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Klaus Heymann: On 25 Years Of Naxos — And Changing The Classical Music Business

Naxos founder Klaus Heymann.
Lam King Yin
Courtesy of Naxos
Naxos founder Klaus Heymann.

Twenty-five years ago, no one — and I mean no one — would have predicted that a little budget label out of Hong Kong would totally upend the classical music industry. But after doing everything pretty much counter to received wisdom, the Naxos catalog includes more than 7,000 recordings, and they've sold more than 115 million CDs worldwide. A very popular streaming service, the Naxos Music Library, contains nearly a million tracks.

Naxos founder Klaus Heymann joined us to play Guest DJ. He selected an array of recordings that tell the story of his label's journey. They include two featuring his wife, violinist Takako Nishizaki, who has made more than 100 albums in all for their label. Other notable highlights from their discography include a Marin Alsop-led performance of Howard Hanson's music to a barn-burning traversal of Liszt's Second Piano Concerto with Eldar Nelbolsin.

On being the first budget CD label:

"In a way, we were lucky, because out of this bin in the corner of the record shop eventually grew the separate Naxos 'white walls.'"

On dividing work with his wife, the violinist Takako Nishizaki, who has made more than 100 albums for Naxos:

"For her, I really started the record business — because I had to keep her busy, which is what I promised her dad when I had asked permission to marry her. She is the artist advisor; I'm the repertoire advisor in the company. She decides who gets recorded; I decide what gets recorded."

His perspective on the Chinese market:

"[When Naxos was founded], China was still closed to Western music. We couldn't sell any of our music in China. It's still difficult, because it's mainly still controlled by piracy. I think only 1% of the market is legitimate; the other 99% [is] pirated."

On the market in the United States:

"It's our biggest market by far. Not only because physical sales are very strong still here, but because it's so far ahead of the rest of the world in digital activity."

On working with conductor Marin Alsop:

"What I love about Marin is that she's a wonderful, natural musician ... She gets almost everything just right; she makes real music. And she's also a very reasonable person ... I don't have to call her 'maestra' or anything."

On the future of streaming:

"I think in the long run, that will be the way people consume music — classical music and other music. And if I look at my crystal ball, I would say that in five years, 50% of our business will be in all kinds of streaming."

On pianist Eldar Nebolsin:

"He plays Liszt musically; it's not just a showcase ... [he] finds the music in Liszt."

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Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.