To be heard, classical musicians cut own CDs

With recording contracts now a rarity, more performers are becoming their own producers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Time was when a classical musician who paid to produce his or her own CDs was looked upon like an amateur author who patronized vanity presses.

But these days, no one is sneering. With the widely reported "disarray" of the classical record industry, more and more performers are producing their own CDs.

"Treating self-publishing as beneath one's dignity has got to be a very old-fashioned concept as seen from a 21st-century vantage point," says Todd Crow, a professor at Vassar College and director of the Mount Desert Festival of Chamber Music in Northeast Harbor, Maine.

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"With the knowledge that the consumer base for classical music is such a tiny fraction of the overall record market, is there any way to expect to produce and distribute a recording other than through self-publishing or through the resources of the Internet?"

Take Vietnamese-American pianist Quynh Nguyen. Last year, she made her New York debut to a rave review from the dean of US piano critics, Harris Goldsmith. He cheered Ms. Nguyen's performance of Chopin, saying that she played more eloquently than such great keyboard heroes as "Ignaz Friedman, Perahia, Horowitz, Rubinstein – or anyone whose interpretations linger in the mind's ear."

This kind of reaction would, in other days, have guaranteed a recording contract, especially since she is young and photogenic. Instead, she has paid to publish two CDs, which are available on her website www.quynhnguyen.com. According to most sources, such CDs cost $6,000 and up to produce.

"Of course it would be better to have a recording contract with a big company," says Nguyen. But "I am happy that my music has reached a much wider audience, some as far as Texas or Germany, Vietnam, France."

Self-published CDs may never make a massive impact on the classical-record industry, especially in terms of sales, but some observers believe their artistic impact may be lasting. One of Europe's most distinguished piano teachers, Hartmut Holl says, "I think it is no shame for a musician to realize an important CD project with his or her own money, to create a document which hopefully will set a standard for some time.

"This is true, especially in our day when the CD business is such a disaster."

Mr. Holl, himself an acclaimed pianist, adds, "Sometimes it really takes an idealistic attitude, like Don Quixote, to survive artistically, which is what some of the self-published musicians are showing, in addition to real performing talent."

Mr. Goldsmith, who has been watching developments in the piano world for a half-century, wouldn't go quite as far in endorsing self-produced works. But he says, "It's a way for new artists to break through. I don't really consider what they produce to be a CD, although they can sound good and offer wonderful performances. It's nice to have a calling card, but for example, even Quynh Nguyen's excellent recordings have no liner notes worth the name."

More experienced musicians have solved such problems of presentation. After a decade of recording with studios like Sony, American pianist Mark Swartzentruber recently founded his own label, the aptly named Solo Records (www.solorecords.com), where he offers burbling CDs of Scarlatti and sprightly performances of works by Schumann, presented with professional polish.

His works are also available in record stores, not just on the Internet. "We have also been fortunate in securing excellent distribution in the UK with Discovery Records Ltd., so our CDs are available in big outlets such as HMV and Tower Records, as well as most specialist classical-record shops in [the United States]," says Mr. Swartzentruber, who is working on a Haydn album. "One of the great advantages of publishing independently is that I have a free choice of repertoire and can record the music I want to play, and feel strongly about."

Dr. Crow points out that unless a performer tackles unusual repertory, record companies rarely are willing to pay to produce a new recording of familiar classics with an unknown performer.

David Korevaar, who is professor of piano at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has recorded rare works, like the piano music of Erno von Dohnanyi, with stylish success for the Ivory Classics Label.

However, for such standard repertoire as Bach and Ravel, he has sponsored his own recordings, explaining, "There are very few labels out there that will even cover the expenses soup to nuts, and almost none that still pay the artists a penny up front. So, self-publishing is the new norm."

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