What's new in the independent classical CD industry in Quebec?
What's new in the independent classical CD industry in Quebec?
by Anne-Catherine Hatton
The current classical CD market in Canada is about 90% controlled by multinationals, which means that only a very small part is left for independent classical CD companies. All too often we forget that these companies are almost the only opening for Quebec musicians in the recording industry. With the independents about to announce their new fall list, La Scena Musicale spoke to the top players in the Quebec league to get an update on the situation.
Reorganization and downsizing seem to have been the watchwords of most independent Quebec classical CD companies in recent months. At Analekta, the biggest Canadian classical CD company, president Mario Labbé bought back the shares of former associates Pierre Boivin and the Fonds d'investissement de la culture et des communications, thereby breathing new life into a business that was teetering on the brink of failure in 1998. In the wake of the buy-back, Analekta downsized its operations by handing over complete distribution to the Groupe Archambault and concentrating all its effort on production and marketing. Since turning the corner, Analekta's operation has regained its former standing, and financial losses are now just a bad memory. On the basis of its encouraging recovery, Analekta is planning to move to bigger premises and launch 35 titles over the next twelve months.
"When I founded Analekta in 1987, my aim was to record our most talented musicians who, for the most part, had no contracts with any recording company. And it wasn't because they weren't able to compete with top international musicians — quite the contrary. We've proved it since then," says Labbé. "It is these very same Canadian musicians, whom Analekta wants to see move into the place they deserve on the international recording market, who supply the artistic drive for our company — unlike Naxos, where the repertoire is the selling point. Our artists dictate the repertoire in our catalogue; they do the things they like and are ready to perform."
Labbé feels that the company and its musicians share a confidence of approach, which is partly responsible for the quality of Analekta's output. Longtime stalwarts of Analekta's recordings include violinist Angèle Dubeau, whose albums sell phenomenally well for classical music, and pianists Anton Kuerti and André Laplante. Newcomers include such distinguished artists as Tafelmusik and trombonist Alain Trudel, the latter scheduled to do ten CDs with Analekta in the near futur.
This renewed vigour can also be found at ATMA, whose shareholders recently agreed to go their separate ways — Johanne Goyette with Atma Classique, and ATMA founder Michel Laverdière with XXI (new classical and world music). Johanne Goyette, a musician by training and then a par Ttime producer at Radio-Canada, took a master's degree in sound engineering from McGill University before launching the ATMA Classique label with ATMA. This varied background enables her to assume the basic production load, which is ideal for reducing costs as well as achieving quality products.
Commercial success isn't necessarily a priority with ATMA. Alongside concert musicians whose careers are in full swing, the ATMA catalogue includes musicians who don't get much media attention, such as university professors who want to communicate their knowledge to others. "We'll agree to produce a recording that may only sell 80 copies, simply because we think this recording should exist in view of its interest to the musical community. It's a mandate we've given ourselves."
Contemporary music, notably that performed by clarinetist André Moisan and pianist Marc Couroux, figures significantly in the ATMA Classique catalogue, but ancient and Baroque music account for over half the titles on this label, and include such artists as countertenor Daniel Taylor and the chamber ensembles Arion, Les Boréades, and Les Voix humaines. Johanne Goyette feels that the predominance of this type of music is due to the exceptional quality of Baroque musicians in Quebec. Also, this is a musical genre on a very human scale from the standpoint of production and career management. "It makes it possible to reach the very high standard of quality we're looking for, even when there isn't a great deal of funding," she says.
Our last interview was with Amberola, the new kid on the block among Quebec independent recording companies. Although just over a year old, this company already has 38 titles on its list and is planning to release some 30 more a year, dividing its production into two categories: young classical artists such as the Arthur Leblanc and Alexandre da Costa Quartet, and re-editions of historic material by pioneers of Canadian song. Amberola will also handle marketing for CDs formerly produced under the Ummus label (such as the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne), although the artistic direction will remain with the Université de Montréal. This is the second record company launch for thirty-year-old founder and artistic director Martin Duchesne, who left Fonovox after he and his co-founder no longer agreed on aims.
Amberola receives no outside funding and finances its classical line with popular music. Although this company doesn't follow the system of artist-financed production, it does ask the artists in whom it invests to make a similar investment in their career development by giving regular concerts. This applies to organists as well. "If an organist gives no recitals and is satisfied with merely putting his CD on sale inside the church door, there's no point in making a recording: it's a waste of money for the artist and for us." When people accuse him of betraying "orthodox" classical music by marketing cross-over recordings, Duchesne's answer is that unless you want to build your business on public funding, you have to be practical and not turn up your nose at more commercially viable products. It's all grist for the mill if you can profit from it locally, he feels. "Don't forget that if we have recordings of Quebec classical music, it is thanks to Mario Labbé. What enabled him to get Analekta up and running was his first sales success, which was a cross-over. Cross-over also enable you to survive financially when sales are poor or to pay subcontractors promptly." If Analekta or Amberola brought out a CD by Andrea Bocelli, the profits would be reinvested in local development, whereas if one of the big companies did it, the money would leave the country. Duschene feels it is deplorable that multinationals like Polygram and EMI no longer have a Canadian classical or popular artist under contract.
Getting established outside Quebec is a hazardous undertaking for independent recording companies. A lot depends on the current situation. Johanne Goyette feels that despite ATMA's constantly growing sales, the glory years of the industry are over, and her only regret is not having got on the bandwagon earlier. Mario Labbé's view is that, although there is growth in Quebec, the market in Canada generally is not increasing, despite the fact that it is opening up to Analekta products — partly because of artists such as Tafelmusik and Anton Kuerti who hail from English-speaking provinces. However, whether it is elsewhere in Canada or outside the country, the main problem faced by Quebec independent recording companies is to build up their share of space in the distributor's catalogue, and this requires considerable financial input. Labbé points out that getting into Europe was a difficult and costly operation which is beginning to bring returns, but even so Analekta is still small change for Musisoft, its French distributor.
ATMA is pleased with its marketing efforts in the U.S., which got going a year ago in partnership with harmonia mundi. Today ATMA sells as many CDs in the U.S. as in Canada, mainly Baroque music — a hopeful outlook for gaining a level of financial independence that would make it possible to rely on outside grants only for risk-taking ventures. Goyette takes a wait-and-see attitude toward Europe, knowing the prejudices that must be overcome by Canadian artists to earn a reputation there. Even when media such as Gramophone give good reviews, she says, there's always a certain condescending tone — something that doesn't happen in the case of American performers.
Attitudes in local media can hamper development, our interviewees felt. Duschene deplores the fact that some Quebec music critics give generous space to recordings by foreign artists that have already been reviewed in several international magazines, while neglecting Canadian CDs. There are a number of negative factors at work, apart from the growing lack of interest in concert-going and sagging record sales. Recording companies are obliged to produce more and more titles, with the result that new products flood the record shop bins every day, pushing out recent arrivals. One has to be exceptionally quick to act and to back the right horse, so to speak. "A CD is a throw-away product," says Duschesne. "After three months it's dead." Despite the drawbacks, however, everyone we interviewed agreed that they love working in the music world, and that their passion for recording as an art in itself, however ephemeral, is well worth the trouble.
To be continued. In the next issue we will look at other CD companies.
Translated by Jane Brierley