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Reorganization, Reduction in Store for BMG Classics

Music * Label will cease to exist as an independent; few remaining artists will be folded into RCA, sources say.

April 26, 2000|PHILIP KENNICOTT | WASHINGTON POST

BMG Classics, once a powerhouse of the classical music recording industry, is being gutted in a major reorganization of the recording labels owned by the German entertainment giant Bertelsmann.

In its heyday a decade ago, BMG Classics--better known in America under its imprints RCA Victor Red Seal and RCA Victor--released several hundred recordings a year, featuring major box-office artists like flutist James Galway and pianist Evgeny Kissin.

It also had one of the greatest troves of recorded sound ever assembled, including the recordings of Toscanini, Rubinstein, Heifitz and Van Cliburn. In recent years, it released fewer and fewer recordings and relied more heavily on its archives.

With the reorganization, the company will be a shadow of its former self, and even longtime artists, including Galway and percussionist Evelyn Glennie, will apparently lose their contracts, according to those close to the company.

The downsizing of BMG Classics is only one indication that the market for classical music has changed radically over the last two decades.

A glut of classical recordings in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to a leaner and more market-oriented approach by the major labels. Labels that remain in the classical music business are increasingly focused on their most profitable projects and no longer are willing to subsidize a large stable of artists, as BMG once did.

Industry observers say that as many as 120 employees, including staff at RCA and the new age/jazz label Windham Hill, could lose their jobs in the reorganization. BMG Classics will cease to exist as an independent label within BMG corporation, and its artists and corporate staff will be folded into the American-run RCA label, which focuses on popular music.

Sources within BMG say that recording projects have already been canceled, including one by Glennie, but the ultimate fate of the label's core artists--including the King's Singers, conductors Lorin Maazel and Danielle Gatti, cellist Steven Isserlis, Galway and Glennie--is still unknown.

"We simply don't know yet," says David Kuehn, vice president of marketing for classical music at RCA Red Seal. Kuehn wouldn't confirm details of the reorganization, but sources say he has been struggling to preserve major projects, including the label's critically successful relationship with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

Label employees and music industry observers say they fear that decisions about projects will be increasingly oriented to the bottom line.

A successful classical music recording may sell as few as 12,000 copies. (By comparison, the recent album by teen heartthrobs 'N Sync sold 1.1 million in a single day.)

"This is not an industry for people looking to make lots of money," said an agent associated with one of the BMG artists. "If you're not in it for artistic reasons, you shouldn't be in it at all."

The demise of BMG Classics marks what may be the final chapter in the long and impressive history of the RCA company. In various corporate guises, RCA Red Seal recorded many of the century's most popular and most widely known musicians, from Enrico Caruso to Leontyne Price. After a slow period in the 1970s, the label was reinvigorated in 1986 when it was purchased by BMG. That, plus the boom in new recording sparked by the arrival of the compact disc format, made BMG Classics one of the most prolific labels in the classical music industry.

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