Orchestras Issue Their Own Recordings: Vanity or Good P.R.?

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The Berlin Philharmonic announced last week that it is launching an in-house record label, starting on May 23 with concert recordings of the complete Schumann symphonies conducted by Simon Rattle.

Days later, Daniel Barenboim said that he's getting his own record label – a digital-only venture called Peral Music – which starts with the conductor's third Bruckner symphony set, recorded by the Staatskapelle Berlin.

That same week, the Seattle Symphony released the first CDs in its new in-house label, consisting of music by Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Gershwin, Ives and Dutilleux, recorded in concert at its home, Benaroya Hall.

The artist-led recording phenomenon has had mixed results since it took hold in the orchestra world more than a decade ago, and some observers have suggested that both Berlin and Barenboim aren't exactly showcasing neglected repertoire. But these and other ventures arrive in a shifting landscape. As major labels have retrenched or disappeared, orchestras seek new revenue streams and record sales have moved almost exclusively online.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, who covers classical music for NPR Music, says in this podcast that in-house labels potentially lack the checks and balances of a traditional record company and "lead to a more myopic view of the universe."

"One thing that's come up since the Berlin announcement," she added, "is 'do we need another Schumann set – or in the case of Daniel Barenboim, a third Bruckner cycle?' Is the market, is the audience really crying out a need for those things?"

At the same time, Tsioulcas noted, the Internet has helped level the playing field and allowed budget-conscious orchestras to cut out the middle man in getting recordings of their performances to the public.

Marc Geelhoed, who manages the Chicago Symphony house label CSO Resound, said that it's extremely difficult to avoid replicating repertoire. But a goal of any recording is to document how an orchestra sounds at a given point in time: "What we try to do is say, 'what do we do as an orchestra that's distinctive?'"

CSO Resound has released 15 albums since its launch in 2007, among the most successful being a rendition of Verdi's Requiem conducted by Riccardo Muti. It won two Grammy Awards in 2011, for Best Classical Album and Best Choral Performance. Geelhoed declined to cite specific sales figures, but noted that "it has vastly exceeded the hopes and goals of selling maybe 10 to 15 thousand copies."

Successful orchestra-led labels are designed to build an organization's brand, not make a profit, said Matt Whittier, the senior marketing manager at Naxos of America. And while digital sales grow, orchestras must also think about "merch sales" – using CDs as souvenirs for patrons to pick up as they're leaving the hall.

"Those audience members would like to walk away with a tangible memento of a concert," he noted. "It's very possible that we can chart a record from the sales of one concert or one weekend of concerts for an artist."

While orchestras in Chicago, San Francisco and London have maintained a steady recorded presence, other in-house labels have faltered because they lack sufficient marketing and distribution, say all three guests in this podcast. The Berlin Philharmonic should benefit from having a distribution platform already in place with its Digital Concert Hall. It just shouldn't expect to make lots of money.

"An orchestra with its own record label in this day and age is about creating memories," said Geelhoed. "It's not just the here and now...but that an album's going to be around."

Listen to the full segment above and tell us what you think in the comments box below. Do you buy orchestra-produced recordings? Do you care if an ensemble is recording the same repertoire over again?