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Berlin Philharmonic launches label with Schumann's symphonies

Taking a cue from other renowned orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic has recently launched its own label. The move offers greater autonomy to the orchestra over handling its recordings in an industry very much in flux.

The Berlin Philharmonic - certainly no stranger to the recording process - is taking matters into its own hands with the launch of its in-house label, called the Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. On May 23, the orchestra self-issued Robert Schumann's complete symphonies in perforamnces led by the orchestra's principal conductor, Sir Simon Rattle.

That could be seen as a bold move against the backdrop of a long troubled music industry continuing its transition process. Major labels still see slumping sales compared with heights achieved around the year 2000.

Yet where there are valleys, there are also peaks. For the first time in 15 years, the German music market experienced an increase in revenues in 2013, thanks largely to an increase in digital and streaming sales.

Conductor Simon Rattle admits in a promotional video that the revered Berlin orchestra may not be starting things off with a chart-topper.

"The Schumann Symphonies have never been considered one of the sure-fire big sellers of all music. But for us at the Berlin Philharmonic, this music is closer to our hearts than almost any other," Rattle said. "So we think it is wonderful to launch our new label with Schumann. We believe that these recordings are something special, and that we have a very distinct point of view on these wonderful pieces. … Hopefully, this is really the start of a new wave of orchestra-produced recordings."

Sir Simon Rattle

Principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle

Riding the curve

Other orchestras have been at it for years: the London Symphony Orchestra's label LSO Live launched in 2000. Two years ago, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra also unveiled its recording label, Wiener Symphoniker.

Meanwhile, the Berlin Philharmonic hasn't been ignoring industry trends. It rode the curve six years ago by creating what it calls the Digital Concert Hall, a video platform that allows users to streams concerts on any device. The orchestra also went straight to the big screen with a live in cinemas series, allowing fans to watch its concerts in select theaters across Europe.

In a sense, starting a record label was a natural evolutionary step. According to Olaf Maninger, the orchestra's principal cellist and a member of its media board, the record label has been ten years in the making.

"After the Digital Concert Hall, I think (the label) is the only possibility for us to take care of our classical music repertoire and our artistic opinion," said Maninger. "The founding of Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings represents a new chapter in our media history. We now have the ability to control the selection of our repertoire, the product features and the marketing."

Composer Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann - a composer near and dear to the orchestra

The whole package

The idea for the Schumann Symphonies was to move away from the standard model of packaging and produce a complete multi-media product, priced at 49.90 euros ($68). The linen-bound hardcover edition contains the Schumann cycle in the traditional audio format on two CDs, as well as on Blu-ray and as an HD video, with a vinyl edition to follow. To boot, an accompanying code grants seven days of free access to the Digital Concert Hall. The bonus material comes with behind-the-scenes videos and a colorful booklet with the history of the Berlin Philharmonic's Schumann tradition.

"We don't think through our label we can get back to the golden time of LP and CD sales," said Tobias Möller, Head of Marketing and Communications. "However, doing recordings has always been part of the Berlin Philharmonic."

The orchestra has long been found on the world's most prestigious classical labels. Last year, Deutsche Grammophon released the Berlin Philharmonic boxed set "Centenary Edition: 100 Years of Great Recordings," from 1913 - 2013. Sony has been a collaborator since 1981, when then-principal conductor Herbert von Karajan advocated moving to compact discs alongside Sony President Akio Morita.

The next step is to see how classical music fans will respond to the Schumann release in the coming weeks. "We hope it will be a success, but at the same time we keep a realistic view of the recording business," said Möller.

Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt will be featured on a future release

Embracing independence

The future of the recording industry, and how it secures its revenues, is a big question for musicians and labels alike.

"The major labels seem to be changing form, shape and even names on a weekly basis," commented Rattle in the Berlin Philharmonic video. "We don't know what recording will be. But I think any of us who visited New York year after year and saw that Tower Records was no longer there must have thought: O.K., so the model is changing. And what is it going to be? Surely it is going to be, as it is in other parts of music, people making their own stuff and simply putting it out there."

The Schumann Symphonies has set a standard by releasing recordings that are near and dear to the orchestra, and future releases are on the horizon. These include Bach's "St. John Passion," conducted by Simon Rattle in a staging by Peter Sellars, and a complete cycle of Franz Schubert's symphonies with conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Despite the unknowns associated with the new venture, Thomas Möller is confident that the label will prove a reliable source of revenue. The Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings is set to control its content, distribution and sales. Thanks to the global prestige of the orchestra's brand, which has been 132 years in the making, the label hardly needs a big marketing budget to establish its name.

"Through our online activities, we've got direct contact to a huge community of music lovers and dedicated friends of the Berlin Philharmonic," explained Möller. "So, there's hardly a need for us to pay distributors and retailers. On the economic side, this is one of the most interesting aspects of having our own label."

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