Universal Music Group Rediscovers Music

Universal Music Group must be taking its name seriously these days. At a time when some proclaim the demise of the classical recording industry, the conglomerate's many subsidiaries —Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and Archiv, along with ECM, which has only a marketing and distribution arrangement with UMG —are embracing new projects on multiple continents with determination and optimism.

Universal's latest announcement, that DG has resumed their 32-year recording partnership with the Cleveland Orchestra, is coupled to the summer release of the label's first recording with conductor Franz Welser-Möst: a live reading of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The performance, which took place in January in Severance Hall, features one of DG's recently contracted singers, the lush-voiced, visually and vocally compelling Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, along with the much-in-demand German bass René Pape, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor (the lead in DG's Grammy-winning recording of Osvald Golijov's opera Ainadamar), and veteran tenor Frank Lopardo.

Then there's the list of newly acquired artists. In addition to Brueggergosman, add to the labels' vocal roster soprano Nicole Cabell, the BBC's 2005 Cardiff Singer of the World; lovable tenor Rolando Villazón (formerly with Virgin Classics/EMI and to be profiled in the May issue of Stereophile) and his frequent onstage partner, fashionable soprano Anna Netrebko; tenor Jonas Kaufman, due to soon appear at the Metropolitan Opera; 26-year–old soprano Danielle De Niese, whom the New York Times called an "all-singing, all-dancing sex bomb"; and, I'm sure, others. To the UMG roster of young instrumentalists, which currently includes pianists Yundi Li and Lang Lang (originally with Telarc) and the extraordinary violinist Hilary Hahn (liberated from Sony), add the lovely-to-look-at violinist Janine Jansen.

Finally, there are UMG's new Internet download projects. Of equal importance to the labels' CD divisions are Decca Concerts, whose live recordings so far include the Philharmonia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit and the Gewandhausorchester under Riccardo Chailly (with Martha Argerich); and DG Concerts, whose downloads include the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel, the LA Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen performing contemporary works, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (also in mostly contemporary repertoire). Although agreements with these orchestras call for the occasional physical CD release, most performances will be available for purchase only via download sites.

Chris Roberts, president of Universal Classics and Jazz International, declared Universal's recent classical expansion a conscious strategy that dates back five or six years, to when the company first realized that it needed to rebuild DG's roster. "There were great artists," he explained by phone, "but I felt we needed more than the same old artists all the time, no matter how great they are. Although touring careers can be global, today's CD sales take place on more of a local and regional level. Things sell at different rates in different places. Hence our rosters are getting larger.

"An artist who has an active touring career can have an active selling CD career, but that may not be everywhere right away. Even Netrebko hasn't yet broken through all over the world. In the early days of Cecilia Bartoli's career, she had more of a CD sales presence in America than in Europe. Now it's vice versa. A big company has to look at the whole puzzle, and put it together one piece at a time."

In other words, Universal is covering all its bases. "It's not that the pie is getting bigger," said Roberts. "It's just that you need a little more variety and diversity so that each region has enough to do."

Back to Cleveland. Roberts, who didn't become the worldwide head of Universal for nothing, had already anticipated my question: Why yet another Beethoven Ninth?

"We are selling the unique moment," he explained, meaning that the recording features two up-and-coming soloists and a conductor with an international presence (Cleveland Orchestra and Zürich Opera). "I've had any number of conversations with executive directors. Everyone is so frustrated that American orchestras have been so little recorded over the last 15 years. I think people have finally realized that the record business has never been able to justify the incredible expense of recording orchestral repertoire, even if lifetime sales are taken into account. Our goal is thus to make recordings in a much more economical way. No one's naive about making a ton of money on this any more. It's more about incremental steps and building blocks than the big, grand-slam home run."

Hmm. From pies to baseball, with nary a crumb for audiophiles. Attempts to reach first base on that score didn't get very far.

"We have not abandoned quality recordings," said Roberts. "I realize there are issues with downloading that may not live up to people's audiophile standards. We're not doing SACD to the degree we were, but we're always very concerned about quality. We still have our engineers and producers. But we have to be in the download business. You have to be all things to all people, given the marketplace we're in. SACD came along at the same time as the iPod, and now that the legal downloading aspect has clicked, it hasn't helped SACD's future."

Sure. No education, no outreach, no motivation, at least in the US, where SACD has made a far smaller impact than in other countries. Yet while Universal may record its masters at 24-bit/96kHz or better, they have yet to make downloads available as lossless files. A spade is a spade, and until enough people demand the King of Hearts, the spade it shall be.

"We haven't done enough to reach out to young people," Roberts explained at the end of our conversation. "The impulses and places where a young person will go to satisfy their curiosity are very different than where their parents might look. In the past, record labels were average, at best, at reaching adults; reaching young people is a greater challenge. The German market is exploding —three or four years ago it was rife with retail issues, and now it's one of the most vital places in the world. It's a whole culture that's beginning to turn around. I get a sense that's happening in some places, but it's harder in the US, where things are more fragmented and segmented. If you have a global outlook, you balance weaknesses one place by strengths in another. I do think the online area is the key, especially targeted market sites including YouTube, plus younger artists that younger people can relate to."

Conclusion: Audiophiles may not be Universal's top priority, but the Cleveland sound is again available at 16-bit/44kHz, and artists as phenomenal as Hilary Hahn —whose sound is so large and delicious that, at the end of a recent performance, San Francisco Symphony musicians literally put down their instruments and bows and unanimously applauded her —continue to be signed and recorded. Even if you can't always get what you want...