Q & A: Martin Hare, Symphony Hall Music Shop Manager

With the fifth annual Record Store Day approaching, artists, record labels and independent shops around the world will be marking the event with celebrations, live performances, special releases and creative initiatives.

As good time as any then, to catch up with Martin Hare, Manager of Symphony Hall Music Shop – one of only a handful of independent classical record shops in the country – and quiz him on the state of the business of classical music recordings.

THSH: Hello! How have the last 12 months been for the shop Martin?

MH: It’s been quite an optimistic year for us. For example, when the shop opened in 1998 – Sir Simon Rattle’s last year – we would sell 250 copies of each new CBSO release. Recently, with Andris Nelsons recordings we’re seeing those kinds of sales again – and as you might expect, we sell the lion’s share of those releases in comparison to other similar shops across the UK.

THSH: Is being right next door to a concert hall a big help to you?

MH: If we weren’t next to Symphony Hall, we wouldn’t be able to exist. Two or three concerts taking place in one week helps to support the quieter weeks. Two thirds of our sales come in the hour before a concert! Signings can help too – at Lang Lang’s signing earlier this season we sold 200 CDs. That said, on a regular concert night 10% of the stock on display will have something to do with that performance or artist, the other 90% being unrelated products.

We are the only halls outside London who are lucky enough to present a regular programme of outstanding international artists alongside great British talent like the CBSO: great orchestras like the Gewandhaus and the Vienna Philharmonic, through celebrity artists like Kissin, to more niche period-instrument ensembles like the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra or Il Giardino Armonico – so it’s fantastic to have such a great motivation from, and choice of music to offer to our customers.

THSH: The record industry has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years. Any changes which have directly affected you?

MH: We have around 150 regular customers as well as passing trade, many of whom want to see and hold an actual CD, rather than shop online. That’s possibly one reason why we haven’t been hit so hard by the growth of sites like Amazon. Our customers are very much used to reading a review in a magazine and then purchasing a CD.

We look to draw in customers who are here to see a specific artist or orchestra and encourage them to look at other products they might not necessarily consider buying – that’s where a lot of income lies for us. We’ve also got a good relationship with Select, who distribute Naxos and are great to work with.

Many of the major classical record labels nowadays, like Universal, Sony and EMI have a small pool of a dozen artists they release new material from. The majority of all other releases – maybe 75% – are reissues. There was a massive boom in CD sales 25 years ago, profits from which went into investing in new artists. That has definitely decreased.

THSH: Any sure-fire bestsellers?

MH:Rattle’s Mahler recordings with CBSO, some recorded at both Town Hall and Symphony Hall, sell well, as do releases from internationally-renowned artists like Renee Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli. Nigel Kennedy’s Four Seasons has sold consistently over the years too.

THSH: How could the music industry help independent classical music retailers?

MH: Concerts these days are sometimes used more as rehearsals for recordings from a small selection of repertoire, whereas a decade ago the decision on what programme might be performed would lie in the hands of the concert hall. We rarely see any sales reps from the major labels now – the new release sheets they issue are our guidance for what stock to order.

Personality-led artists seem to dominate the industry at the moment, where the artist performing takes significance over the work being performed – these are the CDs often being sold in major supermarkets and retailers for cut-price, which we cannot compete with.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s really satisfactory to be able to track something down a customer believes is obscure and there is very little information out there, using a little detective work – rewarding for all parties to find it and order it for the customer.

So certainly discounts to compete more with online and major retailer pricing would help, as would joining forces with venues, tying in releases to concerts and so on.

THSH: What might your predictions for the future of classical music be?

MH: It’s a difficult time for a lot of labels, many of whom are trying to keep their head above water. It’s very much the smaller outfits now that are keeping classical music recordings alive now, Chandos, Hyperion, Dutton etc who might only press a few thousand CDs at any one time.

Looking forward I think the majors are probably going to continue to contract and release reissues, the smaller labels are going to continue to put out interesting releases in small quantities and the people who buy actual CDs will hopefully still use us!

THSH: Do you have a favourite recording and any recommendations?

MH: My favourite classical recording of all time is Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5 with Vernon Handley. My current favourite is Natalie Dessay’s Debussy Clair de Lune recording and also Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet – I’m still getting to grips with that.

More information on Symphony Hall Music Shop here or call Martin Hare on 0121 200 2382 or email via “mailto:“martin.hare@thsh.co.uk

Image credit: Beverley & Pack