Amazing Stuff: Klaus Heymann of Naxos

It's been three years since the February 1997 issue, when I last talked with Klaus Heymann, founder and chairman of HHN, the parent company of the Naxos and Marco Polo labels. When I heard that he'd be in New York for a visit, I jumped at the chance for another interview.

Meantime, I have a shopping basket full of Naxos recordings to recommend for this "Records To Die For" issue. Two recommendations? Nah. How about twenty-four! Do your "R2D4" shopping here and save money.

True, the price has gone up. Naxos CDs used to list for $5.99 and retail for $4.99. Now the "suggested" list price is $6.99. As usual, I suggest you try to pay less—about $6 per disc on sale. Even at $6, you can often get three Naxos CDs for what you might pay for one full-price disc from the so-called "major" classical labels.

But if Naxos' price has risen, so has their quality—recording quality, that is. (Performance quality has always been good to excellent.) Today, new releases on Naxos tend to be state-of-the-art recordings.

Beginning informally at breakfast, I spent nearly a whole morning with Heymann, and found him in a decidedly upbeat mood.

Sam Tellig: Taking in a lot of concerts, Klaus?

Klaus Heymann: Nah. No time. Restaurants.

Tellig: So what is happening in classical music recording? Three years ago, when we talked, the sky was falling.

Heymann: Well, recording activity, if anything, has gone up over the past three years. While the majors are recording a lot less, there are many small and miniature labels that sometimes record with public funding and sponsorship money. In any event, the industry is still releasing 500 discs a month. This is counting reissues of back catalog. If you're a record collector—and I consider myself one—it's amazing all the stuff that people record and release.

Tellig: And sales?

Heymann: Sales have come down from their peak. But sales of what? The market, in my opinion, has split. You have the traditional classical record business, as we knew it in the 1970s and 80s—recording interesting repertoire, discovering and developing new artists. That specialist—or traditional—classical market is today dominated by the independents.

Then you have what I consider pop classics, or crossover classics, which is what the majors are engaged in. You have movie soundtracks—the Three Tenors, many of the things that Yo-Yo Ma does, all these funny compilation concepts. That market is actually quite strong.

What has come down is the majors' share of the traditional classical market, because, with few exceptions, they don't record any big projects any more. They seldom discover and develop new artists. And when they do, they drop them as soon as a release doesn't sell. They live on a series of one-offs. You no longer see the majors doing a Mozart piano-concerto cycle or a Haydn symphony cycle, for instance.

Tellig: Classical music's market share—including crossover—is now down to the point where it accounts for less than 3% of record sales. Yet in other countries, like your native Germany, the total is more like 7%. Why is the share in America so small, and shrinking?

Heymann: It has to do with cultural differences. In Germany, every small city has its own opera house; and every town has a town music school, which gets a subsidy from the city government. Germans are more exposed to classical music training, or at least classical-music appreciation. This is the problem we have to face in the future. We will try to sell to younger customers who have never been exposed to classical music, except for movie soundtracks or maybe background music in a bar.

As a label, we invest a lot of money in educational activities. We have publications, like The A to Z of Classical Music. We published a brochure on how to enjoy a live concert, which we market to symphony orchestras. We have a new series of discs coming out: Understanding the Classics—analysis made easy. We take a symphony, movement by movement, and play excerpts—main theme, development, second theme, exposition, coda, or whatever the structure is. We analyze each movement, take it apart, and then play it whole.