Why Sony gambled on Lang Lang

In an era when classical recordings don’t sell, Sony just got into a bidding war over a pianist

Why Sony gambled on Lang Lang

A classical pianist is worth millions to a major company? What is this, 1940? The signing of Chinese pianist Lang Lang by Sony’s music division seems like a reminder of a time when classical recording was big business. The story was broken in a gossipy, tabloid-style way, with Sony refusing to officially announce the signing until after it had leaked out. Music journalist Norman Lebrecht, who got his information from the pianist’s rebuffed former label, Deutsche Grammophon (which clearly didn’t want to lose him), reported that Sony had paid approximately $3 million—a figure the company has not confirmed or denied—to get Lang and his famous unkempt hair. In an era when classical CDs may sell only a few hundred copies, Lang is the only young artist who’s treated like a pop star, with a contract to match. “He’s his generation’s best hope at a real live classical music superstar,” says Anne Midgette, music critic for the Washington Post. He’s also the industry’s best hope for making classical records profitable.

Lang, who will be in Toronto for a concert on April 6, is the only classical musician to get competing, high-priced offers from major labels. Most classical headliners today are lucky if they can even get what Midgette describes as “shorter contracts for two or three albums.” Bucking this trend, Sony wants Lang to record exclusively for them, the way cellist Yo-Yo Ma does, and they’re willing to pay for the privilege, the way labels paid for the likes of Luciano Pavarotti. With his showboating, crowd-pleasing concert style, which often involves closing his eyes and rocking back and forth in ecstasy, Lang is seen as a throwback to an era when classical stars really were equal to pop stars. Lebrecht, who is on his way to Ottawa to talk about his new book Why Mahler?, says that Lang’s contract is a tribute to the fact that he’s not only a star but “a burgeoning commercial brand.”

That brand is good for a label that wants to re-establish itself as a player in the music business. Sony dumped most of its classical artists years ago in a frenzy of downsizing, but now Midgette thinks that the company “is trying to rouse itself to become a major player in whatever the new market is.” Lebrecht explains that, from a corporate point of view, it’s important for Sony to fix its classical operation in case it someday wants to sell its music division. Having Lang on the roster, he says, allows Sony to “pretend to look like a record label once more.” Even in a record industry ravaged by the recession, it’s good business for a company to have some classical stars on its books, and Lebrecht says that Lang is “the only artist who could fit that strategy.”

But even if Sony gets some prestige out of this deal, will it make any money? When Pavarotti or Leonard Bernstein were given huge contracts, their companies could justify it because classical recordings had a bigger share of the market. Today, even highly publicized stars don’t really sell: though American violinist Hilary Hahn appeared as one of Conan O’Brien’s last musical guests on The Tonight Show, Midgette noted on that her new recording sold poorly. Lang sells better than that, but is not yet a star on the level of Ma, or piano celebrities of the past like Vladimir Horowitz. “I think Sony is gambling on his potential rather than on his actual stardom,” Midgette told Maclean’s, pointing out that his TV appearances during the 2008 Beijing Olympics didn’t seem to raise his profile in the West.

But Sony may not be thinking of Western markets, but of a huge market where Lang is already a superstar. In North America and Europe, classical music is mostly for older audiences, but Lebrecht says that in China “the appetite for Western culture is immense, and still growing.” Lang isn’t only the best-known classical performer in his country; as someone who was introduced to European music by a Tom and Jerry cartoon, he’s a symbol of the way classical has become hip and young-skewing in Asia.

That may be why Sony felt comfortable giving him an old-fashioned contract: he’s the key to a market where classical recordings have an old-fashioned appeal. But not everyone thinks this plan will work; even Sony may not be sure. Asked why the company was refusing requests to comment on the deal, Lebrecht says: “It’s a sign of insecurity. They are not confident that they’ve done the right thing.” Who knows: if Lang’s records start to sell in huge numbers around the world, his company might feel secure enough to announce how much it’s paying him.

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