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The Classical Score
By Steve Smith

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Fifteen years ago, Hong Kong-based German businessman Klaus Heymann had a bright idea. The former newspaper employee-turned-classical music entrepreneur had already founded the Marco Polo label five years earlier, to record adventurous repertoire that the major labels weren't providing. Heymann's brainstorm, however, was to make classical music on CD more affordable and thus more attractive to a wider audience. He began to issue new recordings of standard repertoire on a new label, Naxos.

Last week, Heymann came to the U.S. for a series of anniversary events in Nashville (home of Naxos USA), New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles, inviting the media and industry to join him in celebrating a quiet revolution that continues to unfold and expand. Joined by artists, media, retailers, and other guests, Heymann reflected on the label's meteoric growth during the past 15 years and offered glimpses of the label's future directions.

Super-budget labels were hardly a new phenomenon when Naxos appeared; music lovers in earlier years had augmented their collections with inexpensive offerings from such imprints as Odyssey, Nonesuch, and Vox. Heymann's timing, however, was extraordinary: Just as the CD was beginning to achieve breakthrough momentum, Naxos offered serviceable new digital recordings of practically every work a collector would want in his or her collection - at a price not only lower than the major labels commanded for new digital recordings but even lower than the midline and budget prices charged for archival analog recordings.

Violinist Takako Nishizaki and Naxos founder Klaus Heymann
"The major labels made a big mistake when they put a lot of money into promoting stars and then made records with them," Heymann says. "The huge upfront investment made them dependent on those stars." Instead, Heymann concentrated on providing collectors with a comprehensive source for unduplicated repertoire. Though quality was hit or miss initially, standards quickly rose to levels that commanded respect. Artists who had previously recorded for other labels became interested in working with Naxos, which steadily increased Heymann's ability to offer competitive performances regardless of era or genre.

Though Naxos avoided banking on established stars, a number of artists who have recorded regularly for the label have begun to enjoy wider recognition among cognoscenti, including violinist (and Heymann's wife) Takako Nishizaki, pianists Jenö Jandó and Konstantin Scherbakov, cellist Maria Kliegel, the Kodaly and Maggini quartets, and conductors David Lloyd-Jones, Christopher Lyndon-Gee, and Marin Alsop. Along with German-based American composer Gloria Coates, who has enjoyed a renewed wave of interest thanks to a recording of her string quartets on the American Classics series, Lyndon-Gee and others took part in the American anniversary events, which also served as an opportunity for Scherbakov to perform for invited managers and agents.

At 15, Heymann's revolution shows no sign of slowing. On the contrary, recent years have witnessed the launch of the extraordinary American Classics series (which will soon be enriched with Seattle Symphony recordings of works by Diamond, Piston, Hovhaness, and others that were previously issued on the Delos label) and similar series created for other markets. A new Japanese Classics series, for instance, has been responsible for Naxos claiming second place overall on the Japanese sales charts this year. The Naxos Historical series has offered unparalleled riches as rock-bottom prices. Meanwhile, as a distributor of other labels, Heymann's early embrace of video releases on DVD seems to have been particularly prescient. Somewhat ironically, as a result of his foresight, Naxos now distributes DVDs featuring such stars as Cecilia Bartoli and Alfred Brendel.

Still, the growth area of which Heymann is proudest is the burgeoning educational market. In addition to an already extensive line of pedagogical CDs and audiobooks, Heymann has begun to partner with other companies in order to promote classical music (and admittedly Naxos recordings, as well).

"We've invested in a company called Connect for Education, which produces online music education courses that are being adopted by American universities," Heymann says. "We work very closely with American publishers like McGraw-Hill, Prentice-Hall, and Norton. The McGraw-Hill music appreciation book has a Naxos CD-ROM bound to the front cover, and they sell about 180,000 per edition. That's 180,000 kids who might hear classical music for the first time through a Naxos recording."

This article originally appeared in Billboard on October 12, 2002.
Copyrighted 2002 VNU Business Media, Inc. Used with permission.


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