Interview: Naxos founder Klaus Heymann

By Ian Dando In Classical

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21st April, 2012 Leave a Comment

Naxos founder Klaus Heymann

In a speech to Britain’s House of Lords, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber condemned the internet as “a Somalia of unregulated piracy”. Klaus Heymann, the German-born Hong Kong-based founder of classical music empire Naxos, might well retort, “What’s the fuss?”

In Chinese, the characters for “crisis” also contain the character for “opportunity”, says Heymann. “Sure, some of our Naxos stuff gets pirated, but this piracy opens the door of an industry of opportunities. Margin for a CD sale is US50-75c, from which I must pay overheads, artist fees and so on. A download fetches me US$4 with no costs or overheads.”

Offline, Heymann is also a winner. A week after interviewing him in Auckland during a visit to mark Naxos’s 25th anniversary year, I get an email: “Dear Ian, you may be interested in knowing that yesterday we won three out of nine classical Grammys. Best regards, Klaus.” Online, he knows where the shark infested waters are. “Pop and rock. They are brief, track-based and song-based. [Pirates] pick single songs and fi le-share them among peers. They scarcely touch jazz and classics.”

The internet has sharpened the difference between buying sound from a shop and renting it online. Heymann was quick to see the potential in setting up four online subscription libraries. “Our Naxos Music Library was originally targeted at institutes such as schools, universities and public libraries. Consumers got interested, then orchestras and conductors.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra are subscribers. For US$200 a year or US$20 a month, you can play all 70,000 CDs, which cover virtually the total classical CD repertoire.

”Naxos Video Library has concerts, ballets and 280 operas, with libretti appearing on screen,” says Heymann. “Naxos Spoken Word Library has more than 5000 hours of spoken word with texts on screen. You can follow the plays of Shakespeare and the novels of Dickens and Jane Austen. We also have a Naxos Jazz Library. Many other subscription websites focus on pop songs. If a classic such as Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 inadvertently sneaks in, they list it as a song!”

The diversity of Heymann’s online empire seems never-ending. “I am now building what will be the first interactive online classical music encyclopaedia. Click on the work or manuscript excerpt and you will hear the music. Click on any term such as crescendo or tempo rubato, up comes a definition and straight after that you hear the sound.”

It would appear that by combining sound interactively with text he has stolen a march over the 29-volume Grove or Germany’s even more deep and detailed 29-volume MGG (Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart). It’s cheaper, too, says Heymann. “For a small sum added to your Naxos library subscription, you rent the encyclopaedia online. We have yet to finish adding all our sleeve notes, then edit it all. Parallel to this are interactive, online and downloadable e-book series such as Discover Opera and Discover the Concerto, written non-technically for the record collector and music lover.”

Meanwhile, for musicians: “Imagine a French pianist who comes here and wants to insert a Spanish component in his recital. He types ‘Spain’, ‘20-25 minutes’, ‘1870-1920’, ‘piano’. Click. Up comes a list of composers and works. He clicks on date of publication, duration and the musical score. This programme-building website through Android or BlackBerry applications is becoming an addiction for conductors and performers round the world.”

Naxos became involved in music education in response to the slashing of education budgets in most English speaking countries. “When that happens, music education is fi rst to suffer. We put the GCSE and baccalaureate curricula and their set works all in our Naxos Music Library. Any school without a qualifi ed music teacher could operate this like a digital correspondence school. We even have a website where parents can teach their kids to sing and dance together with the steps and instrumental backing tracks for the folk songs.”

When Heymann founded Naxos as a bargain label in 1987, it offered its services to other labels as physical distributor, and it later took over their digital distribution. “Many smaller labels with little internet-savvy welcomed our help with complex procedures such as licensing, creating metadata and delivering files to iTunes, eMusic and Amazon. With over 200 labels being distributed, we are the biggest digital classical music distributor in the world.”

Heymann’s CDs and DVDs continue to sell well. His sanguine view on the future of the CD industry makes this modest man an optimistic and refreshing voice. Although his huge 224-page Naxos catalogue, with its complete Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven sonatas, gives mainstream its due, his online innovating and diversifying carries across to his offline strategy. He tantalises the adventurous listener who would turn inside out like a glove that smug cliché, “I know what I like and like what I know”.

His American Classics series of yesteryear’s experimentalists has previously grabbed my attention. The historically important Cage, Antheil, Ives, Nancarrow, Feldman and Cowell, all of which have been reviewed in the Listener, are rarely heard here. “Yes, labels like Columbia built a substantial catalogue but did not make them available widely overseas. I put them all under the Naxos umbrella and internationalised them. They scooped up lots of Grammys, too. But they did not travel well, so I made little money.”

Which exposes the cliché “music is an international language” as balderdash, I say. Germany’s favoured Reger means nothing to us. “True. In Germany, your English-speaking countries’ beloved Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Moeran and Sibelius are all outdated epigones compared with the Schoenberg trinity. Austria is even worse.”

He has a soft spot for Poland, I note. “Yes. We work well with Antoni Wit and the Polish Radio Symphony and Warsaw Philharmonic. We have Szymanowski and Lutosławski complete, and we are working on Penderecki, who keeps composing new works. Naxos’s exposure has made those three mainstream already. I am now looking ahead to the lesser known Karłowicz, Górecki and Bacewicz.”

What sets Naxos apart from other companies is how it is preserving the repertoire for perpetuity through such pioneering strategies as highlighting Canada, Greece, Turkey, Japan and Spain. “That’s certainly true of the first three,” he says. “Much Spanish music is already mainstream. I want to show Japan as more than Mayuzumi and Takemitsu, whom we have
already recorded.”

China and the Pacific Basin? “Its known composers, Tan Dun, Bright Sheng and Gao Ping, the latter two on the Naxos label, have already put China on the map, with more composers to follow. Chinese communities scattered round the globe enrich the potential. In New Zealand, I’m very happy with what the NZSO and New Zealand String Quartet have given us. I am currently interested in Ross Harris’s symphonies with the APO and NZSQ’s Asian programme.”

Heymann runs through some of his recent acquisitions. “There’s Capriccio and Ondine – a small quality label specialising in mainly contemporary Finnish composers like Saariaho. We launched Grand Piano featuring piano virtuosity from the likes of Medtner, Raff and Weinberg. Altissimo! caters for America’s band tradition, with Sousa marches prominent. Naxos is also actively involved in jazz and some world music.”

All this as well as overseeing more than 20 new productions a month in a Naxos catalogue of over 6000 CDs. Does he ever sleep? “As owner and chairman, I provide the overall direction and vision to the company, but most of the work is done by those running my regional subsidiaries. As for artists, the final say goes to my Japanese wife. She is also a professional violinist. When she hears the audition tapes and gives thumbs up to someone with fl air, she’s never wrong.” 

THE STORY OF NAXOS: THE EXTRA ORDINARY STORY OF THE INDEPENDENT RECORD LABEL THAT CHANGED CLASSICAL RECORDING FOR EVER, by Nicolas Soames (Piatkus, $60), released April 24.

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