The Divine Art Interview with Stephen Sutton
30 Years of Classical Adventure
This interview is based on an exchange of emails in April/May 2023 between Stephen Sutton of Divine Art and Rob Barnett of MWI.
Just to set things running please outline your own background including childhood and first musical experiences.
In brief: my home town is South Shields where I was born in 1954. My parents were not highly musical; my dad was a fan of singers like Vera Lynn, Anne Shelton and Ronnie Ronalde. My mother had some knowledge of core classics – a very narrow field back then! – as well as pop. My first musical experiences were 100% rock and roll. My half-brother (10 years older than me) was a steward on transatlantic liners and on every trip brought back a pile of American pop 45s and a few LPs by the Everlys, Presley etc and at age 5, I was allowed access to the radiogram to play them. That also sowed the seeds for my main hobby of collecting vintage records! I first experienced ‘art music’ – I won’t use the misleading term ‘classical’ – at junior school – Thursdays brought assembly with a BBC radio music programme and our form teacher Mr Ramshaw brought a record in to play – so at 10 I knew Handel’s Water Music and Amahl and the Night Visitors.
My mother bought me the Water Music and The Planets to begin my recorded music learning but I was always more interested in experimenting with all genres rather than being musically educated in any regular sense. I learned by picking up random LPs – still do! – and knew much more about the then exotic (now common) music of Mahler, Khachaturian, Bloch, Nielsen…… I never had a music lesson so built up what knowledge I have – and it’s still relatively basic – bit by bit by pure experience.
What has been the course of your working life?
In music I am delighted to call myself a devoted amateur; in the best sense I hope. Having graduated from secondary school I studied Law at Birmingham University (1972-75), achieved an LL.B hons, and took the Law Society exams at the College of Law in Christleton, Cheshire, then entering the legal profession as a general practitioner (mainly conveyancing, probate and commercial/company work). I ran my own firm with four branches around Tyneside, then moved to be an executive with two building societies, before returning to private practice in South Shields.
I sold the firm and retired from the law in 2007, having meanwhile ventured into the recording world – see the next bit!
Entrepreneur or recording engineer?
If either, the former – though I think entrepreneurs tend to work in commercially attractive markets not the arts! I’d refer to myself as an enabler. No formal training in anything musical or technical, all self-taught but driven by two things – a love of music (of all types from early baroque to the avant-garde via heavy metal and prog rock) and a subconscious ambition to run a record label (for a school project at age 9, I set up a theoretical label called White House with graphics, catalogue numbers and artists…).
When we first started Divine Art I did act as Producer but my law office work made it difficult to find the time so I gave that up after three years; on the engineering side I have no aptitude, but did teach myself audio restoration so I could re-master some analogue tapes we had (BBC recordings) and also work on our Historic Sound series along with Andrew Rose who was working with us before setting up Pristine Audio as an independent label.
What were your enduring musical experiences: – radio – recordings – concerts?
So many – and yet life has had so many major changes, in work, location and so on that they don’t come to mind unless triggered by a conversation or something on TV. I am not a keen concert or theatre-goer (heresy I know) but in terms of live music nothing can compete with the Reginald Goodall Ring Cycle which I saw while at University, right up in the top gallery of the Birmingham Hippodrome – so hot at least ten people around me fainted and had to be dragged out… Radio was my introduction to modern music as Radio 3 had some really good programmes back then (around 1968-70) and browsing at random I found R3 and a programme of contemporary string quartets (by whom I cannot recall) and music by Bartók and Revueltas!
As I said before, my recordings were acquired at random and (I suppose like many people) the first ones still live in my head clearly even though I’ve now built an archive of over 15,000 albums. Those first buys cemented a massive admiration for Mahler’s symphonies and those of Khachaturian and Nielsen; an admiration which remains to this day. If I had to pick only one work for my Desert Island it would be Mahler 2.
A short career in choral societies also gave me works that I love above all else like Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony.
How did the early days of The Divine Art go?
You recall I said that I had the urge to run a record company while still at junior school? The chance came with a project to raise money for the restoration of our fine Walker organ in St Mungo’s Church in Simonburn. A bell rang in my head and I said that I’d arrange a recording (once the work was complete). At the same time there were two amazing coincidences (or fate intervened). I had set up a company for a client who was importing jewellery and called it Divine Art. He decided not to proceed, and somewhere (no idea where, now) I had come across an ancient quote which went “The divine art of musick toucheth the very Soule”. So there in early 1993 we had the name of the Company and our Motto. The recording was brought out on cassette (all proceeds to the church fund) in May 1993 and in a few months had sold 700 copies around the North Tyne villages.
At that time we also held an Early Music Festival in the village and seeing the organ tapes for sale, Peter Harrison of Concert Royal, who were performing that day, mentioned that he had issued two cassettes privately but wanted to make a CD and did I know how to go about it. The answer was ‘No I have no idea’ but a bit of research meant that a few months later we were releasing our first official commercial recording ‘Cantatas from the Georgian Drawing-room’ I had no inkling that this disc of obscure secular cantatas would be the first little step in a slow growth of titles which later became a torrent (and is now a tsunami) of new projects.
The cantatas CD had been sent to radio stations and led to a call to ask if we would be interested in a recording of music for four cellos (something which at that time had not been done): so CD 2 ‘A Celebration of Cellos’ arrived along with a phone call from pianist Murray McLachlan whose then label (Olympia) would only accept Russian repertoire; CD 3 was Murray’s ‘The Scottish Romantics’. This was heard by another pianist, Peter Seivewright who signed up in 1996 and introduced me to our first overseas artist, Trevor Barnard in Australia, while in that year we undertook our first collaboration – with BBC Scotland – to record the Aberdeen Youth Choir.
Basically the label has (apart from a couple of acquisitions I will come to) grown in that way ever since – 100% artist-led – excepting only the Historic Sound series re-mastered from my own vintage collection. It’s all word of mouth so I very much hope that means that our musical clients are happy! Only today (26 April 2023) a new recording has been brought to me via the recommendation of a producer/engineer and two others from existing signed artists. It’s quite amazing also how sometimes a new client/recording can turn up out of the blue and lead to great things such as our substantial series of symphonies and chamber works by Artyomov – phenomenal music.
How much is down to your own self-initiated choices and how much down to resources from composers/artists?
I think this is answered above: the answer to the first question is “no” principally because we just have enough coming in to keep us very fully occupied – to say the least – and being artist (and composer) led is far better I think in widening my own knowledge, and also providing a varied, fascinating and eclectic catalogue, both in contemporary music and also in rediscovered rarities from the past. We’d need a lot more resource to add in a regular cycle of commissioned recordings – our average output ranges between 30 and 50 releases each year; in 2023 we will probably see about 45 new titles issued. While at the very beginning the idea was only to produce premiere recordings, this rule was relaxed as the catalogue grew but I would estimate that over 80% of our titles have premiere or ‘only’ recordings.
Have you been offered chances of recordings or whole labels to release?
Again so far as individual recordings are concerned, yes that is our sole modus operandi. Acquisitions have also occurred as well as organic growth, starting in 2005 when we took over Athene which had been founded by fortepianist Joanna Leach in 1991; we acquired a catalogue of 20 released titles and four ‘ready to go’. After a short intermission we relaunched the label as a platform for early and baroque music and historic instruments including ‘The Great Violins’ – now up to volume 4 with more to come. Shortly after that we took over Dunelm, a small ‘made to order’ imprint run by Jim Pattison, who sadly passed away shortly afterwards. Most of the 200+ Dunelm titles were for private use by artists or of only local interest but some were exceptional and we took the best 20 or so and re-issued them on our lower price Diversions label. This included the seven volumes of piano music by Erik Chisholm played by Murray McLachlan which drew one of our nicest review quotes (from MusicWeb International of course).
I suppose the major acquisition was that of Métier in 2007. It’s important to avoid confusion here: the original company, Metier Sound and Vision, was a full production one stop shop; it had been established in 1992 and had about 75 titles in its list and about ten recordings ready for final mastering. We took over management of the existing catalogue and recordings as Métier Records while David Lefeber continues his excellent production work as Metier Sound and Vision. We’ve since seen the Métier list grow to some 200 titles. Currently we are in discussions to possibly ingest two small European labels into the group.
Off the music scene, in 2008 we bought out Heritage Media, a radio production company – we have not fully tapped it yet but have released CD/digital albums of historical radio dramas of the early 1950s including the John Gielgud/Ralph Richardson Sherlock Holmes series – which sells really well still!
How are the costs of recording handled and does this include funding from artists and ensembles/managements?
We work on a number of bases, looking at the cost of a project overall from the research and recording, editing, design, production and printing, distribution, marketing and all the peripherals. Generally speaking we assume that the recording will be paid for and we share costs of the project going forward. Those shares depend on other terms and specifications depending on what the artist / composer / independent producer wants out of the process in terms of products to sell, royalty levels etc. I won’t go into detail as we have had our documentation and methods pinched by other labels in the past!
Have you found or wanted any scope for financing by music composer trusts etc?
External financing can come from many sources, sadly many are less generous in today’s post-Covid economy and general pop culture. We assist artists (and here again I include composers) in making applications to trusts, and sometimes crowd-funding; because we work with many contemporary composers working in academe, some recordings can be financed through educational research grants which have been very useful especially in the UK and USA.
What business format has The Divine Art taken:- private limited liability company ….?
Our original business is the private limited company Divineart Ltd. formed by myself and John Williams and that continues as our core enterprise. In 2008 I moved to the USA and with my wife set up Diversions LLC to run the American side of Divine Art together also with a concert venue (“Brandon Music”) and the Compass Music and Arts Center which houses our main offices, art gallery, music and book stores, collectibles shop and phonograph/radio museum. Since then actually the US office has been the principal administration centre for our worldwide operation, while both companies contribute to the catalogue and deal with our clients. At the present, due to the expiry of our US visa and wishing to make life a bit simpler, we are closing the US side over the summer of 2023 (and hoping very much to find a buyer for our 52,000 square foot HQ building) – the business will be consolidated in UK as we progress a few interesting plans for growth.
How many of your CDs are directly profitable/big sellers?
Direct profitability isn’t something we discuss – and we perhaps don’t monitor expenses (by reference to individual albums) in as much detail as we might. The term ‘big sellers’ has a very different connotation now than it did back in the mid 90s when we’d probably have a target sale for a CD of 5 times what it is now – and in our experience the digital and streaming turnover in no way yet makes up for the reduction in physical CD sales overall. So in terms of “best” sellers, I’d pick those titles that well outperformed others released at around the same time; head and shoulders above all would be the Avison Ensemble recording of the six Cello Concertos by John Garth which had a great start thanks to daily play on Classic FM. Sixteen years later it is still among our top 20 performers in most months.
Other high spots would be the Complete Chopin Nocturnes by Bernard d’Ascoli and in digital terms ‘Chronological Chopin’ by Burkard Schliessmann, a triple SACD /Surround-sound recording. More recently a stand-out would be the two double discs of Saint-Saëns piano music by Antony Gray. One could add the first recording of the Four Seasons (the one by G.A. Guido, not Vivaldi). On the whole, though, we deal in niche, contemporary and rare music which tends to reach a smaller market more gradually. But the reality is that commercial success and artistic excellence in our current culture are not parallel concepts. As a company we see artistic vision and enabling artists to progress their careers as the prime objective, not purely securing profit. One only has to look at what has happened to the old great former glorious labels that inspired me and many, now subsumed into big corporations that seem to have turned their back on the real music world.
Helpful to know how you function as employer/contractor?
For 99% of its history Divine Art has been just me, with temporary input from the owners of labels we acquired, and currently my wife Edna looks after the stock control and accounts of the US branch. Previous employees shared their time between the label and our arts centre in Vermont and have now left to be replaced by independent PR and marketing agents in the UK and USA who are doing a great job. Most recently and importantly, in October 2022 we entered into a collaboration agreement with Mill Media, in Cheshire and its owner and artistic director James Cardell-Oliver has become our principal Project Manager. James is gradually taking over the project-based tasks from me, so I can concentrate on general and strategic management. Also he will keep the ship moving while I am relocating and finding a new home in the UK. James is now also able to produce promotional videos for us in-house as well as being able to engineer and produce new audio recordings.
How is audio-technical, venue choice and design work handled?
There are some great audio technicians around and I wouldn’t want to pick names – suffice to say that we work with excellent engineers and producers in many countries and hope very much to continue doing so, as well as bringing new recordings in-house, something we have not been able to do until now.
As an artist-led label we can advise but the choice of engineers and locations is generally made by the performers. Style-wise (if we are talking about the CD packaging design), we try to make each cover relevant to the recording and to co-ordinate the appearance and colour schemes of the other parts – disc labels, inlay cards or multi-disc boxes and digipaks. Over the years we have set up a number of basic layouts as a framework for the graphics and text and this keeps evolving.
Recording in studio as against recording live?
I’d just say that I personally don’t prefer live recordings. In our catalogue we have perhaps 5 or 6 live albums at most.
How about your experiences with record review magazines and websites
Very variable! I can be very positive and say that the support and quality of reviews from MusicWeb International has been excellent for as long as I can recall; specialist magazines and websites are quite willing to give space to special projects (the latest International Piano has a three page article and review of our new 5CD set of Geoffrey Allen Piano Sonatas). Fanfare in the US is also very generous with review allocation. Let’s just say that some other publications are not quite so co-operative as they used to be or that one would wish.
Have you branched out into music book and music score publishing?
There are many areas where activity can be broadened out in support of the main business – we did publish two books for musician clients but that was never intended to be an ongoing activity. We set up the Divine Art Edition a while back (it was originally named Brandon Music Publishing after our performance venue Brandon Music Café) to offer a music publication service alongside issuing recordings. Unfortunately my then co-director (the one with the publishing experience) became ill and had to retire; with about thirty works in the catalogue (distributed by ourselves and Naxos Sheet Music) we have put this on ice and are looking into re-activating the Edition once our current re-organisation is completed next spring.
Have there been any areas of difficulty: design … programme notes?
Design has never been a problematic issue – we invite artists to suggest artwork if they wish and apart from a very small number of cases all of the design work has been done in our office (by me until the end of 2022 and now by James). Similarly we prefer musicians to provide programme notes – and where possible contributions from both composers and performers. Where needed we can call upon a number of excellent note-writers. The trick of course is to prepare notes that are comprehensive enough – more for interesting new and rare works, less for the well-trodden ones – with a bit of a personal touch, not just a technical description. Conversely one tries to persuade certain artists to avoid extreme prolixity which can bore readers and increase printing costs. The record (and one where the length can be fully justified) is the 100 page booklet accompanying our 5-CD set of Michael Finnissy’s opus maximus “The History of Photography in Sound” which was an edited version of pianist Ian Pace’s Ph.D. dissertation.
Attitude to translation of English notes?
As with most elements the decision to include translations is made on a case by case basis. In most cases we don’t find it necessary but where an album is to be pitched at a certain market then a local translation is useful; the historic norms are French and German but we’ve always included Italian notes in our Galuppi Piano Sonata series, Russian (Cyrillic) in the Artyomov Retrospectives and others from Greek to Armenian.
Your own preferences in music?
Very catholic and not ‘cool’ – in terms of art music I sway towards big orchestral (Romantic/post-romantic) pieces – often far removed from the mainstream, and for non-classical music, mainly 70s-90s British rock and 30s hot dance and swing….; however having a massive archive to hand I often dig into a box at random and will quite happily listen to 14th century troubadour songs, contemporary string quartets, parlour ballads, modern jazz and Mantovani.
Views on other labels?
I get frustrated when journalists still refer to ‘the majors’ because the great labels of the past are either gone (HMV naturally the main one) or are a pale shadow of their former selves. It’s a matter of great sadness to a record archivist. My inspiration came from them at first, when they had an exciting repertoire, then from the burgeoning independents like Lyrita, ASV, Chandos, Signum and Hyperion. I suppose above all Hyperion’s Ted Perry was my chief inspiration to begin with so I was very sorry to see that they have sold out. We’ve also developed and grown in parallel (though with different policies) with Toccata Classics and I have the greatest respect and admiration for Martin Anderson.
Artist feedback on reviews?
We make it clear to artists that if we send an album out for review, we have to accept what is written and not take umbrage at criticism – unless there are errors of fact which need to be addressed.
The Divine Art family of labels?
Our original label Divine Art continues for general releases of music from many genres and eras; Diversions was introduced in 1994 for lighter music and re-releases (from other acquired catalogues) principally; Métier is for contemporary works (though there is some crossover with DA) and Athene now features historic instruments and early/baroque music though its list still contains some valued recordings such as the complete Havergal Brian piano music. Although we do have also Historic Sound, Heritage Media and Pilgrims Star, the above mentioned four are our ongoing series (but look out for some additions over the next few months).
In any sense you have picked up ‘batons’ from others and run with the results?
Not being brought up or having worked in the music industry, I ‘winged it’ using my experience as a commercial contract lawyer to produce our documentation and pretty much going it alone. I’ve taken advice and help from a number of friends running small labels and have tried to reciprocate as much as possible. I do believe that the more we independent labels co-operate the stronger we can all be.
Unfairly overlooked pianists on Athene or Divine Art?
Many superb artists, whether performers or composers, never get the recognition that they fully deserve (and not just the ones that we are proud to represent), due to today’s ‘celebrity culture’ which often pitches the second rate (and third rate) musicians into the public eye at the expense of the real talents. I suppose one could think of a number of reasons for this but it was ever so; many of the greatest classical composers were ‘not appreciated in their lifetimes’ – and one is these days highly reliant on the personal choices of editors in deciding whether or not to feature the substantial amount of material we and other labels produce on behalf of both established and new up-and-coming musicians.
… and the ones that got away?
Several but we don’t think about those, and are happy if they do well elsewhere!
Attitudes to deletion
I was amused and a little annoyed to read a letter (to Fanfare) a couple years ago from the head of a very fine label claiming that it was the only one in the world with a no-deletion policy. From the very beginning we have had the same policy subject only to those recordings issued under a fixed term licence. Only one recording has been fully deleted as such by agreement, where the composer had created a new and very different version of a work; two other original titles were taken out only to make way for slightly updated versions so they don’t count as deletions in my view. So as at 30 April apart from one title, our entire catalogue remains fully available – and in this our 30th anniversary month I am exceptionally honoured to say that we now have just over 650 live titles, representing, to a greater or lesser degree, 1062 composers and 937 featured artists – with about 30-35 new releases coming before the end of this year and plenty in the pipeline for a year or two ahead.
How has the world of download and streaming affected the label?
From a producer’s point of view, commercially, selling CDs and downloads makes sense. Streaming benefits the customer only, and is likely to result in a fall in production quality (in terms of artwork, programme notes and so on, all of which require upfront capital expense) and we note increasing numbers of reviews bemoaning the lack of any notes or biographies; and as a company are determined to maintain the highest standards in this regard. Our catalogue is fully represented in all formats, and we will continue to make a physical disc, whether CD or SACD, in every case to meet the continuing preferences of the core of classical buyers. From a personal point of view I have never streamed any music nor do I intend to!
Your prophecies for the future of the ‘industry’
I do see the intangible (streaming etc) as taking over eventually and once this is universal I shall not be involved. I trust those who don’t keep their music on a physical medium understand that any Cloud or digital provider can vanish (or start charging a ransom for file retrieval) at any time.
Future of DA – how much dependent on you – long-term contingency planning?
Yes DA is my creation and I am very proud of the achievement and feel so honoured to work with so many superb musicians, but it has also meant non-stop work and no holidays for the last 15 years plus… hence our recent joint venture work with Mill Media. With a working partner in place I have begun to share the workload and, I hope, can look also toward a succession strategy, having passed retirement age some time ago. I will step back at some point for sure, but not for some time yet and I now have in my sights the next target which is the 700th release – sometime around the end of the year!
The Divine Art website: https://divineartrecords.com/