Despite waning sales, confab stays highbrow

The economic downturn has meant serious reprioritizing for all sorts of companies, but for classical and jazz labels, belt-tightening has long been the norm. According to the Recording Industry Assn. of America, classical’s U.S. market share dropped to 1.9% from 3.2% between 2001 and 2006, while jazz plunged to 2% from 3.9% during the same period.

And yet, paradoxically, the two forms play a major role at Midem, the annual music confab in Cannes that has increasingly given classical and jazz pride of place. Dominique Leguern, Midem’s director, expects about 600 classical and jazz entities of all stripes — management companies, video production houses and various incarnations of new media, in addition to record labels — to grace this year’s edition, which runs Jan. 18-21. That number of participants, she says, has held fairly steady in recent years.

Even if, on the surface, things started looking up for jazz and classical in 2007 — with classical’s share rising four points and jazz achieving a stunning six-point gain — the numbers can be deceiving. For example, the market share is so minuscule that an album like Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters,” boosted by a Grammy Award for album of the year — it skyrocketed last February from 159 to No. 5 on the top-20 sales chart — by itself can register a profound impact on jazz LP sales, while the record-breaking success of Josh Groban’s “Noel,” a Christmas LP that is categorized within the classical realm of “opera and vocal,” also managed to give the otherwise arcane form a major assist.

Whether those numbers — however spun — will hold this year and next remains to be seen, but they suggest that what once seemed an unending slide may finally have been arrested. That possibility will doubtless be among the primary topics of this year’s Midem.

In 2000, Midem organized a special classical and jazz area to corral various enterprises with those interests. “Our goal is to bring the value chain together,” says Leguern, “companies, artists, producers, ticketing, TV. Before it was more segmented, but today everyone does everything. The Metropolitan Opera is now doing live video coverage, working with cinemas, for example. It’s a much more complex environment than it used to be. And classical needs to talk to this whole environment as much as pop and rock do.”

Today’s classical and jazz market is fundamentally changed from what it was a decade ago for two linked reasons: declining sales of physical product (primarily CDs) and the rise of new technologies (i.e., digital media). And Midem has evolved to capitalize on these shifts.

“We have created a marketplace where different players can create synergy,” insists Cornelia Much, Midem’s international sales director for classical and jazz. “A big opera production can’t be done by either an opera house or record company alone anymore. So now in addition to staging it live and perhaps recording it for CD, you film it for it DVD and maybe stream it.”

Steve Vining, president of the Savoy Label Group, which controls the Denon Classical and Savoy Jazz imprints, contends that largely because of these factors, the ground for classical and jazz is shifting toward the lean and mean.

“The indies are becoming more influential as the majors cut staff and invest less in new recordings,” he says. “(The majors’) enormous catalogs will sell no matter what, but creating exciting new exploitation takes staff. It’s almost a return to the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the indies, if they have their heads about them, can expand their share as the majors become less interested. In that sense, Midem becomes more important for acquisitions.”

Smaller labels are especially helped by the shift from physical to digital technology, because manufacturing costs are no longer a significant impediment to growth. “We just concluded an acquisition of a 15,000-item catalog form Germany,” says Vining. “About 10% of it will be physically exploited; 90% will be digital.”

Rene Goiffon, prexy of Harmonia Mundi USA, which distributes its own mid-size label’s offerings as well as those of some smaller companies, concurs with the conventional wisdom. “There’s no question that the Internet is taking over big time,” he says. “The way we sell is becoming very different. Everything is based on promotion and presentation, online reviews, artists profiles, fan lists and all that sort of thing.”

This web of interconnected entities surrounding a single artist may not be entirely new, but the dimensions are increasing. “It’s what we call the 360- business model,” says Leguern. “The whole chain is integrated. It’s not enough to make money. You have to sell the image of your artist to a brand, like a perfume or watch company, then tour big venues, handle ticketing, sell live footage, DVDs — the whole picture.”

Alex Miller, senior VP/general manager of Sony Masterworks, the latest umbrella for the legendary Columbia and Victor classical catalogs, maintains that the record industry as a whole lost its way at a vital time, yet that ground can be regained through present-day imagination and action.

“This is a time to really be artistic and pragmatic simultaneously,” Miller suggests. “There’s a real need for hope, not fear. In the past, as we feared what could happen we (deemed) sensible, pragmatic and opportunistic change. And that change happened anyway, without us. Now we’re trying to figure out how to make up for that. We have to be trendsetters, and the trend seems to be that consumers want access. They want personalized access and ubiquity in music.”

To boost classical music’s profile further, Midem created an classical music awards five years ago. Determined by a panel of classical music magazine editors, the awards are global in scope and the only such honors bestowed by Midem. This year, there are 642 entries submitted by 127 labels from 23 countries competing in 23 categories.

Industry insiders seem dubious about the awards’ impact, citing declining sales bumps from such honors, but they’re not knocking the sentiment. “It’s still good to get awards,” says Goiffon. “It’s always better to be on lists than not to be. And because of the Internet, the news of this will get out. But it would be too good to be true to say these awards will fire the industry.”

TIP SHEET

What: Midem music trade-show

When: Jan. 18-21

Where: Cannes, France

Web: midem.com

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