Big Changes at Universal Music Group (Updated)

Whoa! Am I reading this correctly? Has Universal Music Group, parent company of classical/jazz labels Deutsche Grammophon, Decca Records, Decca Classics, Mercury Classics, and distributed label ECM, really "deepened [its] commitment to jazz and classical music [and the] company's unwavering commitment to building upon its rich history in both genres" by announcing, on May 19, that it has lumped those US labels together with jazz label Verve under the new Verve Label Group? Note as well that it has also appointed Danny Bennett, the Grammy and Emmy Award-winning music, film, and TV producer who manages the career of his father, Tony Bennett, as the Verve Label Group's President & CEO.

What does that mean? Potential hints abound in this statement, which appears in the second paragraph of the announcement: ". . . while also opening up new opportunities, developing global cross-over artists and delivering innovative jazz and classical experiences to fans."

Indeed, the word "crossover," albeit in an alternate spelling, appears twice in the press release. Here's the other mention, in a statement from one of Bennett's superiors, Michele Anthony, Executive Vice President of UMG: "By forming the Verve Label Group and attracting an industry veteran of Danny's stature and expertise, Universal Music is making a strong statement about the high value we place on building on our robust jazz and classical repertoire. We are committed to growing our presence in these genres even further and creating crossover successes that deliver artists to new audiences around the world. I want to thank David for the immense creative impact he had at Verve. On behalf of everyone here at UMG, we look forward to recording many more hit records with David for years to come."

Verve, now in its 60th year, first became known as the label of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Stan Getz, and Billie Holiday. Nowadays, however, as Verve's most important artists, the announcement cites Andrea Bocelli, Diana Krall, Mark Knopfler, Sarah McLachlan, and Barry Manilow. You tell me if they're on equal footing. Verve also oversees the Impulse! Records imprint, whose artists include John Coltrane and Charles Mingus: Artists as holy as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Vladimir Horowitz, in my opinion.

Where will the Verve Label Group, and all the US labels now under its rubric, go from here? Besides the fact that VLG is relocating from Santa Monica to the city of its founding, New York, Bennett "will expand the awareness and reach of UMG's historic jazz and classical catalogue, and develop and promote emerging artists on a global scale." The jazz and classical labels will maintain distinct A&R, marketing and promotions teams, while exploiting UMG's global reach to provide artists with the resources essential to developing their careers.

What this will eventually translate into, one can only speculate. Bennett, after all, has redefined the career of his father, Tony Bennett, by producing the two Duets album that paired Tony with the likes of Paul McCartney, Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, and Lady Gaga. He is also responsible for the Cheek to Cheek pairing of Bennett and Gaga. As for his work with other artists, he has represented Elvis Costello and Jamiroquai and spearheaded strategic marketing campaigns for Ozzy Osbourne, Pearl Jam, and John Legend, amongst others.

So, what can we expect? Does this mean that UMG/Verve may follow the US model of Sony, which paired Joshua Bell and Plácido Domingo with pop stars, encouraged Yo-Yo Ma down the Silk Road and into Appalachia, and slowed US distribution of key classical titles that are now mostly distributed in Europe? Will Arvo Pärt write a new Mass for the stars of Estonian crossover, or Vijay Iyer collaborate with Lady Gaga? Will President Barack Obama record an album of sacred hits once he leaves office, and duet on "Amazing Grace" and "Ave Maria" with Aretha? Or will classical and jazz continue as we know them, and the unique perspective of producer Manfred Eicher be supported by the new Verve Label Group? Only time will tell.

Postscript (May 24): But it's not necessarily as bad as it first looked. On May 24, UMG named Graham Parker, General Manager of New York-based classical radio station WQXR, as President of the US classical music labels that are now part of the Verve Label Group. While at WQXR, which has become the most-listened-to classical music radio station in the US, Parker won praise for the station's in-studio concerts with young artists, podcasts, and other forward-looking initiatives.

While overseeing DG, Decca Records, Decca Classics, Mercury Classics, and distributed label ECM in the US, Parker will report jointly to Dickon Stainer, President and CEO of Global Classics for Universal Music Group, and Danny Bennett, recently appointed President & CEO of Verve Label Group. Among Parker's assignments: accelerate UMG's classical music strategy by leading US classical music initiatives to develop and promote emerging classical recording artists and composers on a global scale, develop digital strategies to bring US Universal artists to the widest possible audiences, deepen relationships with leading ensembles and venues, and explore new business opportunities for "today’s 21st century artists."

While I wouldn’t discount the possibility of a joint emphasis on artistry, looks, and style—we are in the age of "branding," you know—there is hope that a broad range of new artists, including some who might never make the cover of Vogue or GQ—Montserrat Caballé, Luciano Pavarotti, Murray Perahia, and Radu Lupu come immediately to mind—will find the way forward.

volvic's picture

Crossover artists? The once proud & mighty DG, EMI, & London labels have been swallowed up due to dwindling sales. Aside from a handful of fine performers (Ashkenazy, Haitink, Koopman, Herreweghe, Nezet-Seguin), today's performers can't hold a candle to the Milstein's, Menuhin's, Karl Richter's and Dieskau's of the past; great musicians with a powerful aura and marketability that today's performers lack. Until new talent can be found and more money spent on marketing them no amount of "crossover artists" will save these great old labels. Still, that is my opinion, I will reserve judgement and see what Universal and Mr. Bennett bring to the table, hopefully optimistic but hopelessly realistic for my favourite genre.

nmharleyrider's picture

one thing is for sure; it will not be good for classical music.

ednazarko's picture

Arvo Part and Lady Gaga! Really!

dennisdavis's picture

Sounds like corporate speak for a move to cut payroll and other overhead and give it a bright sunny spin. Bennett is about as likely to build a better record company as . . .

JimAustin's picture

“War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.”
― George Orwell, 1984

pbarach's picture

Anything is possible...

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

why not Tony?

pbarach's picture

If either Tony Bennett or Barbra could sing Faure like Souzay or Ameling, then I agree--why not? But I didn't much like Ameling trying to sing Gershwin. The problem with "crossover" is that with some exceptions, classical singers stink at pop songs and jazz, and vice versa. Jason, when was the last time you listened to Leontyne Price's "Right as Rain" album?

Anon2's picture

At least we know that the existing Decca/DG catalog will stay around. But what happens to new talent? I have bought the recent Valentina Lisistsa Decca recordings of Rachmaninov and Liszt. I also purchased a new release Decca recording of Elizabeth Joy Roe playing the John Field Nocturnes.

I cringe at the thought of such talent being press-ganged into the artificial snow, indoor coats and mufflers, blue lighting, and fake frozen ponds that make up the "crossover" PBS-type music specials that rule the airwaves from Thanksgiving to New Years.

I guess we can stay optimistic, but somehow putting the Royal Concertgebouw to the service of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and other such settings, is disturbing. There is a small, shrinking, but highly devoted classical audience out there in the US. Also, people tend to look at the American and European demographic when discussing classical music. Asia, and Asian musicians, are keeping this genre alive, in the West and in the Orient. They, too, are well-served by the output of what we have had from Universal Classics up until now.

I'll stay worryingly optimistic for now. Thank goodness that many of my CD purchases now go to the likes of BIS, Pentatone, Linn, Capriccio. There are still serious labels out there for serious musicians should this Verve pairing result in the worst that I, and others, are envisioning, based on the comments here. And, as a fair warning to the would be "crossoverers," there is still a vast catalog of used Universal Classics recordings out there. I just found the Maria Joao Pires critically-acclaimed Chopin Nocturnes for 7 bucks at Half Price Books last week.

We'll see. I suppose the opposite may be true. This move may consolidate some resources to keep classical going at a time of difficulty in the music industry overall. If the new owners/management understand and appreciate what they have, we may find some positives. Let us hope for this outcome.

daviddever's picture

Does the care and concern expressed here belie a concern for the preservation of the collected labels' recorded assets, or of the quality threshold for future releases?

The snobbery associated with "crossover", as a term, resembles that of "pops", though one ought to consider that the disappearance of many community (and some much larger) orchestras is tied directly to greatly decreased financial support; without crossover / pops programs and recordings, there exist fewer pathways to the wider audiences that will serve to sustain the genre(s).

As for newer composers - there will continue to be much new music, but it won't exist as recordings on the major labels, except in the rarest of cases. These labels are DONE, except to re-package new facets of old gems.

Peter Miles's picture

This is a great read and really helpful for artists like myself. I did find a great website that lets you buy soundcloud plays. This might be useful some other artists who are on here. Really looking forward to reading your next article.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Please see the May 24 addendum to the story.