This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of Naxos, the once dowdy little
budget record company that is now the biggest independent classical label
in the world. Back in 1987, Naxos’s founder and CEO Klaus Heymann (photo
left) decided to record 100 popular classical music titles as a sideline
to his main business of distributing sound systems in Asia. From that
humble beginning Naxos grew into an international conglomerate with 250
employees and a catalogue of over 2400 CDs. Last year Naxos sold over
10 million CDs, representing over CN$70 million worth of business.
Heymann has every reason to be happy, as he explained in a recent phone
interview. “Looking back, we have achieved what we set out to do. Our
catalogue can compete with any in existence. We have a huge number of
fans and loyal customers. Most importantly, we have been faithful to our
original business model and ideology, to provide excellent classical music
recordings or interesting repertoire at the lowest reasonable price.”
Naxos’s early years were not always easy. “Some stores wouldn’t even shelve
us with the major labels. We had separate racks,” Heymann recalls. “That
turned out to our advantage. Today people head straight for our display
and skip the full price inventory.” Some critics refused to review Naxos
CDs. “A few anti-Naxos critics were in thrall to the major labels, but
that’s a thing of the past. These days Naxos gets dozens of nominations
and awards,” says Heymann. Indeed, Naxos recordings have over 350 top
3-star recommendations in the Penguin Guide and have been awarded more
than 35 Gramophone Editor's Choices. In 1999, Naxos won its first Gramophone
In its first decade, Naxos steadily improved recording quality, built
up an intriguing catalogue of unusual repertoire and standards, and recorded
cheap, zesty eastern European talent. Sales skyrocketed and critics gushed.
Heymann had the last laugh when the formerly haughty major labels came
a-courting. “I was offered US$100 million many years ago by one of the
majors and I had approaches from all of them except Warners,” he recalls.
Today Naxos dominates classical music sales in the UK, Germany, and Scandinavia
with 30%-80% of the per unit classical market. To improve on Naxos’s 6%
of the US market, the company launched the American Classics series, featuring
music by Copland, Ives, Grofe, Barber and Sousa. Only the Asian market
remains a disappointment, due to piracy. “China has great potential but
95% of CDs sold are pirates, which cost around one-sixth of retail discs,”
Heymann explains. Canadian customers may have noticed that Naxos’s unit
price has recently gone up a dollar or so. Heymann attributes the increase
to the cost of mechanical copyright fees. “Our original low Canadian price
didn’t cover costs. But the current Canadian price of CN$8 is still low
compared to our British and US prices, which are the equivalent of CN$12.”
Naxos’s numerous catalogue lines now include American Classics, British
Light Music, Chinese Music and Artists, Early Music Collection. Film Music
Classics, Guitar Collection, Opera Classics, Organ Collection, Naxos 21st
Century Classics, Naxos Historical, Jazz Legends, Nostalgia, Naxos World,
and Naxos Crossover. In terms of sales, the opera, 20th-century repertoire,
chamber music and Guitar Collection are top performers. “Our Don Giovanni
and Wozzeck were hits. Newer music, such as Rautavaara and Lutoslawski,
has been a surprise success. We sold over 20,000 copies of Boulez’s Piano
Sonatas,” Heymann notes, concluding that Naxos’s budget price induces
listeners to take a chance on unusual repertoire.
The Naxos Historical series resurrects treasures from the acoustical,
electrical and 78-rpm eras by artists such as Menuhin, Heifetz, Casals,
Arrau, Cortot, Caruso, Tauber, Björling, and Toscanini. Naxos employs
the industry’s top remastering engineers Mark Obert-Thorn and Ward Marston.
Thanks to recent improvements in sound restoration technology, Naxos’s
Historical releases often sound better than remasterings of the same recordings
done just a few years ago by the same men for full-price labels like Biddulph,
Romophone, and Pearl.
As major labels shut down their recording programs, Naxos steps in to
record excellent Western European and American orchestras such as the
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony
Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Iceland Symphony Orchestra,
Munich Radio Orchestra, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris,
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Nashville Symphony
Orchestra, Colorado Symphony, and San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Heymann
boldly contends that these ensembles are capable of competing with gilt-edged
orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic.
Naxos’s A&R is still repertoire-driven, eschewing duplication of repertoire
or the use of star performers. The recent “Date with the Devil” album
of opera arias sung by American star bass Samuel Ramey was a one-off project,
not the start of a new series of celebrity recitals, though discs by well-known
opera singers Marina Mesheriakova and Dwayne Croft are planned.
In addition to its own classical CDs, Naxos generates revenue distributing
other music labels and the DVD labels TDK, BBC/Opus Arte, and Arthaus.
“DVD quality is much better than it used to be and the format is a bargain,”
Heymann enthuses. “A DVD now costs less than the audio recording of the
Naxos’s projects include a 40-channel streaming “radio” on the Naxos website,
offering channels with genres like opera, romantic piano, and chamber
music, all drawn from the Naxos catalogue. Naxos is also building a catalogue
of Super Audio recordings.
At an age when most millionaires think of retiring, the 65-year Heymann
is not resting on his laurels. He still supervises several hundred recording
projects annually and travels three months of the year between Naxos’s
Hong Kong HQ, its mastering studio and editorial offices in England, and
regional offices in Germany and Scandinavia. And as anyone who has ever
written to Naxos knows, Heymann spends hours every day personally answering
his mail. “I learn a lot from feedback and from surfing online music forums.
I want to know what people think about our product. And people are very
grateful to know that we care.”