falla, with the Concierto de Aranjuez thrown in for good measure; but although the distinctive Spanish Classics badge has only existed since 2002, Naxos has gone far beyond that miniscule mainstream core to encompass a wide range of regional composers and flavours little known outside the peninsula. “The impetus came from our licensing representative in Spain, the Basque Isabel Gortázar. With the emergence of a group of well-funded, high-quality provincial orchestras we saw the opportunity to collaborate on a major Spanish series. The funding comes from the orchestras themselves, and the recordings are almost all made in tandem with scheduled live performances.”
Beyond the large-scale orchestral, choral and operatic projects covering works by Guridi, Rodrigo, Sarasate and others, Spanish Classics boasts an impressive list of chamber and solo works. With its global reach and sales, Naxos sees some of its young house artists becoming stars in their own right; and Spanish Classics in particular has kick-started several major careers: “Jordi Masó would be one, for sure. His Mompou discs for instance – that composer was just a name for many music fans before Jordi’s series, a sort of Catalan Satie. Things are different now, and for Mompou’s teacher Blancafort too. Excellent work. And then there is the young Chinese violinist who is making our ongoing Sarasate series, Tianwa Yang. She’s one of the top ten violinists in the world, no question. A phenomenal talent, a huge star.”
As far as the broader picture of Spain’s recording and musical industry goes, Heymann voices frustrations familiar to many: “One special problem is the way Spanish artistic appointments are so closely linked to politics. We can be negotiating with one management, then there is an election and bang! … all of a sudden you find yourself in front of a new set of faces. This does not make developing relationships easy.” Just as crucially, Iberian music publishers and performing rights organisations are not always ideally tailored to recording companies’ needs.
He also recognises the chronic lack of distribution channels for Spanish independent labels, and even the so-called ‘majors’ [ed. as witness last year’s furore over DG’s La tempranica]: “So many interesting records from small Spanish companies don’t get a fair hearing. We’re in good shape ourselves though. My distributor is Fernando Rodríguez Polo, whose company Ferysa distributes our labels throughout Spain, and also sells our CDs and DVDs online through Música Directa. Sales at El Corte Inglés and FNAC are holding up pretty well, compared with other major Western stores, though the lack of an Amazon-Spain outlet makes business different in Spain.” Heymann’s grasp of recent developments, such as the development of in-house stores in the major Spanish opera houses and theatres, is impressive.
Looking to the future, these distribution issues are likely to become less important. Naxos’s sales of Classical and Jazz physical product are globally up, with the CD market holding firmer than rock/pop. Piracy is also less of an issue (“The files are larger, simple as that.”) More to the point, Heymann sees the subscription streaming market taking an increasingly large role: “It’s so convenient to sit down in the evening and think ‘what do I want to listen to tonight?’ when you have a streaming library of 43,000+ titles to choose from, for a small monthly subscription. This is now a very profitable business for us”. Added to which, Naxos currently has 35% of the classical streaming and download direct purchase market of independent classical labels, second only to iTunes.
Which brought Heymann to opera and zarzuela. “The operas by Guridi, Granados and Usandizaga currently at full price on Marco Polo will be available on Naxos soon, and although we only have one complete zarzuela in Spanish Classics – Guridi’s El caserío conducted by Juan José Mena – I’m very open to including more in our catalogue. If any Spanish managements or producers come to us with a project, we will listen.” His fondness for Naxos’s superb Guridi series is very evident, and he’d be specially keen to expand the number of that composer’s stage works available on disc.
One of the most exciting recent developments has been the availability of many classic, pre-1959 zarzuela performances for streaming and MP3 download through Naxos Classical Archives, soon to be covered in detail by zarzuela.net. These are in very good quality transfers from LP by David Lennick, unlike some previously available remasterings (“done without love, just in order to get them out there…”) and in the absence of a large body of modern digital recordings of the repertoire, they would form a good basis for any new zarzuela enthusiast’s collection.
Heymann’s enthusiasm for widening the Naxos fold presents a golden opportunity for sponsors of Spanish zarzuela, such as Teatro de la Zarzuela, Oviedo Festival and other quality producing houses, to introduce their productions onto his CD and DVD roster – if only they can get their acts together and come up with fully-funded, businesslike proposals. Certainly his door is open: “One of the good things about being where we are now, is that people will always listen to us, and we will always listen to them. We may not always get a result, but that’s life!” It is time for Spain’s musical administrators to do more to get a modern hearing for their great lyric stage heritage. Naxos is willing. The singers and musicians are ready and waiting. The music itself is superb. What is to stop them?
Zarzuela aside, what more can we expect from Spanish Classics? Plenty, it seems, though Naxos’s busy release schedule will only allow a little at a time: “Isabel Gortázar is retired now, but we still have plenty in the pipeline. On the orchestral front we’ll be introducing some Marqués symphonies, more Guridi, the ongoing Sarasate project with Yang… and of course the continuation of our important solo instrumental collections – Albéniz’s complete piano music, Torroba’s works for guitar (though there will be a hiatus there due to a change in personnel)… and I’m talking to Rodrigo’s widow about releasing his opera El hijo fingido”. That’s a zarzuela, of course; but when Heymann tells me that he’s slightly baffled by the difference, I have to agree!
© Christopher Webber 2010