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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The New Designer Label

By Norman Lebrecht / June 8, 2005


If you were starting a business in 2005 which of these would seem the best bet - farming in Zimbabwe, making manual typewriters, or setting up a classical record label? Myself, I'd catch a flight to Harare, but I could be wrong since, amid the ruins of former classical glories there are some pickings to be had and a pair of likely lads with form as long a Bruckner concert are about to try their luck with a designer label.

The partners are wide-eyed survivors of classical wipeout. Chris Craker, a clarinettist in London orchestras, moved into record production then, in 1998, with 400 recordings to his credit, he started a smart label, Black Box, with venture capital from two Tory Lords, Young and Chadlington. Black Box's unique selling point was living composers ö not a rapid revenue source. After three tough years, Craker sold out to Iron Maiden-owned Sanctuary and took a pause for reflection.

That's when he met Paul Moseley, 14 years a marketing v-p at Decca where he spent most of his days in corporate meetings pondering the meaning of decline. Moseley had Russell Watson, Hayley Westenra and Bond on his books but he stuck his neck out on occasion for classical projects, earning the respect of artists. Now, like so many others, he was an independent consultant to a disappearing industry.

Together, the pair took a look at the landscape and saw nothing but wasted assets. The key to success in the record business is the name check. If the customer has heard of the artist on the cover he is halfway towards buying the disc, or so the theory goes. Yet here were dozens of big names in their prime unable to get on record. Craker and Moseley decided that if the project was right, they would mortgage their houses to back quality classics.

That's the notion behind Onyx, a boutique label that launched last week with four discs by well-loved performers. The bubbling American soprano Barbara Bonney sings English and US art songs, accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, Bryn Terfel's regular sidekick. The august Borodin Quartet, background players at Stalin's funeral, deliver a 60th anniversary recital with co-founder Valentin Berlinsky still on cello. Both CDs feel like they have a purpose.

The other two releases, though, are a class apart. Viktoria Mullova is a virtuoso violinist who has never quite found the following her talent deserves. One of the last border-flitters from the old Soviet Union, she had a child with Claudio Abbado and another with an orchestral player before settling in Fulham with the eclectic cellist Matthew Barley. On Philips, she recorded most of the great concertos but never sold a bundle. Four years ago, she tried a crossover album with Matthew. Then she took a year off playing to rethink where she was heading. Now she's back and going for gut.

On Onyx, the once-austere Mullova attacks Vivaldi, bow-hair flying, with the period-instrument Italian band, Il Giardino Armonico. Forget academic authenticity. All Mullova did to meet the band was restring her precious Strad with medieval cat gut instead of modern metal, tone it down a tad to baroque standard (A=415) and borrow an antique-shop bow. The resultant sound is so raw it verges on the bucolic, yet phrasing and articulation are immaculate and the confrontational atompshere is nuclear. This is Vivaldi no holds barred.

Then there is the Pascal Roge project. Roge, 54, is so niche he vanishes between the cracks in floorboards. Styling himself 'Ambassadeur de la musique francaise,' he plays nothing else, and like no other pianist alive or dead. He used to record for Decca until they declared him unmarketable. Now he is recording the complete works of Debussy for Onyx, starting with the Preludes, which he plays with a touch so distinctive and a mischief so mechant that when he gets to the God Save the Queen parody in the Samuel Pickwick variation I laughed out loud on three separate hearings. This is a record that sets new benchmarks in French music.

So, can the Onyx method work? By conventional wisdom, not a snowball's hope in Miami. The majors have a stranglehold on distribution, packing stores with hybrid trash, while the independent classical sector is in worse doldrums than usual with elite Hyperion facing a million-pound bill for a copyright case it unwisely contested to an unnecessary and probably inexorable conclusion; Hyperion will survive, but with deep cuts.

Any new entrant to the market must find a corner amid a rabble of own-label vanity imprints from famous orchestras, composers and concert halls, before facing the apathy of a public that does not fully realise what it lost when mainstream classical recording rolled over and died.

Yet, for all these morbid auguries, things are looking up for Onyx. In the months that he and Moseley were nagging their bank managers, Craker was being headhunted for a different job. Sony Classical was about to merge with BMG and a new boss, Gilbert Hetherwick, wanted Craker to run the UK office. Regime change had overturned Sony Classical. There was to be no more crossover ö it cost too much and earned too little. First casualty is the showy violinist Vanessa-Mae who signed for Sony Classical moments before it collapsed and is now being consigned to one of the group's lesser pop labels, where she rightly belongs.

Sony-BMG held its first management meeting in Berlin last week. It aims to maintain a moderate classical output in which Craker will contribute ideas and local productions. But could he keep his own label? There was a pause in the process as corporate brains mulled this esoteric conundrum. In the end, Onyx got the best of both worlds.

It is an independent label, run by Craker and Moseley from their dining-room tables, but it will also have major-label distribution and access to proper budgets. If a disc takes off on Onyx, there could be a follow-up on BMG Sony but the project will have the attentiveness and integrity of a craft object.

This, it seems to me, is a pretty good deal. The corps get class artists without the headache of a long-term contract while the creatives get a voice in A&R. It's an odd arrangement, but it could be a model for some good music making on a very modest scale.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001