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Sean Hickey talks about Naxos – music business with a vision

When I started writing my blog on New York’s music and cultural scene in the summer of 2009, Naxos acted as an “early adopter” of my work, publishing my texts in my native German on its German blog site. Once I became their regular New York correspondent, I wanted to learn more about Naxos’s inner dynamics. What I found was a fascinating business model built on true pioneering spirit, and a sound vision of how to keep expanding the company’s horizons.

Aptly named after the Greek island known as the cradle of Western civilization, and a place forever associated with art and culture, the musical connotation of the name ‘Naxos’ refers to Richard Strauss’s 1912 opera, ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’.

In the early ’70s he started an import business for electronics, selling high-end audio equipment such as Bose loudspeakers and Revox recording equipment. He soon recognized the potential for new markets in the Far East, and applied innovative and cost-efficient trade and marketing concepts to his Hong Kong endeavors. One of his initiatives entailed promotional classical concerts, sponsored by Bose and Revox.

Meeting the classical musicians playing at those concerts brought the lack of classical music companies in Hong Kong to Heymann’s attention. A new business idea was born, and – answering a demand previously not met – he started to import and distribute several classical labels. As a result of his well-organized concerts, he was invited in 1973 to join the then-amateur Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra as “honorary General Manager.” He subsequently contributed to its transformation into a full-time professional orchestra.

Heymann’s astute business sense and passion for music intertwined with his private life, when Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki came to perform with the orchestra — they fell in love and later married.

To document and promote his wife’s talent, Heymann recorded several works featuring Nishizaki for his new company, Pacific Music. These included the complete works of Fritz Kreisler, and – with the Nagoya Philharmonic in 1978 – the famous Chinese violin concerto, “The Butterfly Lovers.”

When manufacturing costs for compact discs started to fall in 1986, he saw an opportunity for a budget-priced CD label. The first five Naxos CDs were released in 1987, and retailed in Hong Kong for about $6.25 compared to the competition’s retail price of $15- $20 for a similar product.

Instead of concentrating on famous performers duplicating a limited range of repertoire, Naxos made a clear decision to expand its catalogue by including a wide array of music. The company also chose to frequently invest in novel and often multicultural projects rather than spending money on costly artist promotions. As a result of this policy, today’s Naxos label runs the whole gamut, from the very traditional to the very rare, including the works of new composers.

The label’s diverse range of music genres features Naxos World with its folk, pop, and classical presentations; American Classics, and the Historical Series. It certainly took long-term vision and a passionate commitment to identify these niches within the music market. It also took an extremely well-organized team effort throughout all of Naxos’s many branches to manage this multi-national and multi-faceted operation. True to Naxos’s slogan, “music first” (which refers to the concept of ‘music on a budget’), the company has, over the last 23 years, very successfully filled a gap in the music market which Heymann – ahead of everyone else – had recognized as early as 1987.

Yet, beyond his clever business choices, it always was Heymann’s passion for classical music which fueled his professional life – “a lifestyle choice” he calls it.

But how does one keep a company functioning that, in just over 20 years, has grown into a vital force in the classical music business?

Sascha Freitag, managing director of Naxos Germany, describes how cooperative interaction is achieved without inhibiting individuality: "I am in contact with Naxos America on a weekly basis; monthly with the British  and the Scandinavians; and on a case-by-case basis with the other branches. We are all using the resources in Hong Kong and Indonesia. This is where the newsletters, e-cards and other Internet tools are being developed."

"The Australians are in charge of Naxos’s international marketing. There is a lot of interlocking; at the same time every managing director makes his/her own decisions with regard to distribution and marketing. Only in the case of the Naxos label, binding arrangements are in place."

Naxos’s German website explains the company’s operations and strategy further:

“With almost 40 publications each month, Naxos is bound to be the most productive existing classical music label. Naxos intends to close the gaps in repertoire, to salvage undiscovered treasures of renowned composers, and to introduce contemporary composers to the broader public.”

“As much as possible, Naxos adheres to the rule that no work should be published twice; only in exceptional cases this rule is broken. … the label is constantly expanding its collection, thus allowing a greater number of artists to perform a wider range of repertoire, recorded and distributed in different formats, performed at different venues and heard by a broader audience.”

Adds Sean Hickey, National Sales and Business Development Manager for Naxos America when I met him in December 2009 over cheese Danishes at the trendy Aroma on New York’s Houston Street, “The production and market conditions have changed, allowing for different concepts to simultaneously be successful.”

A very personable classical music enthusiast and composer of contemporary classical music, Hickey is in constant contact with musicians.

”The personal relationship is still key,” he says when talking about the importance of relating to the performers he works with. He admits that artists love the idea of a “sexy world premiere.” Speaking about his own creative work, he states that he would rather see his pieces enjoy a life beyond that short-term expiration date.

This is where another of Heymann’s initiatives comes in: The Naxos Music Library.  as well as the just recently launched Naxos Video Library. It was Sean Hickey who introduced me to both of the libraries, which serve as a focus of Heymann’s educational efforts.

Hickey explains: “With 500 years of history, or more, it makes little commercial sense to release various interpretations of the established classics, such as Chopin’s Nocturnes or Beethoven’s symphonies, especially since there are so many excellent and classic recordings by truly big names out there. However, the point of the Music Library is to give students the opportunity to compare various interpretations, and we hope they do so. In the Naxos Music Library, the Naxos label itself is one of hundreds of different record labels available … Unlike commercial sites like iTunes or ClassicsOnline, the Naxos Music Library streams its musical content to educational institutions worldwide, providing an immense resource for research, and an incredible source for comparative listening.”

And about gaining access to this valuable storehouse, Hickey says, “Yearly subscriptions enable educational institutions, orchestras, concert organizers or music festivals to utilize streamed music over the computer and to search for stored information that was entered by a team of musicologists. This revolutionized the way we listen to music and conduct research.”

No doubt, Hickey is very enthusiastic about Naxos’s achievements, and proud to have contributed his expertise and passion to the company’s projects over the past eight years. “It is exciting to be part of this innovative environment, when most of the business is so down. In 2009 alone, Naxos acquired 24 labels for distribution.”

In April 2010, Hickey was asked in Amanda von Goetz’s Notes on the Road, “In bringing your love of music to the work in business, what would you say inspires you most about your work with Naxos?” 

He answered, “I feel incredibly proud knowing that I – or we rather, Naxos as a company – are part of the inception of a project which comes to life and does extremely well. Seeing the entire process unfold is really just amazing to watch.”

“I personally get probably a dozen proposals a month from musicians, composers, artists – some of the biggest names in the world – all of whom want to record for Naxos or the labels we distribute. It’s exciting to watch these make it all the way through the process, knowing that I’ll be selling the finished project … I do not hold the final say on anything that we do as a company worldwide … but I do hold some ‘sway.’ Anything that comes to me, I send to our committee of people and they would make a final determination. At that point I gather feedback from my American colleagues. Samuel Barber for example might mean more to Americans than it does to Germans, say.”

Sean Hickey can be described as a Neo-Renaissance man, an attribute befitting his spirited engagement, and one that seems to characterize many of the strong personalities involved in this dynamic company.

In line with its policies, Naxos has also made a name for itself as a platform for aspiring young artists and composers. Yet, having found a forum for one’s creativity is one thing; networking to promote what one has to offer is quite another. In fact, the latter has become a very important part of a musician’s life today. Hickey thinks that, ultimately, the artist has to be able to sell himself, adjust to changing market needs, and do so with passion: “Musicians come out of conservatories every year, and it’s great they can play Paganini…. but can they sell themselves playing Paganini?”

But then, Paganini might not be a young professional musician’s first choice today, anyway. A good number of them strive to showcase performances, and will therefore rather go with new and undiscovered material.

On Naxos’s webpage, Klaus Heymann talks about the importance of keeping an open mind with regard to new opportunities brought to the company’s attention by new artists and orchestras. At the same time, continuity in working with the company’s house artists and building up a community of musicians plays a crucial role, as well.

To achieve all this, good communication skills are of the essence. And communication today means making use of all possibilities offered by New Media technology and Cyberculture.

It may very well be that some of the answers to these questions will influence how the now 23-year-old company will manage future challenges. Beyond that, it’s certainly the “enthusiasm factor,” combined with know-how, personal engagement, and interest in the music scene itself that will go a long way to keep Naxos at the top. And that formula cannot be substituted by Twitter. After all, it is not enough to twitter about events in the classical music scene, you have to be there, live it, breathe it, and ultimately love it.



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