The Beatles did it when they started Apple. Macklemore did it, and wound up with a fistful of Grammy Awards.
The Seattle Symphony Orchestra is now doing it, too — recording and releasing music on its own label, with the aim of calling the world’s attention to the orchestra’s talent and the distinctive sound characteristic of its home, Benaroya Hall.
The first releases on Seattle Symphony Media will be available for download on Tuesday, April 1, and as CDs on Tuesday, April 29. They can be preordered today (March 19). The recordings were made of recent SSO performances of works by Maurice Ravel, Camille Saint-Saëns, George Gershwin, Charles Ives and Henri Dutilleux.
Seattle Symphony executive director Simon Woods, at a media preview for the label, explained the forces behind the shifting landscape of recording and distributing music: Big record labels have pulled back from classical music, so the days of exclusive contracts between orchestras and labels are over. Meanwhile, recording technology has grown more affordable and accessible. Benaroya has housed a recording studio on the fourth floor since it was built in 1998; it was upgraded in 2006, when audio engineer Dmitriy Lipay was hired.
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“There’s a very great difference in the financial deal,” said Woods, of an orchestra recording on its own label. When symphonies record for a label, they’re paid a flat fee; the label owns the master recordings in perpetuity. With Seattle Symphony Media, all that changes.
“We’re controlling, long term, our destiny,” Woods says, “because the catalog of music that we record now will be owned by the symphony and will always be there for the symphony to exploit commercially. … Another very big change is that when you record for a label, you have to slot into their catalog. So no label wants you to record anything that they’ve already got in their catalog.”
Symphonies have been taking a DIY approach for more than a decade. The London Symphony Orchestra was first, launching its LSO Live label in 2000. Other symphonies followed, including San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Atlanta.
How it happened
Woods and music director Ludovic Morlot began discussing the symphony’s recording possibilities within six months of their arrival in town in 2011, said Woods, whose résumé includes record producer at the former EMI Classics in London. Another factor that helped the plan take shape is the latest contract with the Seattle Symphony & Opera Players Organization. Previous contracts hadn’t allowed for the release of live recordings. But the latest agreement allows up to 240 minutes of live recordings (three or four discs’ worth) to be released annually.
Fifty-five percent of the net profits on the recordings go the players, with 45 percent going to Seattle Symphony. The fact that the musicians will share in eventual profits instead of receiving big session fees, Woods adds, has been key to the label’s launch. Donor support is important, too, Woods said, and SSO patron Joan Watjen has underwritten the cost of these first recordings.
The inaugural releases include an all-Dutilleux recording (Symphony No. 1, “Tout un Monde Lointain” with cellist Xavier Phillips as soloist, and “The Shadows of Time”), a Ravel/Saint-Saëns package (Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso,” “Pavane pour une infant défunte” and “Rapsodie espagnole”; Saint-Saëns’ organ symphony) and an American composers disc (Ives’ Symphony No. 2, Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and Elliott Carter’s “Instances”).
Each CD will retail for $16.99, and the releases will also be available in four download formats: regular stereo, 5.1 surround sound, 96k 24-bit high resolution and “Mastered for iTunes” (a more easily downloadable compressed format). Naxos will manufacture and distribute discs and manage royalties.
Income? No one knows
Joe Kluger, an industry consultant and former president of the Philadelphia Orchestra, said the key to making a mark with your own label is recording both something the orchestra is good at and something with enough general appeal to make listeners want to buy it, yet distinctive enough so that they don’t already have six copies of it.
Looking at Seattle Symphony Media’s first releases, his reaction was that they make sense. “You have a French conductor. You have some French repertoire. … There’s a French connection in all of it.”
He also said that creating an in-house label makes sense if an orchestra has strong ideas about what is recorded and how, and how it gets positioned in the marketplace. “You have greater financial risk in making the project happen, but then you retain a larger share of whatever economic value there is of that.”
But, he cautions, an orchestra that says, “We’re doing this because we can make more money this way,” is fooling itself.
“There’s been such dramatic change in the financial viability of audio recording — and not just in the classical world, but for popular artists as well — that the benefits to any institution are more likely artistic and social profile, and perhaps some ability to attract philanthropic support.”
Woods admits it’s impossible to know how the revenue stream will pencil out. “The financial model is extremely complicated, because there is a different amount of income for CDs and there’s a different amount of income from every different download format. What I would say is that I think that the income is more likely to be long-term rather than short-term.”
Back to the recordings themselves: With Seattle audiences being notorious for their bronchial sounds, how are all those coughs from the audience handled in live recordings?
Simple, said Woods. Audio engineer Lipay usually has three performances of a program, plus a dress rehearsal, to choose from in editing a recording.
“You’d have to have somebody cough on exactly the same part on all three nights for him not to be able to cope — which isn’t to say you’ll never hear a cough on a recording,” Woods says with a smile. “You may do.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org