Canadian classical prodigy Jan Lisiecki releases his first album

The 17-year-old virtuoso, signed with one of the oldest classical labels, sticks with the tried and true
Competing with 100 years of history
Stefan Hoederath

Jan Lisiecki, the 17-year-old Canadian piano virtuoso, is releasing his first album on Deutsche Grammophon, one of the oldest and most respected classical labels. That makes him a big recording artist—but in today’s world, that doesn’t mean he’s going to make a lot of money. Recording is “not a source of income,” he says. “Not nowadays, not in classical music.” This first DG recording, of Mozart’s 20th and 21st piano concertos, can mean a lot for his career, but “you have to be an opera singer or a pop star to make true money on recordings.”

Classical recordings have never sold as fast as pop, but a major label contract used to mean royalties. For agents, “classical recordings used to be something they would pursue as a deal, because you would get an advance,” says Jean Cook, who co-founded the U.S.-based Artist Revenue Streams project to study how artists make money. Today, advances and royalties have dried up, and “it’s not something that the managers I’m talking to are spending a lot of time pursuing.”

Lisiecki, who looks the part of a classical prodigy with his wavy hair, glasses and seriousness about his art, says it is partly because “record companies haven’t 100 per cent caught up with the world changing” in terms of delivery. But classical has a problem that pop doesn’t have: it’s dependent on pieces that have been recorded many times. “People don’t have to buy a recording because it’s the only interpretation of a work,” Lisiecki says. Not only does DG have several sets of the Mozart concertos, but the conductor of Lisiecki’s album, Christian Zacharias, recorded them as a pianist for another label. Cook notes re-recording was easier to justify in the ’80s “when everything switched over to digital.” But in today’s less sound-obsessed world, companies can repurpose old recordings for iTunes instead of making new ones.

Instead of being anxious for artists to record tried-and-true favourites, labels worry about duplication. Lisiecki says that while DG gave him his own way, they did ask why he wanted to record Mozart, because it wasn’t a big seller. He chose the pieces not for commercial reasons, but because he thinks “Mozart reflects very much who you are as a person and who you are as a musician,” and because the concertos are “very closely related, they’re almost like twins, they were written at the same time.” Classical musicians can still have a big seller with “something that is flashy and big and showy, like Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky.” But for less flashy pieces, a new artist is in competition with 100 years of history on his own label.

And yet the major label world still has its attractions for artists, especially young ones. For Lisiecki, there is still “a prestige in being signed up, to be among the fantastic names that were signed up by Deutsche Grammophon for so many years.” And a recording for DG, with a built-in publicity apparatus behind it, can also help promote the place where pianists and other artists really make money: live concerts. “Recordings keep them in the public eye, especially when they win awards,” says Cook. Lisiecki adds, “to me, it’s crucial to have a CD sold after the concert, because that’s a great way to meet the audience.”

And even with independent recordings proliferating, major-label recordings have a polish that may help an artist’s career. Lisiecki’s first CD, an independent recording of Chopin, was made “totally live. I had no patch-up sessions even.” For his DG debut, he got two studio sessions, with an extra one available if he needed extra work (he didn’t), and a veteran producer, fellow Canadian Sid McLauchlan, to “look into the different takes, if there’s something there that he believes is good.”

So since labels are becoming “more selective about who they’re signing,” according to Cook, it is still an honour to be one of the chosen few. Lisiecki, who had offers from more than one company, chose DG because they said he could record what he wanted, and he feels it’s important to keep recording the great works. “Me recording it is just a small part of a huge chain,” he says. “Then another one comes along, and another one. That’s how Mozart’s music will survive and grow.”