Special Report

And They Call It Puppy Love

An upstart record label is saving the classical music industry from itself.

By 9.24.03

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Gay-Yee's favorite color is red. Eos' favorite food is Thai green curry. Haylie's favorite animal is a "poodie cat" named Moo Shoo. Tania's favorite color is blue. Gay-Yee, Eos, Haylie, and Tania, in case you hadn't guessed, are members of a string quartet. They are called bond. bond's collective likes include lipstick lesbian posturing; collective dislikes include being photographed wearing clothes. The bond girls are, if Decca Records has anything to say about it, the future of classical music.

Some old fogies, such as those at CIN, the organization that administers the British record charts, disagree. bond's first recording, born, reached No. 2 on the British classical album chart, before anyone at CIN discovered it is actually disco music. bond is no more "classical" than the Electric Light Orchestra's "Roll Over Beethoven" or Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven."

CIN removed born from the classical chart, and bond got a lot of free publicity to add to the million dollars worth bought by their manager Mel Bush, who had earlier given us the classical stylings of Queen ("Bohemian Rhapsody") and Vanessa-Mae (the half-naked jailbait fiddler). Haylie, bond's first violin, struck a populist note in response to the removal: "In a modern world it is disappointing that the classical elite cannot embrace change."

Ha! What the "classical elite," as measured by the major record labels, has embraced is not mere change but rather wholesale devolution. They call it "crossover," as in the line that is crossed in the journey from sublime to ridiculous. Decca, the label that gave us Antal Dorati's first integral recording of the Haydn symphonies, now gives us 16-year-old Hayley Westenra, who surely would have given Ruben and Clay a run for their money on American Idol, Russell Watson, the loutish tenor who sneers at real opera singers for their "robotic" voices -- and Donny Osmond. That's right, Donny Osmond, singer of the immortal "Puppy Love." Apparently, once having been "a little bit" rock and roll, he is now a little bit classical.

Sony Classical, the inheritor of the mantle of Bernstein and Horowitz, now touts singer-songwriters Mary Fahl and "Summer." EMI, the home of Wilhelm Furtwangler and Maria Callas, now hypes Keith Emerson, once famous for stabbing his (Hammond) organ with a knife. And RCA, "the first name in classical music," synonymous with Caruso, Toscanini and Rubinstein, serves up the "Love Notes" series: Making Out to Mozart, Bedroom Bliss With Beethoven and Shacking Up to Chopin.

These desperate efforts by the major classical labels are their response to the long expected death of classical music. Symphony orchestras across North America are dying from lack of interest and are threatened in Europe by a collapse in government funding. Classical music now represents about one in 50 records sold in America. So what to do? Give the people what they think they want: classical CDs without the hard bits or even without the classical bits.

Even as the major classical labels spend tens of millions signing and promoting crossover acts, dozens of great orchestras, conductors, singers, and instrumentalists are being tossed over the side. But will the teenager who buys bond today be buying the Kronos Quartet tomorrow? Unlikely. The major labels, all owned by giant conglomerates, for which serious music is a fraction of their total revenues, care not a whit that they are cannibalizing their future. Almost all the labels are perpetually up for grabs anyway. Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and Decca were owned by PolyGram, then Seagrams, then Vivendi. Who knows who will own them tomorrow?

Short of root-and-branch reform, the major classical labels are doomed. Klaus Heymann understood this grim reality two decades ago. In 1987, this German music-lover founded Naxos. He had only a few thousand dollars, so he set up shop in Hong Kong. His revolutionary idea was to sell classical CDs for about one-third the price of the majors. He paid little in fees and almost nothing in promotion and expenses.

At first, Naxos recorded no-name orchestras, conductors and soloists -- most behind the Iron Curtain. The majors refused to take him seriously. After all, who would pay to hear Brahms played by some Czechoslovakian band when they could have the Vienna Philharmonic instead. But it turned out these Eastern European ensembles were often better than they had been given credit for, and you couldn't beat the prices.

Naxos grew quickly, and so did the quality of its recordings. Now new releases commonly get rave reviews in Gramophone magazine or the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs. And as the majors abandoned their commitments to their stars, Naxos was there to sign them up. Its fees are still lousy, but given the choice between Naxos and nothing, the stars are increasingly choosing Naxos.

Have the majors learned anything from their humbling by Klaus Heymann? Not a bit. Like all the losers in the digital shakeout, they have sought refuge in high prices and intellectual property law. EMI took Naxos to court over the company's acclaimed remasterings of great historical recordings, such as Yehudi Menuhin's Elgar and Edwin Fischer's Bach. EMI claimed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's 95 year mechanical copyright applied to European recordings, which are protected for only 50 years. It lost. EMI, of course, owns the masters of these recordings and could easily put out versions as good or better than Naxos does, but EMI is simply unwilling to match Naxos on price.

Naxos has not only proved the existence of a market for old music revamped, it has also proved there is a market for 20th century music previously thought obscure. Ned Rorem, David Diamond, Walter Piston, and Roy Harris are just four of the almost forgotten American composers rescued by a company that lives by the belief that good music will always find an audience. It helps that Naxos makes almost all of its catalogue available for listening complete over the Internet. Try before you buy. Don't expect the majors to imitate Klaus Heymann in this either.

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About the Author

Kevin Michael Grace runs the website The Ambler.