Classical Music Consortium Seeks To Give Power To Small Labels

Consoritum founded by heads of JRB and ZC labels.

While much attention of late in the classical recording world has focused on major labels dropping performers and product, there are dozens of small independent labels actively producing new albums. Two men, Jeffrey Reid Baker and Joe Bickhardt, want to harness that activity.

Baker and Bickhardt, who respectively own the labels JRB and ZC Music, decided that by pooling their resources, money and expertise they could sell more together than alone.

They formed the Classical Music Consortium and have brought together other small labels to create a joint catalogue. Their offerings, at this point, include A Schubert Fantasy with pianist Walter Hautzig; a set of Schumann, Poulenc and Mozart pieces featuring oboist Peter Genovese and pianist Peter Serkin; and a recording by the Philadelphia Chamber Ensemble.

"For 100 days old, we're doing great," said Baker. "It was just an idea I fished out and e-mailed and the response was amazing. There are many talented people out there who are small and can't do it by themselves, but together we can make some noise."

Baker and Bickhardt view the Consortium not as a distributor, but a conduit, and offer non-exclusive deals with other small labels to get their music into listeners' hands. Other consortium members include the Americus, New Millenium and Stormworks labels.

"We had a guy yesterday [from] Boston Records who went out of business and had product to get rid of and we provided him with a conduit to get rid of it," Baker said. "We're not just doing distribution. We're are helping independent labels solve problems."

Those problems come from many sides. Not having a major label's capital and a large impressive catalogue keep independents from getting placement in stores and having their records reviewed.

"The problem is for a company like mine to break into a traditional stream distributor, I have to eat a tremendous amount of money in advertisement, probably in the area of $50-60,000 a year, I have no chance of returning that in an American market," said Bickhardt. "The bottom line is that our record companies didn't have the money to advertise to get it out. And instead of paying $900 a month for a Gramaphone ad, they're paying $40 or $50. By pooling our resources they're getting the same ad. We're anti-establishment. We're not interested in the all-mighty dollar."

In addition to raising money to produce and promote new albums, there is also the matter of sheer numbers — or lack of them — confronting small labels.

"The main interest of the record clubs, like Columbia House and BMG, is how much stuff have you got," said Baker. "Now when you're one company and only have six titles — Joe has six and I have 11 — it's a problem. But when you walk in and say we've got 250 titles and we've got another 200 coming in, or that there's 15-20 new titles every month, now they're interested."

"We're also able to get reviews. A small independent record company sends out a recording and the reviewers don't know us from Adam," said Bickhardt. "But when you're a consortium they can see this big catalog. All of sudden there's an interest to review. Jeff has a Rachmaninoff recording [Rachmaninoff World Premieres] that's never been done anywhere in the world like it and people are flipping out for it."

Recently, the duo went to Europe in the hopes of securing distribution for their group and came back with a deal from UK distributor Red Hedgehog.

"There are times we have to use a distributor — as we've signed with Red Hedgehog in the UK — but the beauty of the deal there is that the records are ordered and go to the stores and don't come back," Bickhardt said. "Red Hedgehog is salivating because we've got stuff that no one's got and they're going 'Where the hell's this stuff been?'"

Baker told a horror story about how one of his Christmas recordings was pulled by his distributor in the beginning of December.

"The other problem with the stores is that they put it in the bin and if it doesn't sell in three months they send it back," Baker said. "But the fact is sometimes a record takes awhile to sell. First they have to find it. My Rachmaninoff record was in the jazz bin at one store. They told me that it had been stamped wrong by the company and it had to stay there because that's the way it was marked."

Their plan is to expand the Consortium to other labels, put together events such as composer forums and concerts, and use direct-mail and Internet ordering. They are also considering starting their own joint label.

"I've sold 14 copies of my Souls on Fire recording in 11 months and haven't been paid," said Bickhardt. Souls on Fire is a recording of a work by Charles Osborne which features actor Leonard Nimoy as narrator and soloists from the Metropolitan and New York City Opera companies. "I said goodbye to my distributor. I'm going to sell 1,000 at the concert directly for ten bucks. The concert is with Nimoy in Detroit on April 1 and then in Boston on November 7."

They are also looking into alternative lines of distribution such as working with schools around the country using their catalogue as a fund-raising idea. They've already drawn interest from school systems in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and other cities.

"The kids go out and instead of selling poinsettias to raise money for the band to take the school trip, they sell CDs" Bickhardt said. "There are 51,000 schools in the country and that means with 100 kids in the band that's 5,100,000 salesmen. That's not bad."