August 16, 2012


The Story of Naxos: The Extraordinary Story of the Independent Record Label That Changed Classical Recording For Ever. By Nicolas Soames. Piatkus. $29.95.

      The CD and its higher-sound-quality cousin, the SACD, look as if they will be the last physical forms on which music is made available. There will be a continuing fondness for vinyl records, which have sonic advantages over all but the very best digital recordings, and some people are likely to cling to audiocassettes for a time, but other physical music formats – 78-rpm records, eight-track tapes, open-reel tape – are essentially gone.  The advent of easy-to-carry portable MP3 players, with their ability to hold thousands of music tracks and reproduce them with at least reasonably high quality, has sounded the death knell for storage of music on physical media that take up space and must be cared for.

      But MP3 players and all their variants are more suitable by far for pop music and short-form works in general.  Recorded classical music, long regarded as a niche field by the industry, is best when heard in better circumstances than pop music requires – that is, with higher-quality reproduction and in a home environment, rather than as background to something else or an afterthought while going through one’s daily activities.

      If physical releases of classical recordings are a niche, and if this is the twilight of physical recordings in general, there is no doubt about the preeminent company in these darkening days.  It is Naxos, founded in Hong Kong in 1987 by Klaus Heymann, a businessman who loves classical music but is not himself a trained musician.  By any measure, Naxos, a private company, has amassed some extraordinary numbers in its 25-year existence.  It has sold more than 115 million CDs, has a 7,000-plus-item catalogue, created an “American Classics” series that now includes some 400 releases, and has launched a slew of other specialty series as well – recently, Canadian Classics, cycles of Sarasate, Shostakovich and Sibelius; earlier, the Naxos Historical line and a series of White Box multi-CD recordings; and many more.  The company (its corporate parent is HNH International) also owns more than a dozen additional labels and distributes hundreds of others either worldwide or in specific geographic areas.  Naxos has Books and AudioBooks divisions, a Web site that gets some 400,000 visitors monthly, and – lest anyone think Heymann is ignoring the digitization of music – an online Naxos Music Library with a million tracks from 70,000 albums, and apps for Android, iPad and Kindle Fire.  Naxos has jazz and world-music divisions, too. And those who insist on digital distribution can get it easily from Naxos at

      Naxos also does scholarship, through Artaria Editions (which it founded in 1995); a Hong Kong violin studio run by Heymann’s wife, violinist Takako Nishizaki (whose recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the top-selling Naxos CD); and a foundation that promotes education and research in classical music.

      But back to the world of CDs – the world through which Naxos remains best known to most music lovers, and the one where it really made its mark.  The Story of Naxos is, not surprisingly, more hagiography than critical biography: Nicolas Soames runs Naxos AudioBooks and could scarcely be expected to bite the corporate hand that feeds him.  Soames gives some insight, all of it positive, into Heymann’s personality, including the interesting fact that he usually introduces himself as “Hay-man” instead of pronouncing his name the correct German way, “Hei-mann.”  He quotes Heymann’s views on music, all of which are thoughtful and some of which are quite interesting, such as his reasons for preferring Bruckner’s music to Mahler’s.  And Soames goes out of his way to show that Heymann, who will be 76 this year, is comfortable with the latest technology and tends to lead others to adopt it.

      The meat of the book, though, begins with Soames’ discussion of the way Naxos developed, from the early days of the Marco Polo label (1982) to what Soames labels “the digital age” of 1996-2011.  Naxos has an impressive stable of recording artists, and The Story of Naxos features comments by many of them, from Nishizaki to pianist Idil Biret and cellist Maria Kliegel to conductors Marin Alsop, Antoni Wit, Helmut MΓΌller-Bruhl and Leonard Slatkin.  The comments from the artists are appropriately adulatory, but the ins and outs of the business are of even more interest.  A little reading between the lines can be helpful.  For example, Soames quotes Heymann as saying, in regard to meeting with George Mendelssohn – the owner of Vox-Turnabout and Candide – that the famously stingy and artist-unfriendly policies of Mendelssohn were ones that were reflected in poor production quality and that Heymann would never emulate.  That may be true regarding treatment of artists, but a number of Naxos recordings, especially in the label’s early years, were scarcely of the highest quality, and production decisions did tend to get made and unmade in odd ways – for example, the much-touted Georg Tintner Memorial Edition of 12 CDs turned into a 13-CD series in which volumes 8, 9 and 13 were available only as downloads; and the Hans Christian Lumbye series for Marco Polo managed to make it to 11 volumes but then petered out far short of completion.  Soames does say that as Heymann came up with multiple new ideas, “not all these new ventures went well,” but the author tends to downplay problems and failures and play up successes.

      Luckily, there have been far more successes than failures for Naxos and for Heymann.  This is lucky not only for the company and its employees but also for classical-music lovers worldwide – and also for lovers of the other sorts of music that Naxos produces, and those who like audiobooks and other items as well.  The Story of Naxos is really two stories, one about music (primarily classical music) and one about a business.  It is in fact a more interesting business story than music story, although readers are more likely to want the book because of its musical content.  What Soames’ book does is show how entrepreneurial spirit and the willingness to take risks in the cause of music production and distribution have combined, at what may be the end of the line for physical storage media, to make available a truly enormous amount of music, from the well-known to the completely obscure, thanks to a business model that is equally committed to creating composer-focused discs and “lifestyle and introductory compilations” that “sometimes make the dedicated classical collector go pale” but that produce the impressive sales necessary to keep the more-sober offerings afloat.  Naxos is an immensely impressive business on any terms, and is well-positioned to continue growing even if CDs go the way of vinyl or, in an unlikely scenario, are supplanted by some other physical storage medium.  The reason is that Naxos is, foundationally, an idea – built on Heymann’s distribution expertise in audio equipment rather than on musical repertoire itself – and has the potential to continue to prosper for a long time, if not necessarily “for ever” (per the book’s subtitle), as long as Heymann and his top managers continue to show the flexibility and responsiveness to musical and technical trends that have stood Naxos in such good stead for a quarter of a century.

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