Book: The Story of Naxos by Nicolas Soames

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 11:40am

The Story of Naxos

by Nicolas Soames


Ken Smith

Towards the end of Nicolas Soames' account of the independent record company that revolutionised classical music, Naxos founder Klaus Heymann explains the secrets of his success: "(1) I didn't read music, (2) I didn't play an instrument, (3) I hadn't worked for a record label."

He might have added, "(4) I was based in Hong Kong". If the German-born Heymann had stayed in Frankfurt, the industry would have likely seen him as a threat. Granted, Naxos' original business model - selling no-name artists in supermarkets at discount prices - was hardly imposing, and even a bit laughable back when the CD was still being positioned as a luxury item. Europe and America had carved their respective turf, the former supplying artistic standards, the latter the general business and marketing structure. Hong Kong, by contrast, was a city of traders and manufacturers where high culture was rarely given much thought.

It was also the city where Heymann relocated during the Vietnam war to open an Asian bureau for a US military tabloid. Once established, he began dealing in Japanese cameras and hi-fi equipment and, soon enough, LP recordings. By 1973, he was producing concerts; as a board member of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, he helped turn that institution into a fully professional organisation.

Soames spins Naxos' founding 25 years ago not as a single-minded pursuit but rather a culmination of Heymann's business and personal experience. Hong Kong itself proved to be the perfect catalyst: not only did the relative lack of live performances boost Heymann's interest in recordings but the free-wheeling business climate favoured anyone with vision. Hong Kong may have been far away from the action, but that distance shaped Heymann's perception of the industry.

In some ways, Naxos' phenomenal success was less a credit to pure vision than to avoiding the un-businesslike mistakes that have since brought the industry to its knees. Instead of buckling to artists' (and agents') demands, Heymann paid flat fees and retained all rights. While other labels shunned digital technology as a weapon of piracy, Heymann unveiled his Naxos Music Library, a web platform now carrying nearly 400 labels encompassing classical and world music, jazz, blues and spoken-word recordings.

Having always been open to new repertoire, Heymann had generally found support among living composers such as John Corigliano and Peter Maxwell Davies (from whom Naxos commissioned a string quartet cycle). More recent has been the support of artists at the level of Leonard Slatkin or Marin Alsop, who essentially have nowhere else to turn. The Hong Kong Philharmonic has just released its first Naxos recording in 10 years in collaboration with Tan Dun, formerly a Sony artist.

Soames' portrait could be called "The Story of Heymann", although it also features an extensive supporting cast - people such as longtime Naxos annotator Keith Anderson, producer Tim Handley or, most importantly, violinist Takako Nishizaki, Heymann's wife as well as the label's most-recorded artist and chief listener.

Nuggets of information abound, but as a considered history this book is much in need of additional editing. Nor, as the founder of Naxos AudioBooks, is Soames a disinterested observer. Heymann, even in semi-retirement, remains hands-on, and Soames' approach, shifting from third-person to Heymann verbatim, is not so much an independent profile as an autobiography with a moderator.

Still, the author's access to his subject often pays off. One anecdote relates their meeting at an industry dinner. The two started discussing their current projects, and the deal for Naxos AudioBooks was all but closed by 11pm that night.