20 Years of Naxos

Naxos is making money from classical music. In the record industry, which seems to daily lament declining sales, piracy, and the demise of bricks-and-mortar retailers, that's news in itself. But when the world's largest independent classical-music company is able to turn a tidy profit while catering to the needs of audiophiles, that's cause for rejoicing.

The good news—no, the great news—is that Naxos's 20th anniversary brings the availability of some Naxos titles on MusicGiants.com in WMA lossless format. As part of its collection of Super HD 5.1-channel surround-sound downloads, the online retailer will also carry Pentatone, the Dutch SACD label that has been scoring major accolades for its recordings of young German violinist Julia Fischer.

Let me say that again: Super HD 5.1-channel surround-sound downloads. And these and all Naxos downloads via MusicGiants.com will be free of Digital Rights Management (DRM) copy protection.

As Naxos celebrates its 20th anniversary, it credits much of its success to a "long-tail" strategy that places increasing emphasis on diversified online marketing. (The long-tail cybercommerce strategy involves maximizing profits by selling even a few units of many different things.) Founder and chairman Klaus Heymann's longtime vision of Naxos as a comprehensive music-based content and media company currently manifests as CDs, DVDs, books (distributed in the US by Sourcebooks), AudioBooks, Web streaming services, and educational products. While the books have yet to become available in downloadable form, almost all of the other physical products have. Even though only about half of the +146,000 tracks offered by Naxos online have sold more than 10 units, digital sales accounted for a quarter of the company's 2006 revenues of $86 million.

The label's European arm has already marked its 20th anniversary with a concert featuring Naxos artists, held in London's Wigmore Hall on May 22. It also released the Naxos 20th Anniversary Box, a limited-edition set of six CDs that have received Gramophone magazine's Record of the Month Award. (It's hardly a coincidence that, in a box marketed in Gramophone, all selections feature British orchestras, footnote 1.)

Naxos USA, on the other hand, is busy establishing and maintaining a host of programs that will reflect and strengthen the label's long-tail approach, including commemorating the anniversary with a concert or boxed set of its own. Articles already posted on www.stereophile.com have discussed many of these e-initiatives, which include: ClassicsOnline.com, the digital download store that offers recordings by Naxos and many other independent labels in DRM-free, MP3 format; NaxosAudioBooks.com, the download site for all +400 Naxos AudioBooks; NaxosMusicLibrary.com, a subscription service that streams the entire Naxos USA catalog, as well as titles from the catalogs of such labels as BIS and Pentatone, to over 1100 libraries and educational institutions worldwide; NaxosSpokenWordLibrary.com, which contains over 1170 works and stories from Naxos AudioBooks and Naxos Educational; NaxosMusicLibrary.com/Jazz, with close to 20,000 tracks from Naxos Jazz, Fantasy Jass, Prophone, and Proprius; NaxosWebRadio.com, with over 60 channels of various musical genres in "FM or near-CD quality"; Naxos Classical Music Spotlight, a podcast series about Naxos music and artists hosted by Raymond Bisha; and NaxosDirect.com, an online boutique that sells Naxos and distributed-label products in the US and Canada.

Another recent Naxos initiative is Sonic Rebellion, a subgenre collection of music by 21st- and 20th-century composers who exemplify a so-called "alternative classical" sensibility. Into this category Naxos lumps American experimentalists such as Cage and Crumb; minimalists such as Glass, Riley, Reich, and Adams (though Adams's more recent compositions have branched far afield); European modernists including Penderecki, Ligeti, Henze, and Xenakis; and meditative spiritualists such as Pärt. A Sonic Rebellion compilation CD, set for September 25 release, includes tracks from previously released and soon-to-be-released Naxos titles.

September 25 will also bring the final installment in Marin Alsop's cycle of the Brahms symphonies with the London Philharmonic. At its side arrives another chapter in José Serebrier's ongoing traversal of Stokowski's ever-colorful transcriptions, this of his Wagner with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. And at the end of the year, Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony will record Corigliano's Dylan Thomas Trilogy for future release. Meanwhile, Naxos isn't exactly crying over the runaway sales of Joan Tower's Made in America, a fantasy on Katherine Lee Bates and Samuel A. Ward's "America the Beautiful" recorded by Slatkin and the Nashville.

Things are on the upswing for the classical-music recording industry as a whole. Although total sales in all music categories fell 5% last year, classical sales increased by 22%. Indeed, Klaus Heymann recently told Newsweek International reporter Alexandra Seno, "When I talk to people in the industry, everyone is making money."

Heymann raised a few hairs on the back of my neck with this statement, also in Newsweek: "We could live very comfortably if from tomorrow we never sold another CD." Within days, I had him on the phone, explaining the implications of his provocative declaration. For more on that, see the December print issue of Stereophile.

Footnote 1: Elgar-Payne, Symphony 3; Paul Daniel, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (recorded 1999). Bliss, A Colour Symphony; David Lloyd-Jones, English Northern Philharmonia (1995). Bernstein, Chichester Psalms; Marin Alsop, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (2003). Barber, Knoxville: Summer of 1915; Karina Gauvin, soprano; Marin Alsop, Royal Scottish National Orchestra (1999–2002). Walton, Spitfire Prelude and Fugue; Peter Donohoe, piano; Paul Daniel, English Northern Philharmonia (1996). Mussorgsky-Stokowski, Pictures at an Exhibition; José Serebrier, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (2004; also available on multichannel SACD and DVD-Audio).