Philly Orchestra Composes Innovative Contract

At a time when orchestras are having trouble finding backing for new recordings, the Philadelphia Orchestra has come up with a non-traditional alternative. An independent label in Finland will record the orchestra live in concert. Joel Rose of member station WHYY explains the details.

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The Philadelphia Orchestra has something few American orchestras can boast, a new recording contract. Major record labels have largely stopped recording classical orchestras in America, citing labor costs as one reason. The musicians in Philadelphia agreed to take a smaller payment up front in exchange for a share of revenues, and the classical music world is taking note. Joel Rose of member station WHYY reports.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

The Philadelphia Orchestra built a reputation around the world through its recordings, especially during the four-decade career of conductor Eugene Ormandy.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: The orchestra's current music director, Christoph Eschenbach, remembers hearing the Philadelphia sound for the first time as a young man in Germany.

Mr. CHRISTOPH ESCHENBACH (Music Director, Philadelphia Orchestra): I grew up, so to say, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, meaning the Philadelphia recordings. And therefore, I think it's so important the the orchestra records again.

ROSE: It's been almost 10 years since the orchestra lost its recording contract. This week, it announced a new one with the independent label Ondine Records based in Finland. Industry veteran Kevin Kleinmann will be executive producer.

Mr. KEVIN KLEINMANN (Executive Producer): Many people have repeatedly said too often, `The classical recording industry is dead.' No, it is not dead. The classical recording industry is in evolution.

ROSE: The deal is unusual for several reasons. The master recordings will belong to the Philadelphia Orchestra, not to the record label. And the orchestra's musicians agreed to accept a lower guaranteed fee at the time of the recording in exchange for a share of the profits, if there are any. Orchestra president Joseph Kluger says that took guts.

Mr. JOSEPH KLUGER (President, Philadelphia Orchestra): The musicians of the orchestra really need to be commended for their courage in taking the risk to allow their music to be released on a system of compensation where they don't know what they're getting.

ROSE: Kluger says the orchestra will probably still lose money on some releases, just not as much. The orchestra will be recorded live in concert, not in a studio. Cellist John Koen says that's one reason the musicians decided to accept the deal.

Mr. JOHN KOEN (Cellist, Philadelphia Orchestra): We don't get paid a lot, but we're also not sitting in the studio on our days off, recording. We're doing it from live concerts. Of course, we are getting less money than we would have in the past, but what happened in the past is not really happening anymore.

ROSE: The major record companies were once eager to record North American orchestras, whatever the cost. That largely changed in the 1990s as record companies complained about meager sales and high labor costs. Joseph Kluger says other labels and orchestras will be watching Philadelphia closely.

Mr. KLUGER: What our musicians agreed to in our local union contract is unique today, but I'm confident in the near future is going to be the model that applies to all orchestras.

ROSE: Kluger is heading a committee of top orchestra managers who are negotiating a new recording contract with the national union, the American Federation of Musicians.

Ms. LAURA BROWNELL (Director of Symphonic Services, American Federation of Musicians): We simply felt we could not wait any longer.

ROSE: Laura Brownell is director of symphonic services for the AFM. She says a few record labels are still willing to record American orchestras at the old rates, and several orchestras, including Philadelphia, have experimented with paying those fees themselves in order to release CDs on their own. But Brownell says some orchestra managers have shown that they don't want to pay the prevailing rate.

Ms. BROWNELL: And, in fact, are willing to not record in their orchestras in order to hold out for what they consider to be a better fee. We have decided at the union level that this is not acceptable, that it is incredibly important for our symphonic institutions for their own ongoing health and for the sake of classical music in general that these recordings be made.

ROSE: Neither side would go into detail about the talks, but they involve managers from 15 of the top North American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mark Volpe is general manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which lost its recording contract a year and a half ago. Volpe says his orchestra is interested in re-examining its deal with its musicians union.

Mr. MARK VOLPE (General Manager, Boston Symphony Orchestra): You know, our guys will probably be curious what the national union does. But, you know, a year from now, if nothing's happened, we're not going to wait. We can't wait.

ROSE: The next round of talks is scheduled for June. The Philadelphia Orchestra starts recording this weekend. It's first Ondine release comes out in the fall. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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