The Rise Of Classical Indie Labels
The Rise Of Classical Indie Labels

With EMI in meltdown and money hardly pouring forth from the major labels into niche classical projects, it's no surprise that the U.K. classical world is taking matters into its own hands. The 2011 BPI figures show that existing classical indies are holding their own with many labels, including British label Coro and French label harmonia mundi increasing their market share since 2009. And new ones are springing up left, right and centre.

Matthew Cosgrove is MD of Onyx Classics which launched in 2005. He says, "I think the rise of the small labels is due to the fact we can react quickly, we can do deals fast and we have low overheads. We are small sailing dinghies among a fleet of supertankers."

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Business models within the classical indie world vary. Onyx Classics has all the hallmarks of a major; a roster of internationally renowned artists (such as Russian violinist Victoria Mullova and the Borodin Quartet), up-and-coming talent (such as Israeli soprano Chen Reiss) and marketing savvy that sees it competing with the major players in advertising. Says Cosgrove (himself formerly of Warner Classics and Deutsche Grammophon), "The fragmentation of the larger companies means we are all still working together but outside of the big labels."

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Israeli soprano Chen Reiss from the album booklet of her record on Onyx Classics

Cosgrove says Onyx is "doing ok" financially: "It's been a tough year but we keep our costs to a minimum and we are careful about where we spend. We look at booklet length and advertising costs. We look carefully at things like Google Adwords and social networking. We don't just take the outside back cover of 'Gramophone' for 12 months."

Composer Gabriel Prokofiev runs his own classical label, Nonclassical, launched in 2004. He says it sprung from necessity: "I wouldn't be released if it weren't for independent labels. The major labels were a closed shop to me. To get anywhere with them you have to be accepted as a serious classical artist, have won a competition or played at the Wigmore Hall."

So far Nonclassical has released 13 discs. Some of them have sold 1500, some 400. However, says Prokofiev, "We are distributed in the States by Naxos so we do have bigger sales there." Nonclassical also makes its artists promise to buy at least 200 CDs at retail price and that pays for CD manufacturing. "In fact one of the best marketplaces is the gigs," Prokofiev adds.

One of the label's brightest stars is 37-year-old British composer Tansy Davies, who released her first full album "Troubairitz" earlier this year. "I couldn't believe she didn't have a CD on a major," says Prokofiev, "But I think they see such an unestablished artist as a high risk.

Nonclassical has just one permanent staff. Prokofiev does the recording and outsources the remastering. Artists work on a standard indie deal - a 50/50 share of net receipts - however Davies raised some money herself to pay for additional musicians. But still Prokofiev runs the label for love. "We're happy when we break even," he says, "though some of the releases are now starting to go into profit."

This year Wigmore Hall Live became the first live label to win a Gramophone Award for best label. The London Symphony Orchestra's label, LSO Live, started in 2000 after it perceived a decline in investment in new recording. After more than 80 recordings with high-profile artists, the Grammy Award-winning label was the first classical label to make its entire catalogue available for download.

Even the high-profile artists are at it. English conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner set up his label Soli Deo Gloria in 2001 after Deutsche Grammophon severed his contract halfway through his recording of the Bach cantata pilgrimage. Says MD Isabella de Sabata (Sir John's wife), "We tried to find a major label and there was enthusiasm but we never really got there. The costs were unbearable." The label, which runs as a not-for-profit, eventually met its set-up with donations from wealthy fans, raising around £40,000.

There is a difference in working for an indie label says de Sabata, who used to work at Universal, "you feel close to the people who buy the records. If they write in they tend to get a reply from me." "Of course," she adds, "the major labels have the means to do the major projects that the little ones can't do," but, she adds, "it seems to me that many people in these labels are constrained by the economy, so we are able to make packaging like a jewelry box if we want to..."