Monday, October 31, 2011

From the Front: Digital Album Releases by Naxos

In the Los Angeles Times, Marcia Adair wrote an article entitled "Naxos goes bold with digital-only classical music titles," which features two distinctive recent releases by Naxos: "Bleeding Chunks of Wagner" and "Music for the Zombie Apocalypse." The first of the two attention-grabbing titles refers to the removing of a musical excerpt from its context, the veritable definition of a compilation album. The term originates from a frequently quoted passage from Essays in Musical Analysis by classical music critic Donald Tovey, who spoke specifically of excerpts of Wagner's operas being "bleeding chunks of butcher's meat" that had been "chopped" from their original context (72; vol. II). But perhaps the most striking aspect of the "Bleeding Chunks of Wagner," which is really nothing more than a "best-hits" type of compilation, is its album cover. The piece of steak against a background of chartreuse carpet is kitschy and quite a contrast to the usual aesthetic of a Naxos album cover, which is normally recognizable by its "white background and blocky typeface and small, out-of-copyright images" (Adair).

The second album, "Music for the Zombie Apocalypse," also shares the shock factor of the first in its album cover, designed by a young artist named Devon Gilbert. The album is more creative in its content, consisting of a compilation of various choral selections, ranging from works of Fauré to Thomas Tallis. The theme of the compilation seems to be "chosen to make the last moments before zombies relieve you of your brains as haunting and ethereal as possible," as Adair humorously states.

What is the purpose of the shocking, kitschy titles and cover art of these two albums?
The downloads are more than a publicity stunt, said Naxos' gleefully contrarian Chief Operating Officer Andrew Doe.

"I could come out with something pretentious about using this to bring classical music to more people, but that's not really the goal here," he said. "[We're making] products that are fun and that people are interested in. Most people like classical music to some degree. The struggle is often finding an entry point, a product that will give people something they can relate to."
With a zombie-themed album, Naxos is potentially appealing to followers of zombie fan blogs and fans of Devon Gilbert's art. In other words, Naxos isn't trying to make classical music more accessible merely through marketing genre-crossing artists to make classical music more appealing, but through "aiming to meet people where they are, on their own terms instead of expecting listeners to come to them" (Adair).

The two albums fared well in the classical music charts: "Music for the Zombie Apocalypse" rose to No. 15 on the iTunes classical music chart, and "Bleeding Chunks of Wagner" reached No. 14. The success has led Naxos to consider releasing a physical disc of "Music for the Zombie Apocalypse" next year.

Part of the reason why Naxos was able to take such an unusual thematic and aesthetic risk with these two albums is that they are digital-only releases, which cost little to a record company which already owns the selections found on the albums. Also, the warehouse and distribution costs associated with physical disks are not an issue. With such low risks, the possibilities for future albums with such themes are endless.

What concepts are ahead for Naxos? A"'dark' Christmas album and another devoted to music that inspired violence at its premiere," according to senior digital marketing manager Collin J. Rae (Adair).

Tovey, Donald. Essays in Musical Analysis. London: Oxford University Press, 1946.

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