Orchestra Music Labels Brave New Classical Music World

The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with chief conductor Valery Gergiev
The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with chief conductor Valery Gergiev | Photo © Andrea Huber

In times of the internet, musicians should be their own best marketers. Orchestras are now also taking this step towards independence and founding their own record companies. This is both a trend and a necessity.

Hardly an idea can seem more idealistic than to found a record company today. Labels can survive only if they are as big as the major players that remain since the crisis in the music industry. Or if the company boss releases music out of pure devotion to the cause and earns his livelihood otherwise. So it seemed surprising that an orchestra such as the Munich Philharmonic proudly announced that, in the 2015/16 season, it would open its own record company under the name of “MPhil”. A good one and a half years later, at their homepage you can scroll under the menu point “Label” into the past. Here the municipal orchestra presents its audio releases, arranged in a sort of ancestral gallery of former chief conductors, ranging from Günter Wand and Sergiu Celibidache to Christian Thielemann and Lorin Maazel.

Up to now, varying classical music companies have profited from the nostalgic buying desires of orchestra fans, depending on which company the respective conductor was under contract to. By launching their own labels, orchestras hope for a freedom that is not possible with so-called third-party licensing (with which they can make releases through many different channels), explains Suzana Borozan, who is responsible for the Munich Philharmonic’s record label. Previously, the decision as to which concerts and which repertoire was to be released lay with the contractual partners, who also looked after the organizational aspects. The orchestra then received an account of the agreed percentages of the profits at the end of the year.

A relative added value

The decision to launch your own label therefore means to take care of everything yourself, but not to have to settle with anyone else, whether artistically or financially. With the installation of Valery Gergiev as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, the plan of self-marketing has come into effect, says Borozan. Gergiev, who has already ably played with the media in many areas, is a good partner in this, and the city of Munich provided seed capital. “Financially, however”, says Borozan, “this doesn’t make much difference”, for the revenues from the orchestra’s own label have remained similar to those from the collaboration with partners. In general, she explains, you should take care not to delude yourself; the golden age of sound carrier sales is over, also for classical music. But the advantages of self-publication – for example, self-determination as to the released repertoire and the possibility of strengthening the brand – outweigh the disadvantages: “This form of publishing is more sustainable for the orchestra”, Borozan says, summing it up. For the near future, there are plans to release gradually the archive material of the Philharmonic, which dates back to 1945, in digital form.

The concert hall in the living room

The competition never sleeps. As far as pooling its own resources is concerned, for example, the Berlin Philharmonic is the frontrunner among German orchestras. In addition to its own label, launched in May 2014, the orchestra has been operating the online platform “Digital Concert Hall” since 2008. It archive, which is available online for paying subscribers, is immense. This platform is a pioneer work of the digitalization of classical music; it allows concerts to be experienced live at home on web-enabled television independently of the time of their performance. And not only music is available at the virtual concert hall; subscribers can also follow, for instance, the broadcast of the orchestra’s annual press conference live on online stream. Conventional media for transmitting information thus lose their importance, as do established labels and audio distribution channels. The fan gets the desired information and performances direct from the object of his artistic passion.
The Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, source: Youtube

That in this way a relevant community has emerged for the orchestra on the Web may be seen from the fact that, though the Berlin Philharmonic offers its recordings for sale in shops, its main turnover comes from direct online sales: “We get into direct contact with the customer and offer him or her a product that we ourselves have created”, explains Tobias Möller, spokesman for the Berlin Philharmonic. “This directness has a particular appeal to many music lovers.” The Berliners have thus gone a step further than the Munich orchestra, whose distribution is still in the hands of Warner Classics.

More risk, more identity

In both cases, the risk bound up with the production costs lies with the orchestra, and the sales figures that a label disposing over a worldwide distribution network can generate are more difficult to attain with self-publishing, says Möller of the Berlin model. But the marginal numbers are completely different with self-production: deducting taxes, production and logistical costs, the revenues as a whole remain for the ensemble. Moreover, having its own label affords the orchestra greater opportunities of recognition.
Self-management also allows the creation of connoisseur products, such as the Brahms’s cycle on vinyl, produced in a direct-to-disc process, which the Berlin Philharmonic has released. This resembles the method by which artists and labels in pop music have sought to upvalue sound carriers after the crisis in the music industry: pressings in small numbers with high collector’s value, sometimes even in self-designed silk-screen covers in limited special editions.

Digital future

By comparison with this, the design of orchestra CD labels seems like the conventional industry standard. That works because the classical music market has felt the implosion of the music industry more gently and lagged than its pop colleagues. When at the beginning of the noughties, digital natives began illegally exchanging music on the internet, many classical music listeners still lacked the technical and the mental access to art-for-free. This has changed since then. In the world of classical music, in which everything moves at a somewhat more leisurely pace than in pop, the concept of marketing yourself on your own label has so far been working. “The physical market is still relatively stable in Germany”, sums up Suzana Borozan. “But the future of classical music also lies in the digital revolution.”