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Sony: in for the Lang Lang haul

Yesterday, Norman Lebrecht reported on Bloomberg.com that Lang Lang had signed with Sony Masterworks for $3 million (the label did not confirm the report). This made yet another interesting counterweight to my report on the sad reality of classical record sales and the Billboard charts. It seems a veritable throwback to the good old days when classical recordings actually made money.

The trend has been going all the other way: toward deaccessioning. Artists have been spinning off on their own, whether because they’ve found themselves without a label to call home (Susan Graham, from Sony to Erato to Onyx) or because they’ve founded their own labels (Gil Shaham, from DG to his own label, Canary Classics) or because they don’t actually know what their status is. I will never forget the pianist Yefim Bronfman telling me, during an interview in late 2007, that he really wasn’t sure whether he was an exclusive artist with Sony or not. Sony had just prohibited the release as a DG Concerts download of a live recording of the Rachmaninoff 3rd he had played with Gustavo Dudamel that January. It would have been nice to have that one.
(read more after the jump)

The labels were skittish in part because they had gotten burned by the generous contracts they had been handing out through the 1980s and into the 1990s (remember all those solo albums by the cellist Ofra Harnoy?). I always cite the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in this regard; she’s turned out some great and very creatively curated albums over the years, but I think the only possible explanation for her unusually prolific recording career with Deutsche Grammophon is that she had a great contract. Other artists who are much bigger stars weren’t issuing that many recordings -- one or two a year -- over the same period.

Labels are signing artists all the time, of course, but usually, I believe, to much shorter, “let’s-see” contracts of a couple of recordings at a time. If you have a chance at Lang Lang, however, you grab him; and Sony in any case seems to be in collecting mode at the moment. (The label also recently signed the pianist Simone Dinnerstein; coincidentally, both she and Lang Lang started out at Telarc.) Lebrecht hypothesizes, and it makes sense, that the label is hoping to profit from sales in Asia, since, as I pointed out in my article, sales in the United States aren’t going to add up to $3 million in a hurry. There are exceptions: Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell both break the rule of three-figure classical recording sales. Coincidentally, both are Sony artists; both also had their most recent successes with crossover albums.

The funny thing -- and the reason we cling onto these sales figures and charts and record contract figures -- is that it's difficult to assess exactly how big Lang Lang is. Is he selling hundreds of thousands of albums in the United States (I doubt it)? Did his role as cultural spokesman during the Beijing Olympics (he was on one of the big morning TV shows every day) translate into a higher mainstream profile? Did his autobiography win new American fans, or cement the ones he had? Terms like "world's most successful pianist" are thrown around him, but it doesn't seem to me he has the mainstream profile of a Pavarotti or a Yo-Yo Ma, or a few other musicians one could name who really did become household names. Still, Sony appears to be gambling on the idea that, if he's not there yet, he will be.

By Anne Midgette  |  February 3, 2010; 6:36 AM ET
Categories:  international , news , random musings  
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Comments

It's interesting that Sony would sign both Dinerstein and Lang Lang to long-term contracts. Sony has had Murray Perahia under contract for more than 35 years. One would not expect Perahia and Lang Lang to perform or record the same music; indeed, I would be amazed if there were anything common to their respective repertoires. With that said, there would seem to be, at this stage of Dinerstein's career, some commonality of repertoire with Perahia, and it would be surprising if recordings of these artists would be issued which, essentially, would cause Sony to compete against itself. Stay tuned.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | February 3, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Anne,

Perhaps the most interesting bit of Norman Lebrecht's article was this snippet: "...Lang Lang’s noisy populism was never an easy fit. When he demanded the dismissal of Yundi Li, the first Chinese winner of the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, the label acquiesced immediately, according to a dissenting producer."

Why on EARTH would Lang squared EVER be given the power to demand the dismissal of another artist? It speaks volumes about the youngster -- I shudder to think what he might therefore be able to do to Perahia and Dinerstein.

This is even more sad than the money he's received -- a classical music equivalent of the US$100 million BONUS the head of Goldman Sachs just received.

And there's more to the tale than's just been told: Check out Mr. Lebrecht's followup at:

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2010/02/what_lang_lang_did_next.html

Sigh.

MPS

Posted by: scottmp | February 3, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

But are the companies really downsizing?

No, if we are to believe this article:
http://www.classicstoday.com/features/20091229_2010Preview.asp

OK, it's not the 1st of April, but I thought a laugh is welcome any day of the year.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | February 3, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

I'm guessing Sony will realize that the only way they'll make money is by focusing on the crossover market. Lang Lang and Sarah Brightman. Lang Lang plays Avatar. You know, what tops the "Classical" music charts these days.

Some of the more forward thinking jazz musicians figured this label issue out years ago. They weren't getting any support, so they went out on their own. They record live performances or in home studios, create and press their own CDs and sell them at performances. They've got a willing and interested audience and, they get to keep 100% of the revenues.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | February 3, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

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