10 years down the line
Although I find it hard to believe, PentaTone has been around for 10 years now. Hard to believe, because it still feels like yesterday that I was invited to a surround sound demo at the Polyhymnia studio, organized by my former Philips Classics colleagues, Dirk van Dijk and Job Maarse.
That was during the autumn of 2001, when I was working as a free-lance lawyer. Previously, from 1982 until the end of 1999, I had worked for Philips Classics, where I was responsible for the legal and business affairs of the company. A dream job for a lawyer who loves classical music. It enabled me to travel the world, attend exciting concerts, and meet extremely interesting people. This all ended in 1999, when the management of Universal Classics decided that three classical labels was overkill in an already saturated market. The solution was to "fold" Philips Classics into Decca in London, which meant end of story for the Philips Classics employees working in the Netherlands.
The surround sound demo at Polyhymnia (the former Philips Classics Recording Centre) was highly convincing. Within an hour, I was left in no doubt that the new DSD / SA-CD technology developed by Sony and Philips Electronics had the potential to revitalize the classical music business, and that SA-CD could easily become the successor to the stereo CD. Surround sound proved to be so natural, so much closer to what we hear in the concert hall than stereo sound. For classical music in particular, it seemed that a transition to surround sound would be a logical step, just as stereo had taken over from mono in the past.
I happily accepted the invitation to join Dirk van Dijk and Job Maarse in their initiative to launch a new label that would specialize in making and marketing recordings in the new surround format. Job had more than 30 years experience in A&R and as a recording producer, and Dirk had been working for an equal amount of time as editor, product manager and logistical manager. The know-how of the three founder-members allowed us to cover most of the skills needed to start a new label, and thus PentaTone was born.
PentaTone kicked off with an immediate hit. We managed to get permission to make a recording of the music performed at the wedding ceremony of the Dutch Crown prince, Willem-Alexander, and his bride Maxima. The album was recorded a month prior to the actual wedding, so that we could release it a day after the ceremony, using excerpts from the television registration for advertising purposes. Universal distributed the album, making an excellent job of it, and over 75,000 copies were sold.
The next major success was a recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, coupled with a new work by the French composer Jean Pascal Beintus. Beintus also created a story of a boy called Peter and a Wolf, yet situated the story in modern times, where environmental problems caused problems for the animals. As narrators, we managed to get on board former presidents Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as legendary actress Sophia Loren.
Unfortunately, the SA-CD format did not become the overnight success we had hoped for: amongst other reasons, due to the more or less simultaneous launch of a similar high-end surround format (DVD-Audio), which triggered a format war between the two camps representing these technologies. This battle between the owners of the patents of both systems confused consumers, media and retailers alike, and resulted in the stagnation of both formats. Eventually, SA-CD was the winner, but the momentum was gone. In addition, the inventors of the SA-CD format failed to organize a uniform approach amongst the hardware and software industries. Thus, a great opportunity was lost to establish a new sound-carrier with the potential to revitalize the recording business. Notwithstanding all these setbacks, SA-CD has grown steadily over the past 10 years and has become the format for the connoisseur. This format was embraced by music lovers, who appreciate quality, and audiophiles alike; and after 10 years, we can safely conclude that SA-CD is a stable market – albeit a relatively small one – and that PentaTone is one of the leading SA-CD labels. The slow acceptance of surround sound does not imply that the founders of PentaTone no longer believe in it. We are still convinced that surround sound will eventually replace stereo, but perhaps not through SA-CD. Possibly the breakthrough will be triggered by Blu-ray audio, or downloading, or streaming in surround. No matter, we will continue to build up a catalogue that will remain "future-proof".
Apart from the new PentaTone recordings – at present, totalling more than 130 - we have also released over 80 Quadraphonic recordings made back in the '70s by Philips Classics. At that time, a number of companies launched the Quad LP technology, which turned out to be a commercial flop. And although Philips Classics made a lot of 4-channel recordings for this system, they were never released on Quad LP, as it soon became clear that the technology was not a success. Subsequently, the recordings were mixed down to stereo, and released first on stereo LP, and later on CD. With the arrival of SA-CD, it was possible for the first time to enjoy the surround qualities of these recordings as they were originally intended.
The PentaTone brand is now firmly established within the market, and has become synonymous for quality, both artistic and technical. We have won numerous awards in most fields and countries. Although the market for classical CDs has been shrinking during the past 10 years, the demand for PentaTone recordings has increased. We have survived the bankruptcy of one of our distributors, the bankruptcy of Tower Records, and have not fallen victim to the credit crunch. PentaTone is here to stay.
In order to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our label, we have selected 10 albums to include in an anniversary box: one dating from each year of our existence. Not necessarily the bestsellers and award-winners, but a selection that provides as true a representation as possible of the artists with whom we have worked during these past 10 years. It has proven difficult to do justice to all of them, but we have done our best. As a bonus CD, we have added a compilation containing tracks from a number of albums not included in the selection. At the end of this compilation album, there are surround sound effects and test tones that will enable you to optimize the position of your speakers in order to further enhance your enjoyment of your PentaTone SA-CDs.