IT is just as well the fuel blockades have ended, because a new war is about to erupt under the awnings of our filling stations.
A month from now, those neon-lit shops where you exchange a week’s wages for 10 litres of unleaded and a bunch of stale flowers are going to be swamped with classical CDs at an irresistible price. For the first time in motoring history, it is going to be cheaper to buy an opera than drive 30 miles in your car.
Universal, the Hollywood group that for the moment controls the Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and down-winding Philips labels, is rushing out 250 CDs at a price so vicious it could strim fat off a tenor. For less than £5 in Britain, DM10 in Germany, you will be offered Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Mozart concertos, Bernard Haitink conducting Beethoven, Martha Argerich in Chopin and José Carreras singing classi-pops. There will be a Schoenberg concerto for eggheads and Adeste Fidelis for tonsures, baroque compilations for ascetic vegetarians and ballet tunes for mum.
All a middle-of-the-road driver could ever desire, in a novel form of packaging that has been cleverly colour-coded according to taste: orange for eggheads, brown for beansprouts, pale blue for mum, blood-red for opera. Another 100 titles will be added each year and the enterprise, named Eloquence, will go global in January with a projected US offensive.
On the face of it, Eloquence is a marketing exercise with a worthy, missionary purpose, taking classics to the masses at a painless price. But beyond the brave words and big smiles lies an aggressive strategy.
The target of Eloquence is Naxos, the one-man, Hong Kong-based firm which 12 years ago challenged classical pricing with a run of fresh digital releases at a third of the standard cost. The artists on Naxos were mostly Slav or Balkan, and performances were variable, but the discs popped up beside garage and supermarket tills and were snapped up like confectionery.
The big labels, having failed to sneer Naxos into oblivion, flew to Hong Kong and made Klaus Heymann, the owner, an offer in the region of $200 million. Heymann laughed, and leaked the story. He was having far too much fun to sell up.
As the industry convulsed, Heymann began to attract moderately well-known artists and a lion’s share of the market – 17.8 per cent of classical sales in Britain, twice as many as the nearest so-called “major” label.
Corporate culture cannot be rushed. Research has to be commissioned, international meetings held, executives briefed and cover-designers alerted before a decision can be taken. Having finally decided to face down Naxos, Universal could be in for a shock. As its assault sales force hits the forecourts this month, it will find a stretch of empty shelves where Naxos used to be – because the cheapie label has moved on, several steps ahead of the behemoths.
A third of Heymann’s business is now conducted in specialist record stores, displacing major-label products from their traditional fortress.
Naxos has built up a list of 2,000 titles, all of them continuously available. Each month it adds another 15 releases, combining familiar classics with esoterica.
The October crop includes a captivating performance of the little-played Stravinsky sonata by the British pianist Peter Hill, and a fragrant pair of Szymanowski string quartets that I cannot recall ever having encountered on record. Where Deutsche Grammophon has hyped a fortune on its staid and largely retrograde 20/21 contemporary music series, Naxos has shamelessly pressed ahead with 21st Century Classics, starting with a vivid airport opera by budding French composer Philippe Manoury.
The race, as PG Wodehouse liked to say, is not always to the swiftest, and the fortunes of Naxos are predicated dangerously on the whim and well-being of its formerly pony-tailed proprietor. However, with demand shifting at internet speed, small and lean record labels are better equipped to respond than top-heavy set-ups full of Hugo Boss suits.
As Universal completes the sale of its music and movie assets to the French water and sewage company Vivendi (subject to monopoly controls), the new owners would do well to consider whether minority-interest classics fit within a moguldom of mass entertainment. The sensible option for both parties would be to float off or sell DG and Decca as independent operations, freeing them to fight light on the forecourts and stay up with the nimble leaders. It may be their best hope of survival.