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Harmonia Mundi Defies The Music Industry Blues


Here's a test. Which of these two musical pieces do you think could make more money for a record company: Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Pergolesi's Stabat Mater? Here's a clue: Vivaldi's cheery weather forecast is one of the most recorded pieces of music of all time. The Pergolesi is a Baroque choral work about Mary's sorrow at the crucifixion.

By now, you know this is a trick question. If you chose Stabat Mater, you might have a future in the classical record business. And you'd be following in the path of a relatively small but sturdy French classical music recording company, Harmonia Mundi. What sets the label apart, both in terms of musical taste and sales, is precisely its ability to find success in the most unlikely places.

Harmonia Mundi's success comes at a time when the classical record business couldn't be in worse shape, according to British music critic Norman Lebrecht.

"Classical recorded music is effectively dead," Lebrecht says. "It was taken over progressively by large corporations in the 1980s and '90s, and it's been shut down progressively by those same large corporations over the past decade."

Gone or merged into conglomerate oblivion are the great classical labels of a quarter-century ago. Classical record sales plunged 30 percent overall in the last fiscal year. At the same time, Harmonia Mundi saw its sales grow by 9 percent.

The Keys To Success

The hub of Harmonia Mundi's business is not, as one might suppose, in Paris, but a four-hour train ride south to the bullfighting town of Arles. There, 83-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: "To discover a new text or a new music and new musicians and, with my own enthusiasm, to have relationships with people."

Enthusiasm for the new and strong relationships with musicians is a deceptively simple formula. It's also increasingly rare in today's recording industry.

Eva Coutaz casts a wary eye north and says, "All is based on money, money, money."

She is Bernard Coutaz's wife and Harmonia Mundi's chief of production. Eva Coutaz says that even when an artist doesn't sell many discs, she's not discouraged.

"I trust in this artist, and even if the first and the second and the third recording are not selling well," Coutaz says, "I am sure in the future he will be a really great, great artist."

Harmonia Mundi's commitment to musicians began in 1958, when Bernard 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. Then they leapt forward to the Baroque, where their all-time best-seller became Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. So far, it's sold 250,000 copies.

Perhaps part of Harmonia Mundi's success has come from its commitment, whenever possible, to record on period instruments in period settings. Jean-Baptiste Rivail, the company's international director, says that's what the label did when it decided to record the Bach cello suites.

"Everyone owns at least one copy. Well, we recorded it two years ago with a young French-Canadian cellist, Jean-Guihen Queyras," Rivail says about the label's gamble.

Queyras was unknown to most classical music fans. He recorded in a church on a 17th-century cello made by Gioffredo Cappa.

"Well, we sold about 90,000 units worldwide," Rivail says — remarkable, considering that it's a $30 triple-disc set.

It's Not Just About Music

The difference between family-run Harmonia Mundi and its corporate competitors, according to critic Norman Lebrecht, is the care and thought the little label puts into its work.

"The failure of the major labels was a failure to reinvent themselves," Lebrecht says. "They had a tremendous opportunity to do so when compact discs came along and provided both large sales and large profits for a period of time. But instead of thinking, 'Well, what can we do different from the past?' they thought, 'Why don't we just have another Vivaldi Four Seasons and 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."

Lebrecht adds that as classical record shops began disappearing — most notably Tower Records — 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 comes from Internet downloads. And the company diversified its operation by creating a worldwide distribution network, which has sold music in a variety of styles, including jazz and world music on several small labels.

That said, there may be something a little less tangible about Harmonia Mundi's success: Bernard Coutaz's decision early on to abandon the glitzy, fast-paced Paris scene.

"It's better for ... reflection ... meditation to be in the country," Coutaz says, "because the quiet, the silence, the calm is better. And here we have the time to reflect. It's very important. The agitation is not good for life."

Indeed, most of the time, the only real agitation you sense in the ancient manor, surrounded by rice fields, is the occasional passing airplane or the rustling of leaves — and, of course, the excitement over the arrival of a delivery truck with a carton of Harmonia Mundi's latest release.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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