‘Classical music is not subject to trends and fads. The genre shows longer-term value across generations.’

Trailblazers is an MBW interview series that turns the spotlight on music entrepreneurs making waves in their local markets, who have the potential to become the global business’s power players of tomorrow. This time, we speak to Martin Kudla, Deputy Director and Digital Marketing Manager at Czech record label SUPRAPHON.

Classical music appears to have piqued the interest of both young listeners and big tech over the past couple of years.

In 2020, research published by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, streaming service Deezer, and British record industry body BPI, showed that streams by under 35s had risen by 17% worldwide in the prior year on Deezer’s platform.

The RPO’s study, which took place in May 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, also found that orchestral music had grown in popularity among young people during lockdown.

Meanwhile, last year, classical music’s potential in the marketplace received a major stamp of approval when Apple acquired Netherlands-headquartered classical music streaming service Primephonic.

Apple now plans to launch its own dedicated classical music app, joining a market occupied by the likes of Germany-based classical music app Idagio, with Qobuz and Tidal also catering to classical music fans with their own hi-res streaming options.

Martin Kudla, Deputy Director and Digital Marketing Manager at Czech-born classical music specialist label SUPRAPHON, tells MBW that “the spread of classical music among the younger generation” is being driven by the increased discoverability of the genre on streaming platforms via the likes of “playlists curated by genre and mood”.

“From our collection, for example, the well-known composition of Robert Schumanm, Kinderszenen, interpreted by the exceptional pianist Ivan Moravec, is doing very well,” notes Kudla. 

Kudla explains that the song, Kinderszenen, appears on several Spotify playlists such as Classical Sleep or Classical Essentials, which have over 430,000 likes and 2.9 million likes, respectively.

“In general, classical music is not subject to trends and fads [like] popular music,” adds Kudla. “The genre shows longer-term value across generations.”

Founded in 1932, SUPRAPHON, which was once state-owned and now claims to be the largest independent label in the country, owns a catalog featuring 9,000 titles with the label’s collective streams topping 500 million per year.

Some of SUPRAPHON’s key classical acts include Pavel Haas Quartet, Ivan Moravec, Karel Ančerl, Jiří Bělohlávek, Sir Charles Mackerras, Josef Suk, Jakub Hrůša, Jan Bartoš, while in the pop and rock genres, its signings include the likes of Karel Gott, Lucie Bílá, Škwor, Marek Ztracený, Tomáš Klus, Divokej Bill, TataBojs and many more.

Kudla joined the company in 2017 in an A&R and marketing capacity after graduating with a master’s degree in Theory and History of Music. In parallel, he performs as a musician in several independent bands. Kudla has been working as Deputy Director for SUPRAPHON since the beginning of 2022.

Here, he tells MBW about SUPRAPHON’s history, his views on the pro-rata versus user-centric streaming royalty debate for niche genres, and challenges and opportunities in the classical music space…

SUPRAPHON was founded many years ago – To what does the label owe its longevity?

The company was founded in the 1930s and since then has gone through many significant events and changes. We can say that such longevity was made possible by a combination of many factors. 

Historically, the political and economic situation in the country played an important role, as well as the early development of the phonographic industry which SUPRAPHON witnessed from the beginning.

The company was owned by the state for a long time. It had all the conditions for recording in the highest quality with the best artists locally, but also with guest artists from around the world. Especially in classical music, the catalog covers the highest quality interpretation [of classical music] for three-quarters of a century.

In more recent times, several good strategic decisions have been made in the context of the transition to the digital market, the digitization of the archive, the development of our e-shop, or the signing of new successful artists.

  What are SUPRAPHON´s long-term ambitions?

In the long term, there are a lot of challenges ahead of us, which will first have to be overcome to reach the fulfillment of our ambitions. We feel a great responsibility to the tradition and the brand, but at the same time, we need to keep up with the fast pace of the constantly developing music industry.

In general, our ambition is to provide artists with the best services in the field, to expand the catalog with outstanding talents, and last but not least, to ensure the economic prosperity and growth of the company.

Concerning the genre of classical music, we would like to devote ourselves more systematically to contemporary music and find new ways of promoting it. We would very much like the SUPRAPHON brand to continue to represent high quality, especially in the field of Czech music and Czech performers.

What differentiates Supraphon from other players in the market?

Several labels are operating locally, from the smallest independents to the local branches of major labels. And then there is SUPRAPHON. Unlike smaller labels, we provide a more comprehensive portfolio of services, operating in a wide range of genres including rock, pop, classical music, and spoken word. 

Although in some respects, together with the size and services we provide for the artists, SUPRAPHON shares certain similarities with the majors, it is the biggest truly independent company with a broad spectrum of activities, ranging from releasing records to distribution, artist management, and booking to retail. SUPRAPHON owns two established music goods e-shops and a music store in the center of Prague. 

In addition, we are the largest classical music label in the country. This leads us to a global market where the brand is often associated with an emphasis on nationality as a representative of high-quality recordings of domestic as well as worldwide composers, performed by artists of unique local talent.

And finally, a substantial difference is the fact that it is a Czech company owned by Czech owners with a long-standing tradition and extensive archive.

 What are the biggest challenges in the classical music market currently and how are you strategizing to overcome those challenges?

We have excellent musicians who can stand up to [global] competition and we also have an interesting repertoire. On an international scale, it is crucial to maintain attractiveness and visibility so that even the best musicians are still interested in releasing their recordings with us.

At the same time, it is necessary to acquire partners who will be willing to support the recordings. This brings us to the next challenge: the financing of demanding projects like classical music titles often are. 

Regarding streaming platforms, the thing is, that the currently most [commonly] applied revenue payment model within digital usage does not generate sufficient resources in the genre of classical music to cover costs, therefore it is a big challenge to secure funds so that the quality of the repertoire can be maintained without compromise.

Also, most of the established streaming platforms are not ideally prepared for the specifics of classical music, so sometimes certain difficulties arise when working with metadata and especially when searching for content.

However, in the field of classical music, we consider the continuing interest in physical carriers and downloading FLAC and Hi-Res digital files to be very positive.

Where, geographically, are you seeing the biggest growth currently?

Currently, the local market development largely follows the global trend. By this, I mean the steadily growing digital market for several years, which is a strong driver for the entire industry. 

On the whole, in terms of turnover from digital revenues, the top 10 strongest markets include the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Canada, and Japan. 

As far as physical products are concerned, the strongest markets are more or less similar to digital sales, but in a different order: the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, United States, Germany, United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, Japan, Canada, and Austria.

Globally, we hear more and more about new developing markets in India and Africa, but concerning our catalog, we do not see these trends in our reports yet.

What trends are you seeing in the market that we should know about?

As part of the digital transition, there are more marketing and promotional options available to us today than ever before and the only limit is our creativity. 

Everyone is eagerly anticipating the possibilities that the metaverse and NFTs will bring, the penetration of which we can also watch locally in sports, music, and the field of visual arts.

The expansion of social networks and especially short-form video [platforms] like TikTok and YouTube Shorts allow emerging talents to become famous almost overnight. We have open access to all information, there are tools for recommending songs to playlists, AI base visualization generators for music videos, and many other options.

In such a flood of possibilities, it will be very important in the future to maintain focus on the creation and at the same time maintain good mental health, which I consider the basis of long-term sustainability and the development of a healthy ecosystem for artists.

  How big is your physical business versus your streaming business?

A large part of SUPRAPHONs catalog is more aimed at the target group of customers of physical products, which we also monitor in our reports. All in all, regardless of genre, we can confirm a continually increasing trend of digital sales in the last years. As for physical media, regardless of genre, it is interesting that compared to the downward trend in the global market, we note that the sales of physical media have remained at a more stable level in the last three years.

Apple acquired classical music streaming service Primephonic in 2021, how significant was this acquisition for the future of the genre?

The fact that Apple has become more interested in classical music and its listeners is an important signal. Their current streaming application is great, but it is not sufficiently prepared for the specifics of classical music, so if some of the problematic pitfalls mentioned above are taken into account, it is beneficial for the genre that alongside other specialized platforms such as Idagio, Tidal or Qobuz there will coexist another well-tuned service.

There is an argument that adopting a user-centric licensing model for streaming services, rather than a ‘pro rata’ streaming payout system, would benefit artists in genres such as classical and jazz. What are your views on this?

This is a very complex topic that encourages heated debates. There always will be some who prefer the pro-rata model, because it is most beneficial for the biggest names with a wide group of less diverse listeners. On the other hand, some people argue that the pro-rata model does not maintain a fair way of settling smaller artists and minority genres and therefore prefer a user-centric model.

Another opinion is that the payout system should not be based only on the number of plays, but also on the length of the played song, which could be beneficial, especially for classical music or the spoken word.

So, from this point of view, for independent artists, jazz musicians, and classical music a combination of user-centric and the [latter] option, which also takes into account the length of the song, might be more beneficial. We’ll see where these heated debates lead, in any case, artists should be able to voluntarily choose platforms with a preferred payout model. Time will tell if any of the major players will agree to these changes.

 What advice would you give to an independent label looking to become the next Supraphon?

The most important thing is to keep your passion for music, have a good intuition and surround yourself with a strong team of people who share the same vision.

  If there was one thing you could change about the music business, what would it be and why?

I consider [it] very important to preserve the freedom of artistic expression so that even in the coming decades we can look back and enjoy a legacy of which we can be proud. 

Trailblazers is supported by Believe. Believe offers advice to independent artists and labels, in addition to distributing and promoting their music through a portfolio of brands including TuneCore, Nuclear Blast, Naïve, Groove Attack and AllPoints.Music Business Worldwide

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