Popular Classical Music Label Celebrates 25th Anniversary

A talk with Klaus Heymann, owner of Naxos

By Barry Bassis Created: October 1, 2012 Last Updated: October 1, 2012
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Klaus Heymann stands next to an exhibit of gold discs awarded for exceeding levels of sales. Clearly, Naxos has surpassed the gold disc level quite a few times. (Courtesy of Klaus Heymann)

Klaus Heymann stands next to an exhibit of gold discs awarded for exceeding levels of sales. Clearly, Naxos has surpassed the gold disc level quite a few times. (Courtesy of Klaus Heymann)

Call Klaus Heymann a visionary, as he often is, and he admits he likes the term. 

“I had luck and money from other businesses, so I was able to invest close to $100 million,” he said. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Naxos, the company he started and owns with his wife, is the largest independent classical label in the world. 

Although he does not read music, he has been a music lover since he was a child in Frankfurt, Germany, where his mother took him to classical concerts. 

During the 1970s, while he was living in Hong Kong and running an electronics equipment company, he became involved with the local orchestra, as a board member and fundraiser. 

When solo artists came, they found that their recordings were not available in the area, and so Heymann became involved in record distribution. The Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki appeared as a soloist in Hong Kong, and Heymann married her six months later. 

About 90 percent of what we record doesn’t make a profit from CD sales.—Klaus Heymann

To help build an audience for his wife, Heymann recorded “The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto,” which became a hit. This success led him to start the HK label to specialize in Chinese music, and the Marco Polo label for rare European symphonic works.

In 1987, when it became less expensive to manufacture CDs, Heymann formed Naxos, a budget label. It specializes in recording standard and hard to find pieces in the repertory, “initially using lesser known artists, but now with some more prominent artists, such as conductors Marin Alsop and JoAnn Falletta,” he said.

When Heymann found it hard to find distributors, he started his own distribution company, eventually acting as distributor for 300-400 other labels, most of which are classical music but some are jazz and world music coming into the United States and Canada. 

The DVDs they distribute on the Arthaus, BBC, and Opus Arte labels include staged operas by leading opera singers, such as Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming.

By the 1990s, Heymann had a new idea for reaching listeners: streaming musical services. “They thought the old man was crazy” when he proposed a download service, but it turned out that he “was 10 years ahead” of the rest of the industry, Heymann said.

Initially, the service was offered to universities with the hope that students would listen and buy recordings they liked or take out personal subscriptions for the download service. 

“Younger audiences mostly think orchestral concerts are too stiff and traditional” and prefer to listen at home or on the move, Heymann said.

The service, which now allows access to about 76,000 CDs, reaches more than 15 million students. The subscription service, available to the general public, has been an immense success. 

“This is good for building the brand,” Heymann said.

More people go to Naxos online because of its extensive catalog, he said. There are 7,000 titles on the Naxos and Marco Polo labels. While the larger companies may be better at promoting big name artists, Heymann believes that Naxos outdoes them in distributing lesser known performers and material.

Naxos has issued vast award-winning projects, such as the American Classics series, with over 100 titles, or the complete works of Chopin. It won Grammy awards this year for an instrumental work by Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Schwantner and two awards for an opera “Elmer Gantry” based on the Sinclair Lewis novel. 

“About 90 percent of what we record doesn’t make a profit from CD sales,” he said.

While I point out that some of my favorites on Naxos are the historical series, such as the finest CD set of the complete recordings of Caruso (which are no longer available for sale in the U.S.), Heymann reveals his knowledge of the intricacies of American copyright law. 

It is a mixed blessing for him, since it means his grandchildren will receive payments for his recordings, but on the other hand, it has caused Naxos to remove those recordings from its U.S. catalog. 

However, he is hopeful for the future. “The major record companies which own the biggest archive have become a lot more flexible and are more willing to license back-catalog recordings to third parties on reasonable terms, that is, more and more of the really important recordings of the past will become available again before too long,” Heymann explained. 

Whether or not that happens, I will continue each month to look forward to the over 100-page listing of the new releases by Naxos and the labels it distributes—and we congratulate Klaus Heymann on the success of Naxos.

Barry Bassis writes about music, theater, travel, and dining for various publications.

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