The Decline of the Yellow Label
There aren’t many brands like Ferrari or Lamborghini in classical music. For a long time, Deutsche Grammophon was one of the only ones. It was obvious why: the label stood for tradition, good taste, objects of value, cutting edge technology. When you bought something from Deutsche Grammophon, you knew you were getting a reference recording. True, the quality of the product wasn’t always as high as the impeccable reputation of the brand—at times, the brand brought more prestige to the artist than the artist to the brand. But even for people whose main cultural experience of music was through pop culture, the Deutsche Grammophon records on their parents’ shelves had an irreproducible aura. For a long time.
The story of the crisis that came next has been told often. DG wasn’t the only label to suffer. Across the industry, profits from record sales crashed; the supply of recordings and artists on the market came to outstrip demand; standard repertoire was played so often a kind of interpretation fatigue set in; and a new generation of musicians came of age who didn’t achieve, or even strive for, the cult appeal of earlier stars. The window of time in which to find new business models and ways to profit from digitalization was missed. At some point, the core product DG was offering wasn’t enough to cover larger overhead and administration costs, salaries and fees, advances and marketing budgets. The label reacted to this development by distancing itself further from its core classical business and looking for new customers. And so the things that made the Yellow Label special fell increasingly away. Loyal fans began to look elsewhere for their quality records. Browse through forums for classical music obsessives today, and you’ll find few more common targets for invective than Deutsche Grammophon.
Deutsche Grammophon sells records—a whole different ballgame than concert tickets, which, at least in Europe, are often subsidized by the state. And these days, when you talk to people who sell records for a living and know about the classical music market, there’s no getting around a simple fact: companies must produce more different types of CDs than ever to cover their costs. Still, for premium labels, core brands have been stretched almost to the breaking point to accommodate music at opposite extremes of taste. Mark Wilkinson, who served as CEO of Deutsche Grammophon for the brief period between 2012 and 2015, made strategic bets on crossover projects such as Schiller and indie classical artists from the UK and the U.S. Members of popular bands—Bryce Dessner from The National, Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire, Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead—released CDs on Deutsche Grammophon of their own compositions. The hypothesis at the heart of the strategy was that a person who listens to Arcade Fire will also listen to minimal compositions by Arcade Fire’s guitarist. The bet didn’t pay off. In most cases, the artists recorded one album and that was it. And under Wilkinson’s leadership the core classical brand did worse than expected, especially on the key German market, although the label did sign important pianists such as Daniil Trifonov and Grigory Sokolov.
In 2015, an executive named Clemens Trautmann replaced the hapless Wilkinson. Shortly before Trautmann officially took up his post, we met him for an informal conversation at a café in Berlin. We talked about positive energy on the classical music scene, musicians with clear artistic profiles, and exciting places where music was being made. I got the impression that Trautmann was ready to move on from his predecessor’s approach. He was a natural choice for his new role: a trained clarinetist, he had the knowledge of and the ear for classical music; he was also a former CEO of a successful German online real estate portal, meaning that he knew how to run a modern business and manage people. Trautmann, I thought, would place his chips on returning to a more serious musical core, supporting artists of substance, and searching for long term ways of keeping the business alive.
A year and a half later, it looks like reality has caught up with Trautmann. DG did manage to sign up, or sign back, a few established stars, such as Murray Perahia, Andris Nelsons, and Lang Lang, who returned from Sony. Yet it’s been crossover artists such as Jay Alexander, a singer with an (not ironic) disc entitled “The World is Beautiful,” who have made the albums fly off the shelves. For him and his fellow travelers—like Fernando Varela, who sings a made-for-TV amalgam of watered down funk and tenor pop—DG created a separate brand without the famous Yellow Seal, called Panorama.
Even on the main label, though, the marketing money has continued to pour mainly into the promotion of “genre defying” projects, some of which are even more saccharine and unabashedly commercial than what the company released under Wilkinson. While a few artists, such as Jarvis Cocker, Chilly Gonzales, or Jóhann Jóhannsson, have artistic substance, others are in the same league as those on Panorama. Joep Beving, nicknamed the “gentle giant,” could be accused of producing music that’s a bad knockoff of bad Chopin knockoff Ludovico Einaudi. The reason that this kind of feel-good arpeggiation hasn’t been outsourced to another label is because it works: it taps into the zeitgeist, and it gets results on the streaming platforms. Even Jay Alexander, current number one on German’s classical charts, has an estimated audience of only 930 unique listeners per month on Spotify. Beving has a million and a half.
How much space is there under the new big tent of Deutsche Grammophon? Not enough, it seems, to financially support ambition, substance, and unique artistic endeavor. A result of the organizational brain drain at the firm has been an aesthetic compass where the poles are dictated by marketing needs. DG’s recent exclusive signings have left us cold and confused. On the one hand, they give the impression of having resulted from a soulless corporate brainstorming session; but the criteria and value judgments used in that brainstorming session aren’t even up to date. Usually that’s true from the choice of repertoire up to and including the packaging design and communications strategy.
Some artists, at least, were chosen with a clear target audience in mind. Trautmann’s first signing was the South Korean pianist Cho Seong-Jin, who won the Chopin competition in 2015. DG rushed a CD to market featuring highlights of his performance at the competition, causing a hysterical boom in his home country. The CD shot to the top of the charts—not the classical charts, the real charts—where it beat out all the K-Pop boybands.
But this kind of focused targeting has not been a consistent strategy. Recent addition Víkingur Ólafsson’s debut album of Philip Glass’s Piano Etudes was too avant-garde for the Einaudi fans and too boring for Chopin lovers. “At DG, we’ve known for a long time that Iceland is synonymous with musical creativity,” Trautmann said in a recent issue of the label’s own magazine, KlassikAkzente. That realization came 20 years after Icelandic musicians and bands conquered the worlds of indie rock and electronica. By now, the brand “Made in Iceland” has lost its luster, even in the more mainstream corners of the music world.
Another recent Deutsche Grammophon strategy might be described as Find a good-looking performer who plays an unusual instrument or dresses memorably, and run with it. Examples include the accordionist Ksenija Sidorova, the mandolinist Avi Avital, or the violinist Nemanja Radulović. Their repertoire, and their publicists, emphasize national and gender stereotypes which form neat, digestible nuggets. Mandolin, vacation, Venice, Latin Lover (Avital); the Balkans, fiery temperament, the Devil’s violin, Hungarian dance (Radulović); Beautiful woman, temptation, the color red, Carmen (Sidorova).
What DG thinks of its artists’ chances as live performers can be read from the album cover it chooses. Ólafsson and Cho, serious classical artists, strike serious poses. The others contort themselves into lascivious shapes or superimposed themselves on postcard-ready images. It’s not a secret that someone like Radulović doesn’t have much potential in the classical concert hall. He doesn’t play with major orchestras and conductors. He does have the ability to sell a certain type of event, though—until he doesn’t. That’s why DG is always on the lookout for replacements.
Are there any encouraging signs on the horizon? In June of 2016, DG signed a then 15-year-old violinist named Daniel Lozakovich. Prodigies can still sell CDs, it’s true, but signing a prodigy isn’t exactly an expression of ambition and creativity. More importantly, it’s not an investment in a plausible artistic future.
Lozakovich is an undeniably talented young musician who already plays at the highest level technically. With DG’s newest signing, the French cellist Camille Thomas, not even that is a given. The label hasn’t had an exclusive cellist in a long time; its reason for choosing Thomas to follow a great like Mischa Maisky is puzzling. Thomas is mostly unknown. She’s played with smaller orchestras in France and Belgium, doesn’t stand for a particular aesthetic point of view, isn’t represented by one of the major London agencies.
Which, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s when we listened to her playing that we started to feel strange. The repertoire is the usual potpourri of the flashy and the corny. And it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch to say that there’s a perceptible difference in quality compared to the many excellent cellists who have flooded the market in the last 10 to 20 years—a period during which the level of cello playing skyrocketed. Of course, a music critic’s judgement is subjective, sometimes even wrong, and instrumentalists have good days and bad. But we talked to several musicians about the exclusive contract, none of whom agreed to be quoted by name. The reactions ranged from disbelief to resigned speculation about the label’s calculations. “I tried to blame myself for not understanding what they were thinking—it’s true, sometimes we don’t see the forest for the trees in our world—but that kind of decision is frustrating,” one cellist said.
By now, expectations for Deutsche Grammophon have been lowered. No one is on the edge of his seat waiting for a risky, surprising, provocative record from the label. They’ve fallen behind even the other major firms, not to mention smaller, independent labels. Of course DG still has fantastic artists such as Lisa Batiashvili and Daniil Trifonov—but it’s more striking who isn’t there. DG is missing the kind of artist who combines talent, musical substance, and the kind of practical sales potential that comes with charisma and an ability (or even willingness) to communicate: Barbara Hannigan, Philippe Jaroussky, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Igor Levit, and many more. DG hasn’t released a polarizing interpretation like Teodor Currentzis’s Mozart opera recordings (on Sony) in recent memory. Established string quartets like Artemis, JACK, Belcea, or the Hagen Quartett aren’t on the roster, or aren’t anymore. Nor are up-and-coming groups in the booming European chamber music market like Quatuor Ebène, the Kuss Quartett, or the Schumann Quartett. Young yet well-known, confident artists like Anna Prohaska preferred to do their own thing at other labels. Why not sign an excellent young violinist like Alina Ibragimova, or Patricia Kopatchinskaja, or Pekka Kuusisto, to name just a few violinists who play extremely well and have interesting stories to tell? Did DG even try?
Musicians who are interested in recording music beyond “some of the most beautiful works in the repertoire” have known for a while now that DG doesn’t have a place for them. “Artistically, DG has become pretty much irrelevant,” one concert promoter told us. “They throw as much as possible at the market and hope that something sticks.” It’s the classical label as viral content farm.
There were plenty of possibilities for a solid exclusive cellist choice as well. Restricting ourselves for a moment to the generation of those around 30, who, unlike, say Sol Gabetta, aren’t already at a major label, options include Nicolas Altstaedt, Maximilian Hornung, Christian Poltéra, Julian Steckel, Valentin Radutiu, Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, Harriet Krijgh, Astrig Siranossian, Gabriel Schwabe, and Jay Campbell. What about Kian Soltani, a Barenboim protegé, or Pablo Ferrández, a Anne-Sophie Mutter disciple? It’s not like DG doesn’t know these people; at least a few of them made it to the negotiation stage.
Was it parent company Universal that created obstacles for DG in these cases? Or was it what several musicians described to us as a condescending attitude at the label? What kind of message does that send? How much of the artistic integrity that once formed the basis of DG’s reputation is still present during daily business at company headquarters here in Berlin? Do people there still believe that they can make money by producing substantial, serious CDs? And if so, what kind of resistance do they face?
By asking these questions, we find ourselves wondering whether we’re naïve and unwilling to accept the world the way it is. “It’s not Deutsche Grammophon’s job to satisfy the critics. It’s to keep the business running. And Pierre-Laurent Aimard won’t make that happen for you,” a former DG executive said.
Maybe the operational pressure to achieve short term success is so intense that it prevents the examination of more long term tendencies. We’ve heard from a few sources that there are few people left at DG with a real passion for their product, who believe in what they’re doing. “More than ever, we have to be able to tell a story about the artist as a person—what his motivation is, his desire to tell an authentic story. And a contemporary artist has to have a certain talent for communicating on and off stage, be present in social media,” Trautmann said recently in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. But telling real stories is exactly what DG hasn’t been doing. In the most popular TED Talk of all time, the mantra is, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Is the label afraid of the why?
It would be unfair to only criticize Deutsche Grammophon for these circumstances. Again, it’s hard to sell records: few products have declined as much in value since digitalization as recorded music has. When people talk about the future of classical music today, they mainly mean novel concert formats. There’s an increased dependence on the attention economy of the media. In a project of questionable taste for the tabloid Bild, Camille Thomas played cello as drones flew over the remains of Nazi concentration camps and transmitted the video images live. In that newspaper, she was called “the big new star of classical music.” One of the reasons DG cited for signing her was that she came across well on German and French TV.
Despite all these changes, Deutsche Grammophon still relies on its time-honored, serious tradition in the way it presents itself to the world. Maybe it’s simply too much to be both the oldest and the most successful classical label. It’s a bit like the pre-2004 Red Sox. Both the label and the team have long histories. Both have rabid fans. And both had legendary men to pressure them: Babe Ruth for one, Herbert von Karajan for the other. Deutsche Grammophon is already in crisis. It will probably need to get worse before it can get better.¶