New Digital Media: Opportunities and Pitfalls of the New Digital World: Part I

Recently, we were delighted to welcome to Yale Sean Hickey, an award-winning composer and the VP Sales and Business Development of Naxos of America in charge of all physical sales for in North America and digital sales throughout the world.  With these impressive credentials, Sean spoke to our students about new digital media and how today’s musicians can navigate the digital world.

His point?

It is an interesting time for musicians:

Despite the doom and gloom of the record business, there are more recordings than ever before, including in classical music, with more consumption opportunities for the consumer, and more revenue opportunities for the content holder. With the middleman gone, musicians  can now directly access their audiences.  It takes a lot of work but artists have a lot of new tools at their disposal.

So let’s dive into the state of new digital media and explore the opportunities and pitfalls for today’s musicians.

Career History in the Recording Industry

Sean relishes his life as artist and administrator because both are disciplines that inform each other.

Sean has worked in the classical music record industry for the last 25 years, starting out at a time when the CD format was gaining popularity and people were converting to the CD format. After majoring in composition and jazz guitar at Wayne State University in Detroit, he got a job at a local record store and then worked for Allegro, a large independent record distributor, Allegr0. Sean moved  to New York in the 1990’s for Allegro at a time when the record labels were experiencing robust sales. However, the entire industry changed in 2001. Inauspiciously, Sean started a new job on September 11, 2001 working for RCA Victor as Field Sales Manager Classical and Jazz.  Then came Napster and the notorious law suit when the record companies sued a 14-year old girl for illegally downloading music. This gave the recording industry a bad name and young people saw that music was something that everyone had the right to.

The record industry slowly crumbled, as access to music became more important than ownership and it is no longer a source of significant revenues for content creators. Indeed, thanks to You Tube (owned by Google), intellectual property is essentially free.

Sean then moved to Naxos where he has successfully balanced his life as a composer and record label executive.


Based in Hong Kong, Naxos is the largest classical music label in the world. It just celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Naxos of America handles the exclusive distribution of over 650 labels in physical format through the Americas, and over 850 labels in digital format (download, streaming, app) throughout the world. Of the nearly 4800 commercially-released recordings of classical music in 2017, just under 4000 were released on NoA-distributed labels.

Naxos has the exclusive or non-exclusive distribution rights to just about any form of classical music, whether encountered on a CD, download, stream in a film, commercial usage and even textbooks with a download component.

Record Labels Today

Sean discussed the status of record labels today.  Labels issue recordings in physical format (CD and DVD) as well as streaming.

Today, there are three major labels, Universal, Sony and Warner. Each is affiliated with large multinational parent company with multiple businesses of which music is a small part. The labels are, in effect, subsidized by the other businesses.

There are also independent labels, which tend to be small and have business that supports the recording side. For example, the indie label Sono Luminus in Boyce, Virginia also does record production for other labels.

Many orchestras, including Berlin, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony, record for their own labels as a way to bringing the experience out of the concert hall and into the world at large.

The orchestras see recordings as a great promotional tool to get people into the concert hall. In fact, the Chicago Symphony has won more Grammy awards (mostly under Solti) than any other arts groups (including Beatles).

Finally, there are non-profit labels like Innova Recordings, the label of the American Composers Forum in St Paul. They have a board, raise money and provide services for composers.

The Resurgence of Vinyl

An interesting aspect of the recording industry is that as the CD market is declining rapidly and soon it may disappear, we are seeing the resurgence of Vinyl as a format. The vinyl market in the US is pretty strong outside of classical music.  Some labels are releasing classical recordings on Vinyl.  Vinyl also comes along with a download code.

A good example is one of Sean’s recordings, A Pacifying Weapon, a concerto for recorder and orchestra commissioned by the Danish recorder whiz, soloist and dedicatee, Michala Petri with the additional support of a Danish group Edition Borup-Jørgensen.

To keep costs down, the work was released on vinyl-only format by the Danish indie label, OUR Recordings.

The recording is in contention to be eligible for a Grammy nomination in composition. To show us how labels promote their work,  Sean showed us the trailer for the recording.

Getting Noticed by the Label

Most labels no longer support Artists and Repertoire (A&R) departments which used to be responsible for finding talent. Today, a label typically has one person in charge of scouting talent.  In the case of Naxos, this person is the owner and founder, Klaus Heymannwho is also supported by an advisory board of which Sean is a member.

Naxos looks for repertoire that has not been recorded before and that has an interesting story.

The vast majority of today’s artists make and fund their own recordings and come to the label once the recording is done.  Only a few super-star artists, like Joshua Bell and Lang Lang, can get a multi-year record deal where the label will fund,  record, distribute and promote the recording.

These days, it is much easier for an artist to find his or her way to a label. However, here is a lot of music out there. Sean indicated that Naxos has a 3-year backlog of recordings!

Therefore, in order to get noticed, artists need to provide the label with a good story.  That means you need to survey the marketplace and then tell the label what sets you apart from everyone else. In addition, you need to have a social media presence and a network.

Tips for Making and Publishing Recordings

Today, making a recording is a lot cheaper than it used to be. Moreover, you can make a recording anywhere!     You need production and engineering, as well as mixing and mastering.  Naxos, like all other labels, requires artists to deliver the master of a recording free and clear of all rights issues.. The copyright of the work belongs to the artist, whereas the label has a copyright on the sound recording.

Sean strongly recommended that you register your completed work with your performing rights organization (“PRO”), like ASCAP or BMI. The PRO’s are on the frontline of protecting composers.  You can register your work on-line.  Sean advised composers that each time you have a work performed, take pictures of your program  and send a copy of the program to your PRO.

Sean also talked about publishing versus self-publishing.  Publishers care about salability and they are particularly interested in choral and pedagogical works.

Sean is mostly self-published through his publishing company.  He thus is both the composer and the publisher.  Sean also indicated that he makes his work available on his website and has someone handle his correspondence and mailing of parts.

In order to self-publish, ASCAP requires that you have a company name that is different from your name.  BMI does not have that requirement.

Working with a Label

There are many advantages to having a label.

Sean explained that most successful recordings come to the labels as a direct result of relationship building through recruitment, networking, social media.  It all starts with having a good story. These days, a record deal is generally a handshake whereby the label agrees to release your record on a particular date.

The label will handle the manufacturing, design, liner notes and international distribution in the digital space .  Moreover, labels work hard to promote the recording to insure that it will be found and recognized. Having a label will make it more likely that your recording will be found.

In the digital age, you no longer have to have a whole album’s worth of music. You can issue a single work or an EP (extended play).  If you have funded one great recording, Sean encourages you to make it available!

Marketing in the New Digital Media World:  Tell a Good Story

Sean and his team at Naxos work hard with artists to craft their story because this is what will get your recording noticed.  He gave the example of the composer John Luther Adams as someone whose interesting story catapulted him to greater fame. 

John Luther Adams works in large, ecological soundscapes that evoke the issues of the environment. Adams spent 25 years living in the middle of Alaska in a house of his own construction, writing in relative obscurity.  In 2015, he moved to Harlem, thus exchanging the wilderness for the wiles of New York City.

His rise of fame was the result of a confluence of circumstances.

First, the Seattle Symphony commissioned a work called Become Ocean, a 45-minute single- movement piece inspired by the northern oceans in Alaska. The work came at a time when climate change and the environment were becoming hot-button issues. Become Ocean was recorded and released on the Canteloupe label.  Both the Seattle Symphony and Canteloupe did a great job promoting the work.  They hired a publicist and engaged in an active social media campaign.  The work won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and the recording won the 2015 Grammy awards for best orchestral work and best composition.

The release of the recording was timed with the Carnegie Hall New York premier of Become Ocean in 2014. The Carnegie Hall concert was a “must see” event that brought out the music community, the critics and an enthusiastic public.

The composer was the subject of  a New York Times Sunday profile which highlighted his move to the Upper West Side and the nature of his work.  John Luther Adams now enjoys a much more prominent place in American music. 

Marketing in the New Digital Media World:  The Proactive Artist

Sean emphasized the today’s artists must proactively bring their work to the attention of the audiences and the music industry.

As an example, Sean indicated that of Naxos’ 37-Grammy nominated recordings this year, 29 were nominated as a direct result of the work by the artists, ensembles and/or composer who promoted their recordings to the Grammy voters, by direct networking and  mobilizing their base of followers and supporters.

A great example of how to promote a recording is the Phoenix Chorale for their recording of Rachmaninov All Night Vigil, the most successful recording of the Chandos label which is distributed by Naxos of America in North America.

The recording was released 100 years after the premier of the piece in St, Petersburg.  For marketing, each member of the Chorale posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on a daily basis, which led to a lot of positive reviews and generated a lot of sales.  In addition, Phoenix Chorale brought 50 members of their chorale to promote the recording at the American Choral Directors Association, an annual conference that is a must for any composer of choral music.  This too generated a lot of excitement about the recording.

The recording also won a Grammy award.

Using Social Media

Sean gave valuable insights into the importance of social media for promoting your work.

Social media-from Facebook to Twitter, Pinterst, Instagram and You Tube—play an increasingly important role in generating album sales, chart positions and reviews. It’s all part of how to get noticed.

Sean cited the importance of You Tube, which is owned by Google. Sean recommends building a list of followers by letting people know that you have created content and sharing it on You Tube.  You Tube is an incredible promotional tool which also has the  potential to generate revenues. More on this next time!

We live in a visual culture so musicians need to have lots of photo or videos of themselves and their music.  Sean recommended Instagram, citing successful musicians like Lara Downs and Valery Gergiev.  While Instagram may be hard for musicians who live in a sound world, Sean encouraged musicians to take photos of themselves doing what they love to do, whether it’s eating interesting food or anything else that projects the image that you want to be known for.

Bottom line:

It has never been easier to make and distribute a recording but you need to do a lot of work to get your recording noticed.  Moreover, labels expect you to be actively engaged in the promotion and marketing of your recording.

Next time:

How today’s artists can proactively shape their careers using the new tools of the digital space and what they need to watch out for.