BIS is 30 this year and the owner/engineer/music-lover Robert
von Bahr has every right to be proud of his achievement. The entire
CD catalogue is still available so if anything mentioned below
appeals, you can get it.
My remit was to extract
from RVB his owner’s perspective on the achievements of three
decades so I started by asking about his approach to recording
and how he paid his musicians and engineers. Do his orchestras
get flat fees, royalties or what? Are engineers contracted per
recording or for a series? Could he give me some idea of the costs
for a typical recent orchestra recording? His reply not only answered
my question but revealed some of his most fervently held beliefs
about the availability of music to the public. As with all his
(email) replies I have left editing to a minimum.
We do not pay
flat fees, but try to form a partnership in the form of a goodly
sized royalty portion for the Artists. This has several advantages:
we are all getting paid from how the record sells, which in many
cases is rather more than a flat fee would have been and, of course,
we are able to do more daring programmes when the initial outlay
isn't totally crippling.
We employ our
own fulltime producers and engineers and, when we are overtaxed
(I think he means the work load, not Sweden’s famous fiscal policy!),
have a pool of their colleagues, all coming from Detmold in Germany,
to turn to.
The real stumbling
block, still, is the exorbitant fees that some publishers, luckily
not all, are asking for letting someone take a huge risk in recording
works that they don't always know themselves that they have. Not
being content with cashing a large part of the copyright fees
that we pay upon selling the CD, they want to have a huge fee
for sending the materials (scores and parts) to us for the recording,
materials that often are in such a condition that the recording
has to be postponed or even cancelled. The asking price can very
well be up to 55 Pounds Sterling per begun minute of music on
CD - not that we ever pay that. For a 70-minute CD that alone
would take care of all the surplus generated by the selling of
the first 2 to 3 thousand copies. Knowing well that many CDs never
get above this number this means that there is no money to start
defraying the other recording and production costs, like travel,
hotel, per diem payments, rent of hall, wear and tear of equipment,
salaries to the producer and engineer, studio costs, editing and
other trifles. This inevitably means that some very worthy composers
simply cannot get recorded, at least not by us. This is not only
a pity, it is scandalous, since there isn't basically anyone else
to take up the slack!
Raising my head above
the battlements after that volley had passed safely over (and
I suspect the late Ted Perry of Hyperion is cheering from up above),
I asked about the recording equipment that used to be carted to
venues in the boot of a car, and that was in the days of huge,
analogue Revox open-reel tape recorders. Why was it now necessary
to fly, in his words, "half-a-ton", of kit to make recordings?
What has changed to make a small DAT machine, or now a DVD recorder,
inadequate? Who decides on the simplicity of his mic arrays? Does
he arrange mics to match a philosophy of minimalism? Is the sound
the thing, regardless of how many mics it takes? His response
was both confident but unexpectedly humble for a man with such
an engineering reputation.
is put to the wrong person. I still maintain that, given a perfect
hall and superb musicians, minimal equipment is enough. Having
said that, I must admit that my boys and girls are getting results
out of the usage of this half-a-ton that I could only dream of.
Frankly, as long as nothing is distorted or created by the engineer
(and they don't do either) I don't care so much about the "how",
only the "wow" that their expertise brings in CD after CD. They
follow the main principles that I have laid down hard and fast,
like no compression, an honest sound etc. But they go about it
in a different way, and their results are generally superior,
which has given BIS the reputation we enjoy today. I can only
bow my head to their talent. The only credit I can take is that
I chose them in the first place to work for BIS. And, yes, the
sound is the thing, as long as there is no cheating going on.
Being of a certain
age myself I asked if he ever still advertised audio warnings
about the dynamic range of his CDs. Was it a marketing ploy and
did it work?
No, I don't any
more, but it was anything but a ploy. The very first CD I released
was a Kroumata percussion group CD (CD-232). It had (and still
has) a huge dynamic. It was played uncompressed on Australian
Radio as an experiment, and my warning sign did indeed save me
from a couple of law suits from irate people with wrecked equipment.
So, yes, it worked!
Wishing to give a
fellow old-timer every opportunity to ride my hobby horses I asked
if, since he started with a Revox, did analogue still hold any
attractions, or was it genuinely dead for him? Is SACD real progress
in sound quality or a marketing bandwagon he has to ride? Why
has he not gone for DVD-Audio, or indeed Digital Theatre Sound
(DTS) or Dolby Digital? Could he foresee a BIS 7 or 10-channel
carrier one day? His answers gave no succour to the "Golden
Ears" who still hate digital, and might give an anonymous
executive somewhere a red face.
I am so old that,
when I started, there was no alternative. Digital recording, as
it stands now, is genuinely better. It is nice to be able to reproduce
exactly what the musicians do, without having pre- and post-echoes
or tape hiss to worry about. If you reduce levels in order to
avoid the echoes the huge dynamics of some musicians could then
neither be stored nor reproduced. Now the DSD system (Direct
Stream Digital, employed on "true" SACD issues wherein
old-fashioned CD-type Pulse Code Modulation is not used) seems
to be able to give the "analogue" touch to a digital system, and
it really does sound better. This is easily ascertained if you
compare the SACD and CD tracks on the identical programme. I feel
it is a real step forward. Listen to Track 5 of BIS-SACD-1078
with the ethereal music of Takemitsu. In the CD version the piano
sounds great, albeit a little earthbound - nothing to think about,
until you put on the same track in the SACD stereo version. The
piano is all of a sudden totally free-floating, truly tones from
Heaven. If nothing convinced me before, this did.
We are not closing
the doors to anything, but we won't follow anything for gimmickry
reasons. We will advocate - and use - systems that we feel make
an appreciable difference to the discerning listener, but we will
not compromise artistic quality or concentrate on anything but
the music simply in order to be able to write some new numbers
on the sleeve. I am still livid that our agents made the thumbs
down on our multi-channel St. Matthew Passion with the Bach Collegium
Japan under Suzuki. This multichannel recording (not released)
was deemed unsaleable, since it was recorded in 16 bits. What
idiots! Without even listening to the results, I was told point
blank that such a recording, to have the slightest chance, must
be 24 bit/a zillion Megaherz. I maintain that this recording,
made in the incredible atmosphere of the Shojin Church in Kobe
in Japan by our superb engineers beats any 24-bit/192 Megaherz
studio recordings on the market hands down, if you just listen
to it. The market, however, seemingly has decided that visual
numbers, not aural results, are the important thing. Oh dear!
(I wonder if Classic
Web could start a petition to "anon" asking for this
recording to please be released in multichannel. The opinion of
Robert von Bahr is surely of greater significance than that of
some bean-counter. Oh dear too, or two! )
Since the question
was an obvious one for 2003 and I had not, at the time of writing,
seen the above vigorous response, I pushed on. Did he foresee
ever going in for video recording, DVDs of quartets playing the
complete works of X, or whatever?
No, we are burned
children. I did produce two Laser Discs. They are really good,
but we very nearly did go bankrupt in the process. We can produce
wonderful aural results with two, or even one person, to produce
and to engineer. With video, it seems that a couple of dozen is
the bare minimum. And they keep telling the musicians how to stand,
where to go, how to look, basically they do anything to bring
the musicians' minds away from the music. No, thank you.
It is not all about
technology and I wanted to ask about the company, above and beyond
the history in the 30th anniversary press releases.
How many people do BIS employ? He used to be a one-man-band. Now
he is a company what is his role personally?
We employ thirteen
people, yours truly included. My role is to lead the company,
try to steer everybody's enthusiasm between a certain conservatism
and zest for novelties. On a more day-to-day basis, I handle the
ordering, invoicing, and, yes, the complete packing and warehouse
work, which keeps me in a real good shape physically. I also do
the bookkeeping and the paying of invoices, which makes me very
popular with our creditors. I still do the extremely critical
proof listening, with marked-up score in one hand and recording
protocol in the other, to any product we release. I am involved
in the negotiations and have final say-so in the programme committee.
I also change tyres and do some of the cleaning. I enjoy being
the figurehead and (metaphorically one assumes!) cashing
in on the admiration for the wonderful work of my staff and our
artists. It is indeed a good, albeit hard, life.
What inspired him
to start making records? Was it, I wondered, a wish to record
a work, or a musician, or to prove he could do it well? His answer
was as pithy and simple as it was impressive.
The wish to put
Sweden on the musical map. The wish to not let unknown great artists
and composers remain so.
I questioned his
claim to keep the whole catalogue current. Was it really true
and how did he do it? What sort of numbers does he press in a
run? Would Hybrid Multichannel SACD/CD make a difference to the
size of pressing runs? He was trenchant.
I don't only claim
to do so - we do it. It is quite easy - when a CD has sunk under
the least permissible stock quantity, I repress. The minimum run
is 300 CDs with the understanding SONY DADC in Austria, which
is quite adequate if a CD sells some 2 or 3 copies a year. The
new form of a Hybrid SACD/CD doesn't make a difference in principle.
We always make sure that we have enough on stock to meet any normal
order, and with the excellent service of DADC we can easily and
efficiently repress, should need arise.
Wanting a recent
exemplar I asked about a favourite BIS issue of my own. How many
CDs of Jon Leifs Saga Symphony (BIS CD 730), had he sold
worldwide as an example of a typically BIS "eccentric" issue?
Adding that I had spoken to a couple of Icelandic players who
claimed to be wearing earplugs during that and some of the other
pieces! A nice story resulted.
CD did achieve something of a cult status in Japan thanks to Nagaoka-sensei,
the guru of Classical music and stereo equipment in Japan. Nagaoka-sensei
was actually quite hard of hearing in his later days, and usually
cranked up the volume quite loudly. When I released the Saga Symphony,
I advised my agent to go personally to him, put on Track 4 something
like after 2'35, let Nagaoka-sensei fiddle with the volume, and
then make a run for it. After 20 sec the house fell apart, and
Nagaoka-sensei emerged from the rubble, a beatific grin over his
face, with a glowing review to follow. I think this CD doesn't
have all that much left to reach 10 thousand sales, which, for
a CD of this type, is really very good indeed.
I would add my own
plug to that of Rob Barnett elsewhere on this site – this is a
superb disc and essential listening for those not of a nervous
disposition. Do be careful with the volume setting first time
BIS liner notes are
normally superb. Long, detailed and well written. What does he
do to ensure this when so many of the majors clearly no longer
bother, if they ever did. Once upon a time a certain Andrew Barnett
seemed to do everything, both notes and typography. Is this sort
of "cottage industry" approach still current?
Oh yes, and Andrew
is still involved with every BIS CD and still writes the texts
to most Sibelius CDs. However, not even he can do everything any
more, and we have a stable of writers that really have a genuine
interest for the music. Some artists are also very literate; Christophe
Sirodeau with his lengthy notes on Skalkottas' music comes to
mind. Today Leif Hasselgren (a musician in his own right and a
Japanese speaker, among other things) and William Jewson make
sure that we get the goods on time and that the quality is what
is needed. If no one else can write it, they go ahead and do it
themselves. Consistency is the name of the game. In David Kornfeld,
whenever he manages to convince the Crusty Old Boss of another
change from tradition, we have a brilliant designer.
I almost wished I
had not asked the next one. Why does BIS not have a bargain label,
at around £5 for example. Even though he emailed his responses
I could hear his tone of voice all the way from Sweden!
Why should we
sell top quality for bargain prices? I think it is a sorry state
of affairs when everything is basically given away. We want the
Artists to earn from their craft, and we want to be able to meet
the payroll every month. Ample recording time without stress,
a sympathetic but demanding producer, a genius engineer, very
large post-production work, good texts. They all cost money. If
people want top quality, they have to pay - there are no shortcuts.
What is his view
on the long-term viability of classical recording? Has the current
withdrawal of the majors made life better or worse for him?
We have been inundated
with offers from also quite well known rejects. That is the time
to test the loyalties of a label. We have so far, with very few
exceptions, preferred to continue with our old stable of established
BIS Artists. Consistency. Classical recording will of course stay.
However, legalised home copying doesn't make things easier for
On less contentious
ground I asked about the label’s repertoire. How did he choose
the music to be recorded? Was he very market driven? His issues
of, for example, Jon Leifs, I suggested, having bought all of
them and which I admire greatly, lead me to suspect him to be
a man of risky enthusiasms. His response was short but suggests
a lot may be to come.
What I like, given
that the publishers don't stop it, we record. Simple as that.
Has he plans to record
anything else major? He has done the yawning gaps of the catalogue,
Martinů, Nielsen, Leifs, Skalkottas, Holmboe etc. Was
he intending to record the entire repertoire as we suspect Naxos
is trying to do? His reply is deserving of our greatest respect
and parts of it might well be material for his obituary, in 200
years time of course.
Give me another
200 years or so, and see... Seriously, we won't touch anything
major, unless there is a very specific reason to do so (Bach in
Japan, van Beethoven with Vänskä). Why should we, when
there are so many huge talents waiting to be discovered (as we
discovered Schnittke, Holmboe, Skalkottas etc)? I do feel like
a missionary. People must be given the choice. If they then choose
not to, that's OK, but if they didn't even have the chance to
reject, that's a sorry state of affairs.
are his big successes? And what are his personal favourite recording
achievements, repertoire and/or performance? Would he admit to
a real turkey or two?
Well, our 4 Seasons
(BIS CD 275) is the best out there and sells in appropriately
large numbers. The Bach from Japan has established itself as the
leader of the pack. The Sibelius cycle; artists like Christian
Lindberg, now, and Sharon Bezaly is coming on very strongly. I
don't really have personal favourites, since I immerse myself
fully in any new product, but, were I to single out any specific
CD, maybe "The Passion of St. Thomas More" by the totally unknown
Garrett Fisher from Seattle (BIS-CD-1158). I got what was
presented as a CD Master, ready to go to the presses, listened,
got totally hooked on this meditative music but on neither the
performance nor the recording. So I persuaded the composer and
two other musicians to come to Sweden, together with a handpicked
gang from here, living in my home, rehearsing for a week and then
Ingo Petry made the best sound in recorded history of a sublime
rendering of a magnificent work. Yeah, it is an OK CD.
Duds? Oh yes.
They have appeared on a lot of very prestigious labels, since
we make a habit, if we should not want to release a recording,
to offer it free of charge to the artist to do with it whatever
he or she wants, as long as BIS is not mentioned. One of them
even won a "Best CD of the Year" award. So is it still a dud?
Names? Sorry, no. On the BIS label? Of course we have had our
downs, but basically only in the past. Since the artists are very
much alive I don't feel called upon to exemplify.
What a diplomat!
What, I asked, is his commercial and artistic view on great recordings
like the Shostakovich Symphonies conducted by Barshai being sold
in supermarkets for knockdown prices? This brought a further piece
of trenchant comment.
It cheapens the
whole perception of recorded music, since Joe Public cannot differentiate
between a simple Radio run-through and a carefully planned and
executed recording. Of course a radio tape can be of high voltage,
as Barshai proved, and a separate recording can be a total dud,
but generally speaking the extra costs and extra work result in
a better product, and those costs have to be borne by someone.
That Brilliant Classics have succeeded in their wholesale attitude
towards cheap, more cheaper, most cheapest, is their good luck,
but, seen in the greater perspective, it cheapens the Industry,
and when will you see, say, the Holmboe symphonies from Brilliant?
Finally, on the issue
of Shostakovich, I enquired; did he expect to finish the symphonies
with Maestro Wigglesworth? I have a Welsh friend who gets very
fired up on this topic of the ex-Artistic Director of BBC NOW
and I was keen to find out. And incidentally had any people commented
on the astounding dynamic range achieved in his CDs of Nos.7 and
10 (BIS CD 873 and 973/4) Did his listeners appreciate this much
His parting shot
left me without any need to find a way of finishing this report
so I would like to thank Robert von Bahr very much indeed for
his long and fascinating responses to my questions.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I give you BIS, 30 Years Young!!
Yes, we will complete
the Shostakovich cycle, but not in the UK. Yes, we get a fair
share of comments, many of which admittedly complain that the
listener has to sit with the hand on the volume knob. For me that
is utterly uninteresting. We don't create - we reproduce what
Shostakovich wrote and how Mark interprets it, that's all. If
someone doesn't like reality, well, there are enough labels who
provide nicely balanced, easy-on-the-ear, no-risk mezzo-piano
to mezzo-forte wall-paper recordings. Their names are not BIS,
of that I can assure you!