Naxos at 15: An Interview with Klaus Heymann by Philip Anson
/ September 2, 2002
This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of Naxos,
the once dowdy little budget record company that is now the biggest independent
classical label in the world.
Back in 1987, Naxos's founder and CEO Klaus
Heymann decided to record 100 popular classical music titles as a sideline to
his main business of distributing sound systems in Asia. From that humble
beginning Naxos grew into an international conglomerate with 250 employees and a
catalogue of over 2,400 CDs. Last year Naxos sold over 10 million CDs,
representing business worth over $70 million CDN.
Today Heymann has every reason
to be happy, as he explained in a recent phone interview. "Looking back, we have
achieved what we set out to do. Our catalogue can compete with any in existence.
We have a huge number of fans and loyal customers. Most importantly, we have
been faithful to our original business model and ideology, to provide excellent
classical music recordings or interesting repertoire at the lowest reasonable
Naxos's early years were not always easy. "Some stores wouldn't even shelve
us with the major labels. We had separate racks," Heymann recalls. "That turned
out to our advantage. Today people head straight for our display and skip the
full price inventory." Some critics refused to review Naxos CDs. "A few
anti-Naxos critics were in thrall to the major labels, but that's a thing of the
past. These days Naxos gets dozens of nominations and awards," says Heymann.
Indeed, Naxos recordings have over 350 top 3-star recommendations in the
Penguin Guide and
have been awarded more than 35 Gramophone Editor's Choices. In 1999, Naxos won
its first Gramophone Award.
In its first decade, Naxos
steadily improved recording quality, built up an intriguing catalogue of unusual
repertoire and standards, and recorded cheap, zesty eastern European talent.
Sales skyrocketed and critics gushed. Heymann had the last laugh when the
formerly haughty major labels came a-courting. "I was offered $100 million US
many years ago by one of the majors and I had approaches from all of them except
Warners," he recalls.
Today Naxos dominates classical
music sales in the UK, Germany, and Scandinavia with 30%-80% of the per unit
classical market. To improve on Naxos's 6% of the US market, the company
launched the American Classics series, featuring music by Copland, Ives, Grofe,
Barber and Sousa. Only the Asian market remains a disappointment, due to piracy.
"China has great potential but 95% of CDs sold are pirates, which cost around
one-sixth of retail discs," Heymann explains. Canadian customers may have
noticed that Naxos's unit price has recently gone up a dollar or so. Heymann
attributes the increase to the cost of mechanical copyright fees. "Our original
low Canadian price didn't cover costs. But the current Canadian price of $8 CDN
is still low compared to our British and US prices, which are the equivalent of
Naxos's numerous catalogue lines now include American Classics, British Light
Music, Chinese Music and Artists, Early Music Collection, Film Music Classics,
Guitar Collection, Opera Classics, Organ Collection, Naxos 21st Century
Classics, Naxos Historical, Jazz Legends, Nostalgia, Naxos World, and Naxos
Crossover. In terms of sales, the opera, 20th-century repertoire, chamber music,
and Guitar Collection are top performers. "Our Don Giovanni and
Wozzeck were hits. Newer music, such as Rautavaara and
Lutoslawski, has been a surprise success. We sold over 20,000 copies of Boulez's
Piano Sonatas," Heymann notes, concluding that Naxos's budget price induces
listeners to take a chance on unusual repertoire.
The Naxos Historical series
resurrects treasures from the acoustical, electrical and 78-rpm eras by artists
such as Menuhin, Heifetz, Casals, Arrau, Cortot, Caruso, Tauber, Björling, and
Toscanini. Naxos employs the industry's top remastering engineers Mark
Obert-Thorn and Ward Marston. Thanks to recent improvements in sound restoration
technology, Naxos's Historical releases often sound better than remasterings of
the same recordings done just a few years ago by the same men for full-price
labels like Biddulph, Romophone, and Pearl.
As major labels shut down their
recording programs, Naxos steps in to record excellent Western European and
American orchestras such as the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Scottish
Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra,
Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Munich Radio Orchestra, New Zealand Symphony
Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Ulster
Orchestra, Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Symphony, and San Diego
Symphony Orchestra. Heymann boldly contends that these ensembles are capable of
competing with gilt-edged orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic.
Naxos's A&R is still
repertoire-driven, eschewing duplication of repertoire or the use of star
performers. The recent "Date with the Devil" album of opera arias sung by
American star bass Samuel Ramey was a one-off project, not the start of a new
series of celebrity recitals, though discs by well-known opera singers Marina
Mesheriakova and Dwayne Croft are planned.
In addition to its own classical
CDs, Naxos generates revenue by distributing other music labels and the DVD
labels TDK, BBC/Opus Arte, and Arthaus. "DVD quality is much better than it used
to be and the format is a bargain," Heymann raves. "A DVD now costs less than
the audio recording of the same work."
Naxos's projects include a
40-channel streaming "radio" on the Naxos website, offering channels with genres
like opera, romantic piano, and chamber music, all drawn from its catalogue.
Naxos is also building a catalogue of Super Audio recordings.
At an age when most millionaires
think of retiring, the 65-year-old Heymann is not resting on his laurels. He
still supervises several hundred recording projects annually and travels three
months of the year between Naxos's Hong Kong HQ, its mastering studio and
editorial offices in England, and its regional offices in Germany and
Scandinavia. And as anyone who has ever written to Naxos knows, Heymann spends
hours every day personally answering his mail. "I learn a lot from feedback and
from surfing online music forums. I want to know what people think about our
product. And people are very grateful to know that we