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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 4 January 2007

The Collector’s Choice

by Kate Molleson / January 5, 2007

When it comes to our music collections, we classical music aficionados like it the good, old-fashioned way. While the mainstream commercial industry grapples with the rise of file-sharing sites, we stand loyally by the romance of liner notes and cover art.

At least so says Harmik Grigorian, intrepid entrepreneur of the old school, who last month opened a classy Montreal branch of his specialist classical retailer L’Atelier Grigorian—a defiant stand against resounding proclamations that the CD format is on its way out.

“Yes, the general trend in music sales is moving towards online downloading. But our customers are different; they are looking for a whole experience when listening to a CD. There’s a ritual to filing your collection, to physically playing a disk.”

Thanks to 15-hour opera cycles or complete sets of Haydn’s 104 symphonies, the classical market has remained primarily in the record store. The sheer impracticality of downloading such vast quantities of data renders many classical genres, at least for the moment, un-file-transferable. Then there is the sound quality factor—Grigorian’s business associate, Victor Ghaloosian, believes that the classical audience demands a higher sound resolution for recordings than is available at this point in downloading technology. And, as we are all doubtless well too aware, perusing the shelves of a well-stocked CD selection for that perfect version can become a lengthy pleasure. It is not, nor should it be, as simple as clicking ‘download’ on the latest Coldplay track.

Since its first store opened in 1980, L’Atelier Grigorian has become known as a Willy Wonka’s factory for exactly this sort of romantic classical connoisseur. Its nearly exhaustive depth of inventory is mind-boggling. “We stock every Hyperion, every EMI, every Deutsche Grammophon, every Decca,” Grigorian proudly says. “Other retailers stock only the pop classics.” He also emphasises a support for Canadian artists, realising his potential responsibility in promoting local talent. “We have complete collections of Analekta or ATMA recordings. When I meet with retailers from around the world, I always introduce them to the latest from Labadie or Lefèvre. We are lucky to have fantastic artists, especially in Quebec.”

A fearless approach to providing a comprehensive inventory not only makes the four L’Atelier Grigorian stores—in London, Oakville, Toronto and now Montreal—the only places to find certain obscure recordings, Grigorian says, but it also reflects the reality of the classical spectrum. Though often seen in commercial forums as a select subsection of the music market, ‘classical’ encompasses anything from Hildegard von Bingen to Harry Somers, and Grigorian aims to have left no stone unturned. After 26 years in the business, this is his refined formula for what he sees as an unusually refined clientele. Even if the most obscure collection of 1990s British composition has to wait years to be sold, it will be worth it for the Thea Musgrave collector who can find the Concerto for Bass Clarinet nowhere else.

But can such an acutely specialist approach be commercially viable? Somewhat mystifyingly, ours seems to be an age of residual pessimism over the health of the classical art form. Its stuffy image and intellectual snobbery scare off the younger generation, we are told, while inflated ticket prices prohibit access to all but an elite few. Yet Grigorian claims that CD sales have never been better. And while not wishing to disclose actual profit figures, he was clearly confident enough to invest in a new branch in a city that already boasts several CD retailers.

“Montreal is a city full of music lovers,” he says. “Many record labels have been telling me for years to open a branch in Quebec, and I get emails from Quebec customers who have visited my Ontario stores telling me they can’t find such-and-such a recording, and would I please open a store to help them.”

Ghaloosian says their aim is not to be in competition with other Montreal retailers but to complement them. The choice of the St Denis Street location, only a minute’s walk from the long-established Archambault, makes that
corner of the Latin Quarter a classical centre, he says.

François de Tonnancour, director of Archambault’s classical section, agrees that the Montreal market is not saturated. Having worked at HMV until 2004, Tonnancour says the multinational music store’s classical impetus has waned over the past couple of years. “It’s really only us at Archambault who fill the classical niche, and now Grigorian. In a city like Montreal, where a two-hour work of Schoenberg can sell out 6,000 seats, there’s definitely room for two classical CD stores.”

In fact, classical retailers know the question of duplication all too well. For instance, Archambault’s shelves contain no fewer than 25 recordings of Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle—can any fan honestly need this many recounts of one poet’s unrequited love? Tonnancour admits that part of the classical industry’s struggle is that most of its repertoire has already been recorded extensively, and that any enthusiast will already own a beloved version of the Beethoven symphonies.

Ghaloosian disagrees, “It’s not really a problem that so many classical CDs coming out are re-recordings or re-releases of the classics. Most of our customers thrive on comparing different interpretations of their favourite works.” Ghaloosian says he sees three main types of collector: those who collect pieces, those who collect performers and those who collect composers. “One of our customers is a Villa-Lobos fanatic, and owns over 1,000
recordings.” More, most likely, than the Brazilian composer owns himself.

One major obstacle Grigorian must overcome on entering a new market is the close customer relationship that locals such as Tonnancour, who has been in the record business for 35 years, have carefully cultivated. “When a new recording is coming out, I know exactly how many copies to order because I know exactly who will buy it. Sometimes I’ll get on the phone and tell a certain customer he should come to the store because there’s something he’ll like.”

Tonnancour says that having got to know his clientele so well, he is amazed that the latest trend in classical marketing often gets it so wrong. “Many people who work in the promotional side of the industry come from pop sectors, so they think every female performer should look more like a playmate than a serious intellectual musician.” He glares warily at a Deutsche Grammophon billboard showing a scantily clothed Anne-Sophie Mutter posing precariously with her violin.

“Our key customers are primarily content orientated—they’ll buy Anne-Sophie because she plays Mozart beautifully, not because she looks dazzling in a ball gown.” Indeed, the young Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti has complained of the attention attributed to her particularly lovely legs and flowing locks—the establishment, she says, will not accept her success as a product of purely musical talent.

Perhaps, though, it is just such touches of glamour that will jettison the classical reputation out of antiquity. A relevant image for a relevant art form, as the argument goes. In any case, the overwhelming diversity and quality displayed on the tens-of-thousands of titles on Grigorian’s shelves is testimony that the classical CD industry is alive and well.

L’Atelier Grigorian, 1599 St-Denis, Montreal, 514-844-6477

Archambault Berri, 400 St-Catherine East, Montreal, 514-849-8589

(c) La Scena Musicale