Philly's profit share fillip

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.

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Anonymous said…
By "the profit share formula makes the programming risk averse", do you mean (subscription) concert programming, or recorded-CD programming?
Pliable said…
I was thinking of 'risk averse' in terms of recording policy, because the profit share model is only being applied to recordings at the moment.
But it is an interesting point you raise.
Recordings are increasingly being made live on the back of concert performances (e.g. LSO Live and the new Philadelphia deal). So recording and concert programmes are increasingly becoming linked.
The Klein and Martinu recordings I write about are being made live, so they must be in the Philadelphia programmes. It is interesting to speculate as to whether they are being recorded because they are programmed, or they are programmed because they are being recorded.
Does anyone know if the Klein Partita for Strings is currently in the orchestra's repertoire?
Anonymous said…
The Bartók, Martinů, and Klein are supposed to be in the can already, recorded in the spring. It is my recollection (from reading the newspapers) that the Bartók and one of the others were in the regular subscription program announced way back when (spring 2004?) and likely planned much earlier; whereas the remaining one was added in anticipation of the "live" recording.

In the USA it seems to have been the normal practice to make recordings only after subscription performances, so I doubt that we would see an increasing link between recordings and concerts. But from the viewpoint of the Philadelphians, I'd think that the alternative to "risk-averse" CDs is no CDs at all.
Pliable said…
Thanks for the valuable input. I guess your last sentence fairly sums up the reality of classical recording today. I wonder whether the really great recordings such as Solti's Vienna Ring, and Hyperion's first Hildegard disc would been made in a 'risk averse' environment?
Garth Trinkl said…
pliable, you may have noticed this already, but I see that Christoph Eschenbach, from May 5-10, 2005, gave the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere [and first performance of a work by Klein] of Gideon Klein's Partita for Strings (String Trio, arranged by Vojtech Saudek in 1990. Saudek [1951-2004] also wrote a Piano Concerto in Memory of Gideon Klein). It was part of an ambitious program opening with the Martinu Memorial to Lidice, including the Klein arrangement and Shostakovich Violin Concerto #1 (with V. Repin)
and closing with Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Here is the link to the program and notes:

Here is Vojtech Saudek's link:

I would guess that James Conlon might have performed this work, in Europe, and possibly even recorded it; though I could be wrong.
Garth Trinkl said…
I see that, next Wednesday, Bayern Radio 4 is broadcasting a recording of the Gideon Klein Partita, under Gerd Albrecht with the Czech Philharmonic, as part of that conductor's 70th birthday celebration. I don't see a James Conlon recording of the work.

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