The Philadelphia Orchestra, which was the subject of a recent post, announced a couple of months ago a new recording contract with the Finnish label Ondine. This ends a nine year recording drought for the world renowned orchestra. Although the story is not new, in the light of the debate about business models for classical recording it is worth reviewing briefly how the Philadelphia Orchestra put together its new deal.
The new recording contract was only made possible by several innovative departures from conventional contracts. The most important is that the orchestra players are not taking an up-front fee, but instead are participating in a profit share. The profit share compromise was achieved in defiance of union policy. If recordings are loss making, they will be underwritten by funding from the orchestra's endowment set aside for recording activites. The recordings are to be made live at concerts with later 'patching' sessions if required. And artistic approval of recordings is shared between Ondine, music director Christoph Eschenbach, and the musicians themselves.
Another important element of the new contract is that the orchestra retain full ownership of every recording produced. The CD's will be released on the Philadelphia Orchestra's own label "in partnership with Ondine." The Ondine deal will bring world wide distribution via Ondine, something that the other orchestra owned labels have struggled to achieve.
What about the music that will be recorded? It seems to be a mix of safe (Tchaik 5) with adventurous Czech (Gideon Klein's 1944 Partita for String Orchestra and Martinu's Memorial to Lidice Gideon). Here are the first two recordings:
First Release (November 2005):
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
Bohuslav Martinů: Memorial to Lidice
Gideon Klein: Partita for String Orchestra (1944)
Second Release (February 2006):
Piotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Six Movements from The Seasons for Piano (January-June) (Christoph Eschenbach, piano, this will be the first solo piano recording by Christoph Eschenbach in nearly thirty years).
So what is the Philly deal really about? It seems to establish a hybrid model combining the LSO Live profit share and orchestra control with many of the distribution benefits that an established label brings. It is great to see a fine orchestra back with a recording contract. And it is great to see them finding a new busines model that doesn't simply ape the LSO Live model (which is what the London Philharmonic Orchestra has just done). But the terms of the deal for the musicians show just how tough it is to get classical recordings distributed these days. (Unless you follow the BBC Beethoven Symphony model, and give them away. In which case, surprise, surprise, you ship a million units) The profit share model is fast becoming the norm, even when the label is not orchestra run. The risk from the artistic viewpoint is that the profit share formula makes the programming risk averse. Let's reserve judgement until we see more programmes, but a search for Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony on Amazon does produce 250 results.
On An Overgrown Path has previously been critical of the low payments reportedly made to LSO musicians from LSO Live recordings. I am afraid that the Philadelphia players are not going to be on a much bigger earner from this deal. Orchestra president Joseph H Kluger has said "this is not going to be a source of net revenue" which I guess is at least realistic. But the good news for their many fans is the orchestra's recordings will be back on sale, and cutting a deal with Ondine is a smart way of getting the clout in the distribution chain which the orchestra owned labels currently lack.
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to My first classical record