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Naxos: The Little Record Label That Could (And Did)

Over a quarter century, Naxos Records has evolved from an industry joke to a leading force in classical music. (Naxos)

Correction: An early version of this story stated that Naxos is based in Singapore. It is actually based in Hong Kong.

This past year was a good one for Naxos Records. In fact, it's been a great quarter century for the company, which has grown from a budget-label punch line to a leading force in classical music recording.

On a recent Saturday night, the Nashville Symphony tuned up to play Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Life has been pretty good for the orchestra: Subscriptions are up, reviews are good and the symphony has won seven Grammy Awards in the past five years. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the American arm of Naxos has its offices just down the road.

"I think the relationship with Naxos has really helped to cement our place in the musical landscape of the world," says Nashville Symphony President Alan Valentine.

Nashville has recorded 19 albums for Naxos, with another five in the works. Author and radio host Jim Svejda says the label's seemingly insatiable appetite for music has put a lot of less well-known ensembles on the musical map.

"To this day," Svejda says, "they still record hungry young orchestras that don't have much in the way of a recording profile."

Svejda says that right from the beginning, Naxos distinguished itself by having those hungry orchestras record music that wasn't part of the standard classical repertoire.

"Twenty years ago, it was the same old dinosaur record companies that, every once in a while — every four or five years — would launch a new Beethoven symphony cycle with, you know, the newest hot young conductor, with predictable results," he says. "People just kind of lost interest."

The Cold Eye Of A Businessman

If the 1,000-plus orders shipped daily from Naxos' Tennessee warehouse are any indication, people are paying attention now. Naxos boasts a catalog of more than 7,000 recordings, and it's adding about 200 new titles every year. No one is more surprised than Klaus Heymann, the company's 76-year-old founder. The German-born entrepreneur doesn't play an instrument, can't read music and had never worked for a record label. He's convinced that those are the perfect qualifications for the job.

"I had run other very successful businesses before I started the record companies," Heymann says. "So I looked at that with the cold eye of the businessman and I said, 'This is all crazy, how they run this business. Why don't we do it differently?' "

For example, Naxos CD covers are notoriously bland, because Heymann refuses to pay for photos or artwork. On the other hand, he's happy to spend lavishly on projects he thinks might pay some kind of return on the investment. A good example is the Naxos American Classics series, which Heymann launched in 1998. He'd hoped it would help break into the notoriously hard-to-crack American market.

"It hasn't made any money," Heymann says. "In fact, it's lost a lot of money, but it was wonderful for our prestige. We've won so many Grammys with our American Classics."

Even if the series isn't making money, Heymann's U.S. office is now the most profitable division of the Hong Kong-based label.

Naxos began as a budget operation, selling CDs at well below market prices. Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette says the early industry buzz on Naxos was that Heymann was taking advantage of artists desperate to record.

"They didn't pay the kinds of expenses or royalties or deals that were then customary in the business," she says. "In fact, Naxos was about 10 years ahead of its time in that."

Midgette says that with hindsight, it's clear Heymann's tactics were evolutionary, and she says his ability to adapt to a changing market is the key to his success.

Instant Access Music Library

One of Heymann's innovations is the Naxos Music Library, an online subscription tool that gives music schools, libraries and music professionals worldwide instant access to the entire Naxos catalog.

Heymann decided to embrace online streaming five years before Apple launched iTunes. It was a move he now calls his proudest achievement. His staff thought he was crazy. But it's a library that Heymann says he's determined to keep expanding.

"You cannot imagine how much more music is out there," he says. "We'll not run out of things to record."

And you can bet Heymann will continue to scour the market with an entrepreneurial eye: Naxos recently released an iPhone app that introduces children to classical music.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

2012 was a good year for Naxos Records in Nashville, Tennessee. In fact, it's been a great quarter century, but Naxos isn't trolling Nashville's open mic nights looking for the next Taylor Swift. They've spent decades building a brand as the world's largest classical music label. Mike Osborne of member station WMOT has the story.

MIKE OSBORNE, BYLINE: On a recent Saturday night, the Nashville Symphony tuned up to play Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique." Life's been pretty good for the orchestra. Subscriptions are up, the reviews are good and the symphony's won seven Grammy Awards in the past five years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OSBORNE: Of course, it doesn't hurt that classical music's most prolific label has its offices just down the road. Alan Valentine is the Nashville Symphony's president.

ALAN VALENTINE: I think the relationship with Naxos has really helped cement our place in the musical landscape of the world.

OSBORNE: The Nashville Symphony has recorded 19 CDs for Naxos with another five in the works. The label's seemingly insatiable appetite for music has put a lot of less well-known ensembles on the musical map.

JIM SVEJDA: To this day, they still record hungry young orchestras that don't have much in the way of recording profile.

OSBORNE: Jim Svedjda is the author of "The Insider's Guide to Classical Music" and host of a nationally syndicated radio show. He says that right from the beginning Naxos distinguished itself by having those hungry orchestras record music that wasn't part of the standard classical repertoire.

SVEJDA: Twenty years ago, it was the same old dinosaur record companies that every once in a while, every four or five years, they would launch a new Beethoven symphony cycle with, you know, the newest hot young conductor with predictable results. I mean, people just kind of lost interest.

OSBORNE: If 1,000-plus orders shipped daily from the Naxos Tennessee warehouse are any indication, people are paying attention now. Naxos boasts a catalog of more than 7,000 recordings and it's adding about 200 new titles every year. No one is more surprised than Klaus Heymann, the company's 76-year-old founder. The German-born entrepreneur doesn't play an instrument, can't read music and never worked for a record label. He's convinced those are the perfect qualifications for the job.

KLAUS HEYMANN: I had run other very successful businesses before I started the record companies. So I looked at that with the cold eye of a businessman and said, this is all crazy how they run this business. Why don't we do it differently?

OSBORNE: For example, Naxos CD covers are notoriously bland because Heymann refuses to pay for photos or artwork. On the other hand, he's happy to spend lavishly on projects he thinks might pay some kind of return on the investment. A good example is the Naxos American Classics series.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OSBORNE: Begun in 1998, American Classics now includes more than 400 titles. Heymann launched it to help break into the notoriously hard-to-crack American market.

HEYMANN: It hasn't made any money. Actually, it's lost a lot of money, but it's been wonderful for our prestige. We've won so many Grammys with our American Classics.

OSBORNE: Heymann says that, even if the series isn't making money, his U.S. office is now the most profitable division of the Singapore-based label.

HEYMANN: Thank you very much.

OSBORNE: He was recently in Franklin, just south of Nashville, to celebrate with his American staff.

HEYMANN: Enjoy the what looks like very unhealthy food.

OSBORNE: Naxos began as a budget label selling CDs at well below market prices. Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette says the early industry buzz on Naxos was that Heymann was taking advantage of artists desperate to record.

ANNE MIDGETTE: They didn't pay the kinds of expenses or royalties or deals that were then customary in the business. In fact, Naxos was about 10 years ahead of its time in that.

OSBORNE: Midgette says that, with hindsight, it's clear Heymann's tactics were evolutionary and she considers his ability to adapt to a changing market the key to his success.

VALENTINE: See, here you are, featured editions.

OSBORNE: Back at the Nashville Symphony, Alan Valentine demonstrates one of those innovations for me. The Naxos music library is an online subscription tool that gives music schools, libraries and music professionals worldwide instant access to the entire Naxos catalog.

VALENTINE: You can search for anything. Let's say you want to search for Nashville Symphony and there they are, and one of my favorite works on this disc.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OSBORNE: Naxos founder Klaus Heymann decided to embrace online streaming a good five years before Apple launched iTunes. It was a move he now considers his proudest achievement. His staff thought he was crazy, but it's a library that Heymann is determined to keep expanding.

HEYMANN: You can not imagine how much more music is out there, so we will not run out of things to record.

OSBORNE: And you can bet Heymann will continue to scour the market with an entrepreneurial eye. Naxos recently released an iPhone app that introduces children to classical music. For NPR News, I'm Mike Osborne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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