MY STORY Going with the stream
Signum Records, the classical music label, is 20 years old next month, and in an era when recording companies have been disappearing with regularity, it has sold more than 750,000 CDs and released more than 500 new recordings at a current rate of 50 a year, distributed to 30 countries. Its managing director is Steve Long
How and why did Signum begin? Signum was set up by Floating Earth as a natural extension of what the company was doing already. Floating Earth was set up in 1987 to offer audio engineering services to the classical music sector and within two years we had expanded to include production and post production services. By 1991 we were offering executive production services coming up with recording ideas to the established major and indie labels, and if there was interest then we would make the recordings and license them to the labels – we did about 60 recordings this way.
We were approached by artists (Chapelle du Roi) who wanted to record the complete works of Thomas Tallis on nine discs and we quickly worked out that the way to make this commercially viable was to set up a joint venture company, and so Signum was born. After only a couple of years the company expanded to be an early music label and within five years it was developed into a general classical label.
How did you become involved and what is your background? I was an amateur percussionist and studied economics at university. I’d met Mike Hatch (engineer at Floating Earth and Grammy Award winner) in about 1978 through playing percussion and we both ended up at the same university. After graduating Mike started freelancing as a recording engineer, but in the late 80s with the invention of the CD there was a huge amount of recording work available with established labels re-recording everything digitally, and new labels such as Collins Classics and Virgin Classics emerging, so it was an exciting time. It was clear that there was a place for a new company to cover such work, and Floating Earth was born.
You have not only survived through the recession and a digital revolution, you have flourished. How? Being small and flexible has been the key, we are able to adapt very quickly to changes in the market and having our own technical facilities has certainly helped. We are not averse to change and in fact quite the opposite – I think change presents opportunities and we have embraced each new format as it has come along.
Classical music has often been portrayed as struggling to keep audiences and appeal to younger listeners. Is it, and if so what can it do about it? This has always been said, but I don’t believe it’s as true now as it has been in the past. If you look at the recently published statistics from Classic FM about their listeners (1.2m of CFM’s 5.8m annual listeners are under 35) it would seem that they are attracting a younger audience. With streaming being the format of choice for youngsters, they are able to access classical music at no extra cost via their subscription services, so there is no barrier to entry here. Access and convenience are key factors here and ownership isn’t considered that important.
Twenty years ago there was a much simpler array of formats for you to work on. What media are you releasing on now, and is this proliferation a curse or a blessing? We will release on any format that is appropriate. Right now the major format is CD, followed by streaming and then downloading, however we have also released DVDs, SACDs, Blu-Rays and even an LP. For each of these last four formats they have been appropriate for the content, but all our audio releases come out on CD and are also available for streaming and downloading.
How important to Signum has streaming been? Streaming has been important to us for a good few years now and is our second highest source of revenue after CDs. I can see that within the next five years it will be our single biggest revenue source – perhaps even within three years. We love streaming, it is the format of choice for the vast majority of music consumers and isn’t going to go away, and much of the classical industry needs to accept that and work with it, not against it. We have some tracks that have been streamed tens of millions of times and the revenue from these is significant. We are also seeing core classical repertoire as being actively streamed with full works and not just popular one off tracks that are on specific playlists.
Is Signum at the forefront of a new generation of classical music labels? I like to think so. With new deals available with musicians (particularly orchestras and opera companies) there are fewer barriers to entry and being small and versatile means we are able to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to us.
Is contemporary classical music becoming more popular? Some of it is for sure, but not all. The music still needs to be good and relatively accessible for it to succeed but we find many of our contemporary releases are amongst our bestsellers.
Classical music is an expensive art form. What does the industry need to do now to safeguard its future? Attending top concerts and operas can be expensive but accessing classical music doesn’t need to be with streaming, and there are lots of good amateur performances out there to attend more cheaply. Putting on top quality concerts and operas is expensive but so is making films and staging football games, so we actually need to promote classical music as being accessible and not elitist and build our future audiences that way.