The executives at André Rieu Productions are fond of calling their multimillion-selling boss "the most popular unknown artist in the world." They had better start thinking of a new sobriquet. That in-house nickname may have once accurately described Rieu, the Dutch master of the waltzing violin who has built a global following with his live performances. But with global CD and DVD sales estimated by his company at 30 million, the number of territories in which Rieu remains "unknown" is shrinking fast.
Rieu hit a remarkable milestone recently: He ranked among the top 10 global touring artists of 2009, according to Billboard Boxscore.
Appearing on the year-end recap below U2, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC and Pink, Rieu ranked at No. 6, just above Britney Spears, the double bill of Billy Joel and Elton John, Tina Turner and Coldplay. Not bad company for a classical violinist and conductor. During the 2009 Boxscore chart year, Rieu sold 1.1 million tickets, grossing $95.9 million.
Rieu opens a summer tour of North America June 18 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. On May 1, tickets went on sale for 10 more North American dates on his Celebration of Music tour in November and December. (In April, Rieu chartered a plane for his 100-member entourage to play dates in South Africa after volcanic ash shut down commercial air traffic in Europe.)
In February, Rieu's most recent album, "Forever Vienna," climbed to No. 2 in the United Kingdom and was selling at a rate of 50,000 units per week. Released Dec. 28 in the United Kingdom on Decca/Universal, it's Rieu's first chart appearance in a market that had previously seemed immune to his charms, and sales have since climbed toward platinum certification (300,000 shipments).
What attracted you to playing the waltz in the first place?
When I was 4 or 5, I attended my father's concerts. He very often played Strauss waltzes as encores and I saw something happening with the audience. For Beethoven or whatever, they were sitting like this [snores], but with the waltz there was something alive within the same audience. The musicians also.
But it wasn't fashionable music when you started playing it.
No, and that was the fault of the classical musicians. I was in a classical orchestra and it would be like, "We have five minutes left, we can do 'The Blue Danube.' " And I was always so angry because it's magnificent music. So I fought not just for the waltz, but for bringing humor back to classical music. That's part of our success; it's something that you cannot have anywhere else. You go to a pop concert or a classical concert but there's nothing in between. [We do] classical music brought to you with humor; you can be yourself, cry, dance, whatever. It doesn't matter as long as there's interaction between me and the audience. That's why they come.
Your shows seem to be the opposite of what many people expect from a classical show.
Yes. I want to give classical music back to the people, where it belongs. Mozart composed his music not for the elite, but for everybody. He was a fantastic, lively guy; he was drinking and having fun in life and being a genius at the same time. But now you see people playing Mozart with faces as if they are already dead. Why?
You've been described as "a rock star conductor." What do you think of that comparison?
Why the rock star? Because of the entourage? Perhaps. Because I have a lot of trucks? I don't think I'm a showman. I wouldn't even call my concerts a show. My concerts are more of a show than a classical concert, but things are different every night, therefore I call it a concert. But the moment you put your tuxedo on and go onstage with your violin, even as a classical violinist, you are an entertainer. Otherwise you'd play in your bathroom.
Have you been influenced by pop or rock stars at all?
My influences come from all over the place. Michael Jackson-I admire him in everything he did, so professional. Madonna, Queen. I was a teenager in the '60s, but my education was very severe, so the Beatles and the Rolling Stones passed by my house. I did my puberty some years later so I missed all that.
Why did it take you so long to get a record deal?
It took me seven years. I was successful, so I thought I had to have a record deal. I went to [see labels] and said I was very successful playing in theaters in Holland, Belgium and parts of Germany. "What do you play? Waltzes?" [makes vomiting gesture] Really, the first guy did that.
But I went back every year and after seven years one guy listened. He came to a concert and phoned me the next day to say, "Let's make a record." But even the seven years when I didn't have a record deal the halls were filled, so I could make the orchestra bigger, buy nicer clothes, better sound, lights and flowers. I put all my money back into the company because this is all I do.
Did you have to adjust your style for international markets?
No. The only thing I do is try to speak the language and in my encores, I might try and do something [local], like in Australia I do "Waltzing Matilda." But people don't want me to play American music, they want my music. The English didn't believe that I could be successful in an English-language market but Australia was the proof. And that was the moment that the guys [at the U.K. label] said, "OK, let's do André because he proved it in Australia."
You're phenomenally successful in Australia. To what do you attribute that?
Yeah, I sold 2.7 million albums in Australia in two years and it's a small country. It started with the Ovation channel, a classical pay-TV channel with about 7,000 viewers a night-[which is] nothing. They wrote me and said, "We have a DVD-can we broadcast that?" We said OK. A week later, they said, "Do you have more DVDs?" It started a word-of-mouth process. Universal put [product] in the stores and after three or four months we sold 500,000. Then I went there to do promotion and pow! I even got to appear on [hit Australian soap opera] "Neighbours."
In the United Kingdom, you appeared at the Royal Variety Appearance. How was that?
Me, the Queen and Lady Gaga; it was quite a combination. The Queen was there watching in the dark and I told a story about Queen Victoria. Johann Strauss did the waltz when he was young, but the church was against it because the dance was body to body-too sexy. So Strauss went to London and Queen Victoria was fond of the waltz; she made the breakthrough here and, from London, it came back to the continent. Afterward we had to stand there and shake hands and the Queen said, "Nice melodies, Mr. Rieu." Funnily enough, I had never played for my Queen [Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands] all these years and then the other day I finally played for her. So I think [Britain's Queen Elizabeth] phoned her and said, "He's good, this guy."
Do you have any markets left to conquer?
I haven't broken the United States yet. I play there and make money but we're working on that now. I want to be No. 1. But I love America. The audience there is so hungry, they drive 1,000 miles to come to a concert and suck every note out of my violin. In Holland, people wouldn't go [20 miles]. I want to go to South America, and we're going to South Africa. I haven't played China, and I don't know-because I hear all these stories about even politicians who go to speak and they have to send their speech and then the speech is censored. I'm a free man so I wouldn't like to send my words. I don't know yet.
In many markets, your DVD sales are on a par with your CD sales. Why do you think that is?
It's very important to see me. Although the records sell very well, when you see me perform on DVD or come to see me live, then you understand. In Australia, I sold millions of DVDs before I came [to the country], so it's not just [people buying] a souvenir. It's important to see us and how much fun we have. When I play the violin I use my face to bring the emotions.
You perform everything from pure classical pieces to tracks from musicals and pop hits. How do you choose the songs?
I've been doing this for 35 years so I know how to build a program, but I always choose the pieces only with my heart. I will never play a piece to show how good we are; the only reason is that it touches me. Michael Jackson died the week before our big concerts in Maastricht, so I did "Ben" solo on my violin, and everybody was crying. A week after that we did "Earth Song" with a children's choir. Why not? Because I know when a song touches me it will touch you.
You're very much in control of your own business as well.
Yes. I produce my own albums, I give the tape to Universal and they sell it. After all these years they know what I do and they accept it. I don't have a promoter, I do everything myself. I travel around the world, my people hire arenas, and we start selling tickets. For America, we [initially] worked with promoters because in my head I thought, "No, it's not possible to do America yourself." But it is. It's like every country: The arenas are glad when my people come, so why have a whole organization in between? It works faster, the result is better, the interaction with the audience is more direct.
Why did you choose to do things this way initially though? It must have been a lot of hassle for someone just starting out.
At first, I think it was because what I did was so unusual that no promoter would say, "I want you." Classical music people would say "no." Pop music people would say, "What, violins? No." So I said, "I'll do it myself." Then I discovered it was working very fast and everyone I'd work with liked it. Now, promoters phone every day. But I still do it myself. It's nice to do music and business-I love doing it. The example I always give is Johann Strauss: He was the first pop star. He had five orchestras, I have only one, so he was a real businessman. If it was possible for him, why not for me?
How did Strauss manage to be in five places at once?
He had a contract in Vienna, and each hall where his orchestras played he was there for half an hour, then quickly onto his horse [and onto] the next one. I'm not going to do that though. I started out as a violinist; now I have 130 people on my payroll-it's enough.
Do you still have your detractors in the classical establishment?
They are more silent these days. I do my job as a classical musician. When I play classical music, I will do it with all my education and responsibility and I will not ruin the piece. In the beginning they thought, "He's popularizing." But I don't do that. I play it like it's written, so why be angry at me? But at the same time in the same concert, I play Michael Jackson and I make jokes. [The criticism] bothered me in the beginning but now it's OK. It's also [a lot] of jealousy. When you sell well in classical music now, you sell 800 copies. I sell 8 million.
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