Harmonia Mundi Defies The Music Industry Blues The small, family-run record label from the south of France has thwarted the downward slide in classical music sales by choosing unorthodox recording projects and trusting its musicians. While other labels' sales have collapsed, Harmonia Mundi is thriving.
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Harmonia Mundi Defies The Music Industry Blues

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Harmonia Mundi Defies The Music Industry Blues

Harmonia Mundi Defies The Music Industry Blues

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To an empire now that's largely in ruins: the classical music record business. Sales are plummeting, stores are closing. But in a farmhouse in the south of France, one company has built a tiny fortress of success.

Frank Browning paid a visit.

FRANK BROWNING: Which of these two musical pieces would you think could make more money for a record company? This one?

(Soundbite of song, "Four Seasons")

BROWNING: Or this one?

(Soundbite of song, "Stabat Mater")

Unidentified Group: (Singing foreign language).

BROWNING: If you chose "Stabat Mater" by the Italian baroque composer Pergolesi, you might have a future in the classic-record business, and you'd be following in the path of a relatively small but sturdy classical music recording company Harmonia Mundi.

What sets the company apart, both in terms of musical taste and sales, is precisely its ability to find success in the most unlikely place, and that comes at a time when the classical recording couldn't be in worse shape, says British music critic Norman Lebrecht.

Mr. NORMAN LEBRECHT (Music Critic): Classical recorded music is effectively dead. It was taken over progressively by large corporations in the '80s and '90s, and it's been shut down progressively by those same large corporations over the past decade.

BROWNING: Classical record sales plunged 30 percent overall during the last fiscal year. At the same time, Harmonia Mundi saw its sales grow by nine percent.

The hub of Harmonia Mundi's business is not, as you might suppose, in Paris, but a four-hour train ride south to the bullfighting town of Arles. Eighty-three-year-old founder Bernard Coutaz comes to work every day in a quiet centuries-old farmhouse just outside of town.

The work of a successful record company now, he says, is the same as it was when he started half a century ago.

Mr. BERNARD COUTAZ (Founder, Harmonia Mundi): To discover a new text or a new music and new musicians and, with my own enthusiasm, to have relationships with people.

BROWNING: Enthusiasm for the new and strong relationships with musicians, deceptively simple but increasingly rare in the recording industry.

Ms. EVA COUTAZ (Chief of Production, Harmonia Mundi): All is based on money, money, money.

BROWNING: That's Eva Coutaz, Bernard Coutaz's wife and chief of production at Harmonia Mundi. She says that even when a new artist doesn't sell many discs, that doesn't particularly discourage Harmonia Mundi.

Ms. COUTAZ: I trust in this artist, and even if the first, the second and the third recording are not selling well, I am sure that in the future, he will be really a very great, great, great artist.

BROWNING: Harmonia Mundi's commitment to musicians began in 1958 when Coutaz and a recording engineer piled all of their equipment into a little canvas-roofed Citroen deux chevaux and drove across Europe to record Renaissance works on Renaissance-era church organs.

(Soundbite of music)

BROWNING: Then they leapt forward to the Baroque, where their all-time best-seller became Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater."

(Soundbite of song, "Stabat Mater")

Unidentified Group: (Singing foreign language).

BROWNING: The Pergolesi disk sold over 250,000 copies. Perhaps part of Harmonia Mundi's success comes from its commitment, whenever possible, to record on period instruments in period settings. Jean-Baptiste Rivail is the company's international director.

Mr. JEAN-BAPTISTE RIVAIL (International Director, Harmonia Mundi): If you look at a very classical recording, namely the Bach Cello Suites, we recorded it two years ago with a young, French-Canadian cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras.

BROWNING: Queyras was far less well-known than the late master cellist Paul Tortelier, whose Bach Suites recordings have been a mainstay of the EMI catalog. But Queyras did two things differently for Harmonia Mundi. He played in a church on a 17th-century cello made by Gioffredo Cappa. Listen carefully, if possible with headphones. First, the opening bars by Tortelier.

(Soundbite of music)

BROWNING: Now Queyras plays the Cappa cello.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RIVAIL: Well, we sold about 90,000 units worldwide.

BROWNING: Remarkable, says Rivail, considering it is a $30 set, including a DVD of Queyras setting up his performance in a chilly church in western Germany.

The difference between family-run Harmonia Mundi and the global labels like EMI and Vivendi Universal Classics, says critic Norman Lebrecht, is the care and thought the company puts into its work.

Mr. LEBRECHT: The failure of the major labels was a failure to reinvent themselves. They just thought, well, why don't we just have another Vivaldi "Four Seasons," another Beethoven Fifth, another popular piece that has always sold in the past, and there's no reason it shouldn't sell in the future.

It was a complete breakdown of the creative spirit that had been behind the music industry throughout its history. If the industry has died, it has only itself to blame for its demise.

BROWNING: Lebrecht also points out that as record shops began disappearing, Harmonia Mundi cashed in on its brand loyalty to open its own European retail chain, which the company says brings in a quarter of its revenue. Another 10 percent now comes from Internet downloads.

That said, there may be something a little less tangible going on, and that was Bernard Coutaz's decision early on to abandon the glitzy, fast-paced Paris scene.

Mr. COUTAZ: It's better to be in country. It's quieter, the silence, the calm, I would say calmer. Here we have the time to reflect. It's very important. The agitation is not good for life.

BROWNING: Most of the time, the only real agitation you sense in this ancient manor, surrounded by rice fields, is the occasional passing airplane or the rustling of leaves or, this spring, the excitement over the arrival of a delivery truck with a carton of Harmonia Mundi's latest rarity, a seldom-performed Erik Satie work, "Avant-Dernieres Pensees."

For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning.

(Soundbite of song, "Avant-Dernieres Pensees")

LYDEN: And you can hear more music from the Harmonia Mundi label, and see a video of Jean-Guihen Queyras play Bach on our Web site, nprmusic.org.

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