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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 9

Mario Labbé > Analekta at 20

by David Podgorski / June 4, 2008

Mario Labbé never saw this coming. In the beginning of 1988, he was already well-known as an impresario and was representing Angèle Dubeau, when her record label dumped her along with all of its other “regional artists” – namely, any artists based outside London or New York. Faced with the ruin of Dubeau’s career, Labbé decided to produce her album himself. A few weeks later, Labbé recorded the Red Army Chorus in Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre, following it up with the soundtrack for the film The Music Teacher, featuring baritone José van Dam. Analekta (Greek for “a collection of the finest works”) had arrived, and its first three releases sold over 110,000 copies in one year – an astounding feat for a classical label.

Twenty years later, Analekta Records is a who’s-who of Canadian musicians. From orchestral music: Tafelmusik and I Musici de Montréal; chamber music: the Alcan Quartet, the Gryphon Trio, and the Arion Ensemble; vocal music: Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Isabel Bayrakdarian and Lyne Fortin; to piano music: Anton Kuerti, André Lapante and Alain Lefèvre, Analekta is overflowing with talent and has become the largest independent record label in the country. The label’s latest and biggest coup is signing up the Canadian distribution rights to Kent Nagano’s first recording with the Montreal Symphony.

How did this happen? Labbé admits it wasn’t easy, but one thing that made him a success was that he was willing to reach out to a public that was more inclined to listen to Pink Floyd than Pablo Casals. “I’ve always had struggle to find a way to deliver the music to people,” he says. “There were always people who said, ‘I never needed to listen to classical music and I still don’t’ and I said to them, ‘That’s not true. This music is for you, listen to it, it’s good.’ The philosophy I’ve always had is that music comes from everywhere: the type of music it is doesn’t matter; if it’s good, it brings people closer together.” Over the years, this approach spawned a number of innovative marketing techniques, such as choosing to buy advertising on buses to promote La Pietà, Angèle Dubeau’s string orchestra.

It’s a business philosophy that’s worked for Analekta – in a supposedly shrinking market for classical music and CDs in general, Analekta’s sales are going up: the label has sold 14% more albums over the last year, and its music downloads have nearly doubled. This is not a record label that bemoans the rise of peer-to-peer networks and file sharing. Labbé sees his own success in stark contrast to CBC Radio 2’s latest trend of taking classical music off the airwaves in search of a newer, younger audience. “I think it’s very sad,” Labbé frowns. “It’s the role of public radio to disseminate insightful programming, and classical music is precisely that. If public radio doesn’t take this on as a fundamental mission, then it’s on the path to irrelevance.”

In the last ten years, Analekta has been a leader among record labels in gaining a foothold on the internet. Along with Naxos, Analekta was the first classical record label to go on iTunes, Apple’s pay-per-download music store. Now Analekta is increasing its distribution worldwide, working with independent distributors in the United States and looking to bring its artists across the Atlantic and find listeners around the world.

For a classical record label, every artist makes a difference, and selling even a few thousand copies can mean the difference between success and failure. “Selling four hundred thousand copies of one album doesn’t happen in classical music,” Labbé admits, “although it would be nice. But there’s no real magic formula for selling thousands and thousands of albums. But we can hold our own against other distributors in European markets. Artists’ fan clubs follow us to find out what we’re going to release next, and we’ve outsold European distributors on a per-capita basis. For example, we’ve sold over 10 000 copies of Marie-Nicole Lemieux’ albums while our competitors in France sold 30 000. They thought it was a marketing disaster, because France has five times our population. If it was us marketing Marie-Nicole in France, we would have sold over 50 000 copies.”

Labbé’s other great success has been in the recording studio with the artists. “We’ve always had a very high standard for making records,” Labbé says. “It’s more than just having the best recording equipment, it’s the people who work for this label who make it what it is. Anyone can cut notes in the studio, but they can forget that there’s a soul behind the music, an energy you get from the person singing or playing. We try to consider these things.”

Labbé also says the Analekta sound is moving towards creating a CD that sounds like a live performance – longer takes, acoustic spaces that recreate the experience of being in a concert hall rather than a recording studio. “We’ve been changing our sound over the years. We just started working at the Multimedia Room at McGill University, which is an extraordinary place to record. Before this came along we were recording in places with a live-sounding acoustic, like churches, but they had too much delay. The Multimedia Room is a great step forward from what we had before and all the musicians love working there.”

Analekta currently releases thirty to thirty-five new CDs each year, ninety percent of which are classical, while the remaining ten percent are jazz albums and film soundtracks. International sales also make up a significant portion of Analekta’s distribution – 35% of his records are sold outside of Canada. Within Canada, 60% of Analekta’s sales happen in Quebec, which Labbé explains is likely because Analekta has been steadily promoting francophone artists over the years.

As for discovering new artists, it’s not a major concern for him anymore – when you’re the number one record label in the country, the artists come to you. But Labbé is still thrilled when he discovers a new rising star. “We discovered Marianne Fiset after she won the Jeunesses Musicales Competition last year. She has an exceptional voice. It’s always great to find new talent and work with them. It’s always a new experience to discover what we’ll do with a young musician and what’s going to happen.” After twenty years, Mario Labbé is ready to take on the challenges of the future. n

(c) La Scena Musicale