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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Hyperion's Ted Perry - Patron Saint of Independents

By Norman Lebrecht / February 19, 2003

How one man and his nun saved the soul of classical recording.

They will bury Ted Perry in Eltham on Monday, and with him an industry's soul. Ted was a redoubt of scruffy resistance to the corporate control of classical music.

When I first knew him, he was driving a minicab at nights to pay the musicians he recorded by day. The gleam in his eye was an urge to share good music with anyone who might love it - chaps like himself, without social pretensions or academic qualifications, whose grey horizons could be tinted by an exposure to aural glories.

He set up Hyperion, named for the Greek sun god, in a bleak and featureless stretch of south-east London and ran the label from a glassedin corner of the packingroom floor. Many of his stackers had sung or played in the recordings they dispatched. When the rush was on, his children helped out. While the industry as a whole was being agglomerated by media moguls, Ted Perry was a blunt-headed cottage craftsman who lived above the shop and knew the value and function of every inventoried item.

The suits came after him with open cheque books during the CD boom and he laughed them all away. "What would I do with my life if I sold out?" he said to me; but his refusal was principled rather than self-centred.

Others who took the tainted money saw their labels extinguished at the next economic downturn. Hyperion survived, on low overheads and paper-thin margins, holding the line of musical purity against a corporate onslaught of stripping fiddlers, blind tenors and cute-bottomed Welsh warblers.

Modest as it was, Hyperion became a marque of musical conscience, a reproach at the preposterous Classical Brits to the fixed smiles of the bottom-liners and their forgettable novelties.

HE did not fight alone. Other guerrilla brands fought on from the margins during the twilight of classical recording. In Stockholm, Robert von Bahr founded Bis on a penny-whistle and delivered his releases to shops in a baby-stroller because he could take it on public transport. In Munich, Manfred Eicher's eclectic ECM has flourished for 33 years. Bernard Coutaz runs Harmonia Mundi from the sleepy artists' town of Arles. Chandos, which claims to be "the world's largest independent classical record company", belongs to the Couzens family and is based in dreary Colchester, Essex.

Collectively, the ragbag of independent resisters cannot muster a double-figure percentage share of the world's classical record market, which is dominated by five corporate giants and the Hong Kong-based budget label, Naxos. Some months the indies barely manage a single-figure share.

Many get by, as Ted did, by moonlighting. None of this matters to their drivers, to whom music matters most. Their market share may be minimal, but together these labels have transformed our culture.

Hyperion's breakthrough was a 12th century abbess whose name was barely heard at the time outside the Vatican library. Ted, driving his cab one night, heard an appealing sound on BBC Radio 3 and decided to record it.

He called Christopher Page, director of the Oxford-based Gothic Voices, and Emma Kirkby, the soprano, and arranged to meet them at the church of St Jude-onthe-Hill, Hampstead, on 14 September, 1981.

The resultant production, titled A Feather on the Breath of God, went on to sell in excess of half a million copies, and continues selling. One bookstore in Texas accounts for 1,000 discs every year.

Hildegard was hauled out of the theologians' closet to become an icon for feminists, intellectuals and male fanciers of really formidable women. Our perception of medieval values was markedly altered by her re-emergence. She also wrote captivating noises.

On Hildegard's profits, Ted pursued dozens of lost composers, none of whom attained comparable penetration. He recorded symphonies by the abstruse Robert Simpson; a series of unplayed Victorian concertos; music by Cecil Coles, killed in the First World War.

He never expected to make money from such iconoclasms yet, drip-by-drip, they served the valuable purpose of eroding our simple-minded hegemonic view that cultural evolution is a process monopolised by men of genius.

Ted liked to say that Hildegard "paid for all my mistakes". That is a principle on which the record industry used to run in its golden days, a flurry of many voices that yielded a handful of hits.

Under mogul rule, however, every disc was obliged to pay its way - which meant it had to cover fat corporate salaries. Schedules shrank and courage fled. The majors, sticking to the well-trodden path of core repertoire, ceased to be culturally relevant.

It is the lean independents who now drive the agenda with scatter-gun blasts of headstrong esoterica. Bis was the first to record cycles of the important contemporary composers Ligeti and Schnittke. ECM introduced Arvo Pärt and Jan Garbarek. Harmonia Mundi revitalised baroque performance.

Ted Perry, in this, the last month of his life, issued more new releases than EMI, Deutsche Grammophon or any of the rest of the "major" labels.

But times are tough, and getting tougher. Independent labels, which cannot afford press campaigns and advertising, struggle to obtain shelf space in big stores like Tower, which are themselves cutting back. Several labels - Nimbus, Opus III, Romofone - have sold out or gone under. The age of audio recording is almost over.

AT this moment in history, it pays to be small. When the lights finally go out at Sony and BMG, the glow worms will live on - and they sense it. Each year, someone, somewhere, starts a new label on the Perry scale with the aim of keeping the flame alive. Two Edinburgh dreamers, Paul Baxter and Kevin Findlan, have just released the piano music of James MacMillan on their upstart Delphian Records.

It will never make a fortune; it may not even cover costs. But, like Hildegard's feather on God's breath, the music will float into the ether to settle, or float on, at some unforeseeable time, a testament to its producers' stubborn independence of mind. Ted is dead; the ideal lives on.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001