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[ENG.] Hyperion sold to Universal: a kind of ignominy
This could be seen as a trivial and inevitable market consolidation after a technological breakthrough. But...
This article is a translation from French made with (my) best will! If you find any mistakes or incongruities in this text they will be gratefully received. In return, please do not be too severe with my efforts.
This could be seen from an industrial point of view, as a banal and inevitable market consolidation, after a technological break. But the sale of Hyperion to Universal Music, beyond the fate of a catalog that will benefit from a wider distribution and will be able to be heard by more ears by integrating the streaming platforms, is a real devastation, a kind of ignominy for the very idea that one had of the independent classical record and its role.
I take the risk of making astrological predictions, but here's what we'll probably soon hear from the buyer:
"The catalog and its development of this wonderful label which will continue its demanding policy will be entrusted to the good care of PIAS / harmonia mundi".
And indeed, PIAS is the parent company of harmonia mundi since its takeover, PIAS in which... Universal has recently invested 49%, supposedly out of pure greatness of soul, without compensation nor seat on the Board of Directors, as I recently commented in COUACS.INFO :
The truth is that there is not only nothing in common between the classic of a Major record company in the field of classical music and that of an independent like Hyperion. Which is the very reason why in 1980 Ted Perry created his label; but also that there is not an ounce of culture compatible between the general policy of a pop label, PIAS (house of Sofiane Pamart among other marvels ! ) which bought the other jewel of the independent classical record, harmonia mundi, before being recently penetrated by Universal up to 49%.
It's all a sham in this story, nothing fits.
And I don't believe that harmonia mundi has the artistic scope and the right people to take care of a label like Hyperion, which had such a different know-how and philosophy.
On Bruce Duffie's website, you can find a long interview with Ted Perry, the founder of Hyperion, succeeded by his son Simon, who has just sold the company to Universal.
I don't know how Ted Perry behaved with his family or friends, but Duffie’s article gives a good idea of his position in the business, of the temperament of this immensely respectful and respectable man, who showed a warm decency, an inimitable phlegm: goodness itself. His very British fair play, supported by an admirable mustache, did not exclude firmness, which imposed respect and honesty. The darling of Gramophone magazine, Ted Perry was the honor of his profession, and the embodiment of the great project of the independent classical record industry from the 1980s to 2010, which is being laid to rest on the occasion of this sad sale to Universal.
He had built and allowed to structure around his label a loving family of distributors that he gathered every year at Midem. Some of them were subsidiaries of harmonia mundi with whom he carefully maintained a distance, others not,
Klaus Heymann, who later created and developed Naxos, undertook to 'borrow' many artistic ideas from him, including these meetings of distributors, without ever realizing them at the same level of quality, and with the same consistency, elegance and humanity. At Ted Perry's funeral, on the banks of the Thames, I remember Leslie Howard playing Liszt on an upright piano in the pub, crying his eyes out. We had indeed drunk a lot, and cried.
Ted Perry had created Hyperion from scratch. He had been a clerk in some of the big London record shops in his youth and then worked for small record companies.
He told me the following story one evening: Gérard Souzay and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau were making their London recital debuts a few weeks apart, and he saw them come into the shop where he was the classical salesman, both on the eve of their concerts. One asking to buy '...the disc of Lieder by that much talked-about young German baritone', the other similarly asking, a few weeks later, to buy '...the disc of Lieder by that much talked-about young French baritone'...
When he created Hyperion, to keep the pot boiling, Ted Perry was a taxi driver, making deliveries for his label to the record shops in the British capital.
The birth of Hyperion coincided in the late 1970s with that of many other independent classical labels, of which Chandos and Bis are the most notable.
The advent of digital recording and its technical conveniences; the prospect of the arrival of the CD medium offered these entrepreneurs an extraordinary opportunity by allowing the classical record to reinvent itself, away from the "big brands" and their violent marketing, often to the detriment of the artists.
The beauty of this period lies in the intelligence and sensitivity of such personalities like Ted Perry, Brian Couzens (the founder of Chandos in England, the two looked at each other in awe) or Robert von Bahr (the founder of BIS, in Sweden). These people will devote the following years their best efforts to opening up the repertoire of the record companies in a spectacular way.
They would also promote the repertoire of their country's music to a level that no French label had ever done, and they would practice a repertoire policy that was within their means, thus bringing out talent that would not have had a chance elsewhere.
At the beginning of the 90s I dreamed of being the marketer of Hypérion in France. Because of his personality, Ted Perry was intimidating. The label was then marketed in France by harmonia mundi, a competitor for whom I had an aggressive passion, because he was the darling of Fnac, then the main chain for classical music in France. Getting Hyperion away from harmonia mundi was going to be difficult. But my enthusiasm finally convinced Ted Perry and his export manager, Mike Spring, who shared his boss's values, and was subsequently fired by Simon Perry. Mike now runs the wonderful APR piano label. I tried to give Hyperion a label profile of its own, because it was treated by hm as are treated labels distributed by people who produce records by themselves: a business complement, nothing more.
It is not even sure that Hyperion made so much more money with me, but the label existed, breathed in France, by itself, and it received, and its artists, much more attention. From that point of view I think I fulfilled my contract with Ted, a very special contract since it was... a handshake, and nothing else. His confidence obliged you.
Early music, baroque music, English music, complete Lieder, the complete piano music of Franz Liszt for the first time, the complete symphonies of Haydn, some symphonic music and a house composer: Robert Simpson. Plus, an emblematic disc, which launched a long fashion, that of the music of Hildegard von Bingen, and of which Hyperion has sold like hot cakes...
Thus the brand appeared at the end of the 80s.
The 90s were brilliant. There were already piano records at Hyperion, of course, but the instrument became an important part of the catalogue, with artists such as Marc-André Hamelin and Stephen Hough and so many others. And the extraordinary series of 'Romantic Piano Concertos' which later spawned the 'Romantic Violin Concertos' series. And such a love for French music! Check out Hyperion's catalogue of French music! It is truly amazing, and done to a remarkable standard.
One of the qualities of Hypérion, I would even say one of the magic recipes of this label was the consistency in quality. The greatest classical labels can be recognised by this: you can trust them. This is of course no longer the case with the classical brands owned by Universal Music labels. The records were recorded by loyal but external artistic directors at Hyperion, which consisted of a fairly small permanent team, whereas at the same time Chandos, for example, had up to 50 employees.
When downloading, then streaming, came along after the death of Ted Perry, Hyperion had the temerity (let's at least give Simon Perry credit for that), not to follow the general trend. For a long time, Hyperion and ECM were the only two important independent labels that resisted mainstream streaming and refused to submit to it.
Then ECM gave in to Universal's distribution advances (we'll see what the future holds).
Simon Perry, on the other hand, never embraced streaming, and even developed an incomprehensible resistance to downloading, conceding it only to iTunes, which was already a mistake.
On the other hand, he created very early on an extremely well done website, allowing for high quality downloads and very complete documentation, and an impeccable database. But no streaming.
Unfortunately, that was only half the battle. You can't fight with your fingernails against such a considerable change in consumption habits and the crushing pressure of the Majors on the business, unless you invent a singular distribution path. This was not the case, and the label probably saw its CD sales decrease like all the players in the business, without writing its own distribution grammar, nor having reinvented its distribution method. Yet, endowed with a magnificent back-catalogue, Hyperion had more assets than many others.
As an illustration once again of the difficulty of keeping a company going after its creator, I wonder, having practised the rather particular character of Simon Perry, if this sale is not a kind of arm of honour.
As for the rest, we won't know what caused this sale, whether it was lassitude, a family shareholding that asked for it, or rage at not being able to relaunch the company, which was conceded to the worst player imaginable in classical music: Universal, which was the best bidder financially, no doubt about it. But who is also the most stupid and cynical.