Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lang Lang moves

From Bloomberg - The richest headhunt ever seen in classical music has ended with the world’s most coveted pianist switching teams at a critical moment for the industry.

The Chinese musician Lang Lang, 27, has signed for Sony Classical for $3 million, an executive familiar with the move at his old label Deutsche Grammophon told me. A Sony spokeswoman in London said that the company wouldn’t comment.

Lang Lang is credited with an explosion of music teaching in his own country, where more than 40 million children are said to be taking private piano lessons. A tinkling of Ravel can be heard from high-rises in boomtown Tianjin.

He has been a star in the west and an Elvis-like figure back home ever since he sold out Carnegie Hall, performing the Grieg concerto at the age of 19 in 2001. He was mobbed on his first return to Beijing with the Philadelphia Orchestra that year. The pianist signed a record contract with Deutsche Grammophon, part of Vivendi SA’s Universal Music Group.

He released his first disc in 2003 featuring concertos by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

Since then, Lang Lang has regularly topped the classical charts and, on occasion, achieved sales of pop music dimensions. In a specialist genre where releases sell in a few hundreds, Lang Lang sells in the hundreds of thousands.

Opening the Beijing Olympics in July 2008 on a snow-white piano, he was watched by more than five billion viewers and achieved bigger worldwide recognition than any classical hero since Luciano Pavarotti. A piano manufacturer created the Lang Lang Steinway. The Prince of Wales asked him to premiere a concerto he had commissioned in memory of his grandmother, the Queen Mother. Lang Lang had the world at his feet and was accustomed to getting his own way.

At the rarified Deutsche Grammophon, which shelters such media-averse pianists as Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman, Lang Lang’s noisy populism was never an easy fit. When he demanded the dismissal of Yundi Li, the first Chinese winner of the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, the label acquiesced immediately, according to a dissenting producer. (Yundi Li has put a softer spin on his departure). Lang Lang was the one artist no label could afford to lose.

So when Sony rebooted its classical wing last April after a long dormancy, the new chief Bogdan Roscic was given an open checkbook and told: “Get Lang Lang.”

Last week, at the Midem Festival in Cannes, France, the industry was abuzz with leaks and executive rumors that Sony Classical had signed Lang Lang for $3 million -- peanuts for a footballer but so huge for a classical artist that the Sony Corp. provided funds from outside the classical budget. The U.K. magazine Gramophone reported the move on Jan. 26, without giving a figure.

Although Sony has refused to comment on either the signing or the sum involved, an executive at Deutsche Grammophon confirmed both the signing and the fee in an e-mail to me.

Lang Lang wasn’t immediately available for comment. He was playing in Madrid at the weekend in the national auditorium. Lang Lang is also involved in raising funds for Haiti as a Unicef ambassador. His responsiveness to world affairs is another source of value to the music industry. He signed a three-year sponsorship agreement with Sony in April 2008 to promote its hardware products globally.

The implications of his transfer extend far beyond the cloisters of classical music. Sony has scored a blow against the market leader while Universal has been caught in transition, with its chairman Doug Morris due to step down this summer.

At stake is the last frontier for western classical music -- the burgeoning middle-classes of the east Asia economies. In China, recorded music is routinely pirated and consumers are unused to paying for their stars. Those habits can only be changed by an artist of Lang Lang’s compelling attraction --and all labels are aware of that.

EMI has just signed Yundi Li on the rebound, while Deutsche Grammophon has Yuja Wang in the offing -- with support from conductor Claudio Abbado, who chose her to open his Lucerne Festival last summer.

Still, the capture of Lang Lang gives Sony a decisive advantage.

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