ArtistLed has joined forces with Classical Archives, the world’s most comprehensive classical music site, to make the entire ArtistLed catalog digitally available for the first time since the label’s inception in 1997.
The ArtistLed catalog will be available for one month exclusively on Classical Archives, before becoming available from a variety of online digital music retailers, including iTunes and Amazon.
To celebrate the collaborative digital release of ArtistLed’s innovative recordings, an extensive and exclusive interview by Classical Archives Artistic Director, Dr. Nolan Gasser with David Finckel and Wu Han (see below), and a “One Click Concert” will be featured on the site. The “One Click Concert” is a collection of movements from the ArtistLed catalog, selected by David Finckel and Wu Han for free streaming in its entirety.
Excerpt of Dr. Nolan Glasser’s Interview for Classical Archives:
Nolan Gasser: Normally in interviews with top–tier artists such as yourselves, I’d want to dive straight in to discuss a new album or a new project on a particular repertory – and we’ll certainly get there; but you two are so fascinating by virtue of your multi–dimensional career activities: as performers, educators, arts presenters, administrators, and record executives. It’s really a new paradigm for the successful classical musician, it seems, and I’m wondering if this is the kind of careers – not to mention schedules – you envisioned when you two first launched [the record label] ArtistLed in 1997?
Wu Han: No! How’s that for you [laughs]? Well, at least for I can say for myself, that when we launched ArtistLed, I was not thinking at all about my career, my schedule, or about what it might bring me. At the time, I was only thinking: “What would be the most ideal conditions to create the best CDs we can, and to play the works we love the most, without any restrictions – commercial or business–wise?” And we were very lucky to have had the Internet around at the time; without it, none of this would have been possible. And once it started, we just followed our intuition and our artistic instincts. But did we think about schedules back then? I think not at all. Questions like “Are we going to make money?” or “Are we going to have a career with this?” These were never on the list of considerations.
David Finckel: Looking at it in a microcosmic way, I think there is no one–day–to–the–next that turns out exactly like you think it will. In fact, if everything fell into place exactly where I expected it to, I think I’d feel there was something wrong. And it’s especially that way in the arts: you have to swim like a fish – there are always currents, there’s light above and darkness below, … and there are sharks!
NG: In this business, literally!
DF: Right, and if you’re not willing to swim, you’re a dead fish.
NG: You’ve got to keep yourself moving, and to always be willing to try new things.
WH: And don’t let anybody stop you – that’s also a very good principle.
NG: Now, at this time , David already had a very strong and successful relationship – via the Emerson Quartet – with Deutsche Grammophon; and yet, when you both decided to focus on some distinct repertory, especially for cello and piano, you chose not go with DG, but to form your own label, one, as the name suggests, “led by artists” – and, as you’ve said, Wu Han, to center it on the Internet, rather than stores. But at this time, digital music sales didn’t yet exist, and brick–and–mortar stores were still around – faltering perhaps, but still the main game in town. So, what led you to not take that more typical road and talk with DG, and instead to create ArtistLed?
WH: Well, I actually do remember that our manager brought in a few offers from major labels, though not from DG. Traditionally, we’ve never mixed our duo career with that of the Emerson Quartet, which would make things too confusing – even now, you wouldn’t believe how many times we’re playing a duo concert and people look at David and say, “You look very familiar; I’ve seen you before.” [laughs]; so, from the very beginning, we’ve never mixed the two careers.
But the most important thing that happened when we got those initial offers is that we immediately realized that we would not have the freedom we were looking for – in that the labels were looking for cello–piano repertory to fill out their catalogue, as opposed to looking for artists who want to make a statement, which is the way we like to do it.
But, we were very lucky; we figured there had to be a way for us to connect directly to our audience – and it was there with the Internet! This allowed us to do what we wanted without restrictions. We know how to make great recordings, and we didn’t want anyone forcing us to follow their directions.
NG: You didn’t want to be forced to fulfill the catalogue needs of a label; rather, you wanted to be able to record the repertoire that you wanted to, and to do it your way.
WH: Exactly. Now, a lot of musicians are very happy to work with the labels like this, and that’s perfectly okay – it’s just not the way we wanted to do it. By this time, we already knew quite a bit about making a recording; we were recording digitally, using all the cutting–edge technology… I can remember that the Emerson Quartet was still using the older [analog] technology at the time, and ArtistLed was already way ahead of that.
NG: Well, you certainly were prescient in all this, as the nature of the music business – both on the production and the distribution side – has increasingly moved in this digital / Internet direction, and getting more so all the time. It must be gratifying to know how ahead of game you were.
DF: I don’t know… sure, it’s nice to see people imitating you, but I can’t say that I wouldn’t actually be happier if there were a thriving commercial classical recording industry, with companies recording musicians left and right, and selling CD in stores – I would be happier if that were happening.
NG: Yes, it does seem that many of the classical record labels are still not embracing the prospects and dynamics that exist in the Digital / Internet age, often fighting the very systems that are poised to help them.
WH: Yes, and the beauty of ArtistLed is that we know this music, and we believe in the power of it. Through ArtistLed we can connect directly to the die–hard classical music audience, who has incredible faith in this art form – and this faith is not necessarily transferred into the traditional recording industry. And to place your recording life in the hands of a company that doesn’t necessarily believe in the great power of the music is, to my mind, not a good idea.
NG: It’s perhaps also in the nature of chamber music – which is not necessarily the musical “big guns” that the labels think of when they’re trying to sell records.
WH: Yes, but at the same time, I think the labels often ignore the fact that classical music has a much longer shelf life than other kinds of music – we’re still buying recording from [violinist Jascha] Haifetz! It’s not a business model that’s limited to weekly charts or even yearly sales: the sales can go on and on because the recordings are often incredible. For example, I know that the sales of ArtistLed recordings increase a few years after they’re released, as their reputations pick up. It’s all a community of sorts, traveling by word of mouth; and I don’t think this is a consideration of the commercial market. But it’s different with ArtistLed: I know what repertoire I can best record, and so having the market dictate what I do is a backwards–way of thinking, in my opinion.
NG: Now, a vast majority of ArtistLed releases feature the two of you; but a couple of releases – for example the one entitled Derek Han Plays Mozart – feature others; are you, as time goes on, considering expanding the roster of ArtistLed artists?
DF: That’s actually a little misleading: the recording with [pianist] Derek Han is in fact not an ArtistLed release – even though it’s on our website; and neither is the recording of the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the Taipei Symphony. They were both recorded by our engineer, Da–Hong Seetoo, and each went through the same editing process that is a trademark of ArtistLed. And so, they’re hybrids of sorts, but not truly ArtistLed releases.
WH: And also the artists we select to be involved in these few outside projects are ones that share our ArtistLed philosophy; Derek and I recorded the Mozart concertos [for two and three pianos and orchestra] because we’ve known each for a long time, and we’ve always wanted to record these works. And then we received an invitation from the Royal Philharmonic to record with us, and so it became one of those projects – how could we turn it down? A similar thing happened when we performed the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio [Op.50] with Da–Hong Seetoo on violin: the concert we did was unbelievable, and we were so happy with the results; and so we said, “Let’s get it on tape.” It’s our company and we have the artistic freedom to do that.
DF: When we first started ArtistLed, somebody asked me, “So, how many people are you going to record?” I said, “We’re just going to record our repertoire.” And this person responded: “Well, then people are just going to call it a vanity label.” I thought for a minute, and said: “So, when a painter paints, is he creating a vanity painting?” Just because you want to do something that’s your own doesn’t mean it’s a vanity exercise.
The label needs to serve our artistic impulses, and if that happens to be for chamber works that include other people, then that’s fine. But if we were to create a new policy that says: “Starting now, ArtistLed is going to be open to the entire chamber music repertoire,” we’d have a line around the block. There are so many musicians who are dying to make a recording – of any kind, with anyone – but who don’t have the opportunity, because the industry is not really there. So, while we certainly don’t record others as a policy, if we know it’s the right thing, then of course it will happen.
NG: Well, I’m sure that some interesting opportunities will arise in the future, especially as the label becomes more and more well known.
So, let’s move on a bit to some of the other hats that you wear. You two have rather become authorities on the ups–and–downs of chamber music performance in America, especially through your capacity as Artistic Directors of both the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center [CMS] and Music@Menlo [in Menlo Park, California] – as well as through your involvement at various festivals such as Aspen and Savannah.
Now, Wu Han, you wrote in a recent blog of the sense of pessimism and concern that reigned at a recent APAP [Association of Performing Arts Presenters] conference, and of your frustration with a seeming willingness on the part of some of the presenters to compromise quality for the sake of “out–of–the box” strategies to sell tickets. Can you elaborate on this sense, and maybe give us a sense of what strategies you two are finding most successful to keep the performance well attended?
WH: I think the best strategy is to be really honest about what you are trying to do – and to bring your audience as close as you can to the music itself, which is the core of the magic. For instance, some presenters would want to tell people, “If you come to the concert, you can relax, you can text–message, you can have a night–out with your girlfriend, you can have a glass of wine and a lovely dinner… But none of these things is why anyone wants to go to a concert – to be touched and moved, and to walk away feeling inspired. Those other things may make it nice and convenient, but it’s not really the true reason we all devote our lives to this art form.
I hear this kind of talk all the time, but it’s not truly bringing people to the music itself in the deepest way; and I much prefer that my audience understand this from the start. A case in point is with Music@Menlo: I can remember in our first year , the marketing department asked us “Can we say in the announcement: ‘Come relax and enjoy an evening of beautiful music?'” And we said, “No, don’t relax! If they want to relax, they should go to see a movie, or go fishing.” No, coming to a concert is great exercise – a great challenge; you’ll know more about the music and you’ll get more out of it. I’ve never heard any of my friends that are really devoted to music say that they had “a relaxing experience”.
NG: No, it’s quite the contrary: when it’s a success, a concert is the most intense and stimulating experience, where people come out inspired to go paint the house or something…
WH: Exactly! That’s the kind of the marketing we need. And how can we bring people to that point, to that true point of inspiration? I would love to find that magic bullet. If this is our goal, what do we need to do? I don’t think it’s to encourage people to text–message, or join a social network. I understand that this is a good way to build a community, but in the end, that’s not what we want to do. I think that was my point when I was listening to some of these conversations: as fascinating and as interesting as they are, the true fascination has to be the music!
NG: And I assume that you made that point in your capacity as a panelist at the conference?
DF: Well, I wasn’t there to witness it, but I assume she did [laughs]. You know, we were educated in music – and to a certain extent in life – by a generation of musicians who felt so deeply about the music they played… Do you remember in the movie Titanic, when the boat went down? Well, the orchestra just sat up straight, continued playing, and went down with the ship – and the musicians who educated us felt about music like that! Their generation was buttressed, preserved, and augmented by presenters, promoters, record executives, and managers, who felt absolutely as deeply about music as they did. And we’re kind of like that too: we tend not to compromise because we don’t see the point of it.
But I think that what the music industry – and also the press – is responding to is the huge social pressure that’s out there today. Now, I’m not embarrassed to say that I have an iPhone, but in truth I have a problem with the whole “I” thing: “It’s all about me, it’s about what I want, it’s my iPod, my iPhone; my Facebook, it’s all about me, me, me…” It’s a whole self–focus thing that’s a big part of our culture right now, which is really antithetical to the way I look at the world. I don’t look at myself as being very interesting; I look at everything else as being more interesting than me. So, if I change the iPhone to a “youPhone” I’d feel much more comfortable with the whole concept.
And unfortunately, things like classical music have been funneled into this “tube of satisfaction” that everybody is supposed to have connected to them all the time. But whatever comes through that tube is only what you feel like at a given moment – and I just don’t find that to be very interesting. I’d rather go to a concert and hear people play music that’s interesting to them; I’d rather go to a museum and see an exhibition by a curator that’s found something fascinating that I don’t know anything about – that’s where my choices would be. And if we don’t treat audiences and potential listeners with respect for their ability to be curious – to be fascinated by the idea of learning something new, something that we’re interested in – then it’s all lost. Because then you’re just trying to second–guess what somebody might like, and the competition is ridiculously ferocious.
NG: I think you’re absolutely right that there was an aesthetic that was more prevalent in times past: where the majority of arts presenters – the impresarios – were as passionate as the performers. I recently gave a pre–concert lecture for the Friends of Chamber Music in Kansas City – I’m sure that you know their director, Cynthia Siebert; as passionate as they come, and a great performer. She too was lamenting how her own competition in Kansas City may have more money to entice big–name performers, but there’s not the passion – not the interest in creating this kind of inspiring concert experience for the audience.
WH: Yes, and I think, that sometimes our industry misses the mark – it underestimates the audience’s intelligence, or perhaps we underestimate our own belief in ourselves to say, “Let’s become a leader,” and talk about why we’re doing what we’re doing. And so, when I see presenters getting desperate and willing to try anything, I’d much prefer to spend my energy on things that really matter to me.
DF: We’re very fortunate because we have a couple of institutions that support us: at Music@Menlo, for example, if we feel like sticking our necks out to say, “No, we can’t dumb this down”, or “We have to tell the truth: this might be a depressing concert”, they have the stomach to back us up; its not always easy for marketing, you know? And God bless them; for we’re in these places where I can say, “No, this concert is not going to sell a whole lot of tickets, but it’s important that we do it,” and they’ll stand behind us.
The number of people who come to a concert, or the number of people who buy a record, doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s great art or not – and all great art is not for everybody. There is great art where it’s fine if you don’t like it; not everybody has to like everything. And not every concert has to be a sell–out to be an important artistic event. It can be just as meaningful for a few people to come hear the five Elliot Carter String Quartets as for thousands of people to come hear the Schubert ‘Trout’ Quintet for the four hundredth time. But, that’s not to take anything away from either of those groups.
WH: So, you can see that my note on our blog is actually a very condensed version of our thinking; there’s so much to talk about.
For the complete interview, please visit Classical Archives.