Decca dies again (US only)

Decca dies again (US only)


norman lebrecht

October 31, 2013

Four years ago, I broke the news that Universal Music Group had decided to abolish the Decca label. The report elicited a backlash that finally swept away the executive who launched the plan with the result that Decca was saved for humanity.

But not for all humanity. We’ve just had a release saying the name is being dropped in a corporate UMG reshuffle in the US. I’m sorry to hear that. riccidecca

Universal Music Classics Revitalized with New Label Name, Strategic A&R

Focus, Partnerships and Initiatives with Leading Arts Institutions & Key

New Appointments


October 30, 2013 (New York, NY) — Elizabeth Sobol, newly appointed President & CEO of Universal Music Classics, is spearheading the division’s revitalized commitment to the best that “classics” stands for – music rooted in the classical tradition, while also encompassing a variety of genres including contemporary, jazz, and world music.  Formerly known as Decca Label Group, the new Universal Music Classics (UMC) aims to “re-imagine classics,” with a new focus on U.S. based A&R signings, while remaining the American home of the prestigious Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Mercury Classics and Panorama imprints, and continuing its long-standing relationship with the esteemed ECM label.


The division’s new strategies are highlighted by recent key staff appointments by Sobol, who was named President & CEO of the division earlier this year by Max Hole, Chairman & CEO of Universal Music Group International.   Elizabeth Sobol brings her wide-ranging and deep expertise to the role including serving as Managing Director of IMG Artists, and many years as personal manager to internationally renowned artists including Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Emerson String Quartet, Evgeny Kissin and James Galway.


Sobol’s first two notable executive appointments since taking up the role are Leslie Collman-Smith, who recently joined UMC as Senior Vice President of Marketing, and Collin Rae who has joined as Vice President of Digital Sales and Marketing.


Formerly of Sony’s Masterworks label, Collman-Smith was instrumental in campaigns for key artists including Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, The Piano Guys and Tedeschi Trucks Band, among many others.  She began her career at Sony Music Distribution in 1994, and joined Sony Classical in 2004 as Director of Marketing, later becoming VP of Marketing and Media for the label.  At UMC, Collman-Smith’s primary area of focus will be leading marketing efforts on non-core classical releases, as well as working on new initiatives, business development and revenue diversification.


In his new role, Rae joins UMC with a strong background in marketing and the digital space, having spent six years at Naxos of America overseeing both digital marketing and special projects.  In his new role he will be the main liaison with iTunes for the division and will lead the creation and implementation of strategic marketing plans for both frontline and catalogue UMC titles.  Collman-Smith and Rae both report to Sobol, with immediate effect.


With an emphasis on cultivating new artists for UMC, Sobol’s first signing is the Curtis Institute-trained Time For Three, who will be recording their UMC debut later this year with special guest Joshua Radin, with their release and a subsequent tour also featuring Radin planned for 2014.  Sobol has also joined forces with the Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Gelb to release the historic and triumphant return to the podium of James Levine, in concert with Evgeny Kissin and the MET Opera Orchestra recorded earlier this year at Carnegie Hall.  The recording was released September 30th on Deutsche Grammophon.


As part of UMC’s new strategy, the division is announcing partnerships with like-minded organizations who share UMC’s goal of engaging with a younger and wider audience for “classics.”  Epitomizing this approach, in November UMG’s international “Yellow Lounge,” a classics-meets-club initiative will launch in the U.S. “Yellow Lounge” presents a new generation of vibrant classical artists who break musical and cultural boundaries, in visually innovative and alternative spaces.  Yellow Lounge’s U.S. partners include The Sonos Studio in Los Angeles (11/5), Le Poisson Rouge in New York City (11/10), City Winery with WFMT radio in Chicago (11/11) and YoungArts new multidisciplinary arts campus in Miami at the new lounge/space designed by Frank Gehry, in partnership with Classical South Florida Radio 89.7 (11/22).


Max Hole, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group International comments, “Elizabeth has brought a new and exciting creative vision to Universal Music Classics. The new team are lining up a series of brilliant new releases by American based artists. UMC will be the label to watch”.


Elizabeth Sobol comments, “I am delighted to be welcoming Leslie and Collin to UMC.  Both have the passion and creativity that is so necessary as Universal Music Classics enters a new phase.  Despite certain challenges in the industry, we believe that state of actual music-making in America has never been more fresh or more vital.  Embarking upon new initiatives, we are relishing our reinvigorated role as artistic partners and change agents in the field.”


  • Peter says:


  • David Boxwell says:

    Craft a vision statement for a world-class entity delivering music content across all media platforms. Fulfill that vision by engaging exciting young talent who can optimize cross-genre performance modalities for an enterprising global network. Foster talent at all levels of developmental evolution. Grow the family of performers for ultimate visibility in all markets to enhance the viability of the umbrella of corporate divisions.


    And, in the final analysis, accomplish nothing of lasting value.

  • Robert Kenchington says:

    Never mind all this high flying spiel on the part of the executives. What about retailers and customers who sell and collect Decca/Universal titles?

    I would like to draw your attention to the shabby, unprofessional and generally discourteous customer service I have received from this company since I first opened an account with UMO in 2008 as an Ebay trader. I have tried to be patient with UMO, hoping that things would improve but over all this time the same low standard of customer support remains. This comprises the following:

    Rude, uncooperative and indifferent response to orders and enquiries from the Call Centre in Milton Keynes. Emails sent through the UMO system are generally unanswered, and if they are, consist of coded messages like ‘missed callback’ and a manner that makes me feel I’m being a nuisance. A lack of plain English and a knowledge of the products being ordered is sadly lacking here.

    Goods sent via Milton Keynes are not properly packed and often arrived damaged or partly damaged because they are not sufficiently protected against any rough handling on the part of the courier,TNT.

    The classical and specialist music representative consistently failed to respond to my emails which contain what I would regard as fairly straightforward questions about product details etc. Nor did he have the simple – and professional courtesy – to acknowledge emailed product orders so I didn’t know whether he had received them or not. Did he not want the business?

    Meanwhile, the Universal credit control call centre is a complete and utter shambles. The telephone reception to India/Pakistan is almost inaudible and time and time again I have had to waste my time and money having to correct simple errors concerning invoices/statements and payment amounts. Also, the lack of plain English at the disposal of the staff in that department leads to frequent misunderstandings (like a farcical occasion I was billed for 5000 copies of a product ordered by a different account holder which again I had to spent more than an hour on the ‘phone to correct)

    I contacted the communications manager back in July about this who made all kinds of promises but only this week the same problems resumed, climaxing in three copies of the Ashkenazy 50 edition which looked as if they’d been in a car crash. How could I possibly sell these to customers? I am similarly unhappy with Warner who, like Decca, are under the Avarto umbrella. They even charged me £1.50 to use my cash card!

    Now is the time for a serious investigation about the downright unprofessional conduct of these record companies. Instead of playing musical chairs with their board members, they should look after their customers first!

  • Anon says:

    Doesn’t look quite as simple as that. Reading this, whilst “Decca Label Group” is to be rebranded (and who of the buying public knew what that was or that it existed anyway?), that doesn’t seem to affect the record label “Decca”, which remains present in the US as it has been (quote “while remaining the American home of the prestigious Decca…”)

  • sdReader says:

    They’re keeping the Decca brand, just changing the name of the corporate group.

  • Walter Apostolou says:

    This is nothing more than the usual political statements that say nothing. Universal Music and especially Universal Classics is an archaic, dying, lost enterprise, today lead by suits full of hot air, but with very little substance. They have been proclaiming all sorts of great things for more than three years already, but with little in the way of anything of exceptional quality, anything new or anything REAL and lasting coming out. They have a boss, Max Hole, who only speaks in platitudes about “classical music”, making all sorts of ridiculous statements as to how he will make it cool and popular, all along himself not having the faintest idea about classical music, its artists and its consumers. He just thinks that if it works for pop, then it will work for classical and all the outdated pop methods should simply be copied and adapted. Yes, that will make classics cool and find a new and younger audience! The notion itself is so old fashioned and outdated and it has all been tried before, with little to no result.

    Now, Universal Classics wants to show that their new manager in the United States exists, or rather she wants to show that she exists, by moving the pieces on the board, eliminating an established brand name for her “unique” American product. It is all nonsense! People don’t buy classical music because it is American created or from elsewhere, they buy it if it sounds good and is of quality, so eliminating Decca’s name from their identity serves nothing more than giving them an excuse to write a press release and undermining an iconic brand in a key market.

    • Anon says:

      Sorry, Walter, but what established brand has been eliminated here? “Decca” remains as a label and is unaffected.

      • Robin Weston says:

        It really doesn’t matter whether Universal Classics in the United States calls itself Decca Classics or Universal Classics or XYZ Classics. At the end of the day this is all corporate nonsense, believing that by renaming a corporate division they will, as if by magic, create something better and interesting. They would be far wiser to stop tinkering with names of divisions and focus on quality, real unadulterated quality, devoid of their usual gimmicks, tricks and marketing schtick. It’s no different than people wanting to eat organic food, free of artificial colours and flavours, free of preservatives and with no GMOs. Universal Classics still keeps pouring on the aspartame, the artificial colours and flavours and has become the master at producing GMAs (Genetically Modified Artists). Classical buyers don’t want that and can smell and taste it from ten miles away, yet Universal thinks that is what they need and want, when nothing could be farther from the truth! They should try to produce just ten new recordings that are 100% free of this synthetic treatment and maybe then they may recover all that they have lost. Then again, do they even have the staff capable of doing this?

        • john r. says:

          True statement, reshuffling the responsible personnel and stickng with this strategy based upon building “sensations” will not solve the problem. DECCA lives because of its exemplary product built in many years by visionaries who cared for artistic and technical Quality. We do not need Surround/Multichannel Versions XYZ up to 13.1, we need new exciting products with exciting artists. They are there, they have to be promoted and supported. We have enough Traviatas, but if there is an outstanding soprano who dazzles the public and is musically mature to sing the role, then there is room for one more Traviata and it will be a commercial success. In the meantime, Universal Classics needs to improve its customer service. Try to send a mail and get a qualified response: NO WAY !!!! Other companies are way ahead in this matter: CUSTOMER SERVICE !!!!

          Without customers, no business, it is as simple as that. New faces in head office will not help, TAKE CARE OF YOUR CUSTOMERS AND OFFER GOOD PRODUCT; THEN YOU HAVE SALES !!!!!!

          • Betty Apsos says:

            There are many comments and complaints here about Universal Music’s (UMO) appalling customer service. I have experienced the same and perhaps worse and have decided that it simply isn’t worth the trouble anymore. Universal Music is a non-customer oriented business and I would also say that they are a non-artist oriented business as well, based on the dubious releases of far too many extremely doubtful artists that their labels issue. When a business forgets that it is there for its customers and treats and holds them in contempt and signs artists more on what they look like than how they play, you know that it is a recipe for disaster and it can’t go on for much longer anymore. For me, they are irrelevant as a source of great music. Just look at the clip below of Alice Sara Ott performing Mussorgsky ‘Pictures’. It is horrible! No technique, or the technique of an average middle level conservatory student,but certainly not of world class level. Yet, they push her, because she looks ‘cool’ and will play in a ‘Yellow Lounge’ concert wearing a ‘cool’ hat. How stupid! Does Deutsche Grammophon really think that it can fool those of us with musical ears? This girl is simply not a great world class pianist, but merely a technically and musically quite limited musician, who probably wouldn’t be able to enter top music schools like Julliard, Curtis or Indiana University with playing like this. Who is DG fooling here? Only themselves!

          • Robert Kenchington says:

            Well, I have news just in. I have contacted the Office of Fair Trading regarding UMO’s continued appalling customer service and they are going to pursue the matter. For good measure I have also contacted BBC Watchdog. Remember how Anne Robinson tore Britannia Music to pieces a few years ago? Let’s hope she does the same to Universal. Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war!

  • Gag me with a spoon says:

    Yellow Lounge to the US? Just what we need. Now we’ll have to put up wth kitschy cabaret parodies accompanied by midi-file “classics.” See Alice Sara Ott’s Yellow Lounge performance:

    • DavisA says:

      I must say I haven’t no problem with this. A certain Mr Liszt was not above doing the equivalent in his day! If it brings in a new set of listeners then so what? Classical music is ultimately entertainment. It’s only elitist prejudice that makes us dislike these things.

      • strangemarvel says:

        “Classical music is ultimately entertainment”? That’s it? And by the same token Renaissance Art is, presumably, ultimately home decor?

        The best music obviously goes well beyond entertainment, and that’s why these cash-fat, floundering executives can’t sell it — they have too much of a surfeit of soul and intellect to even understand it. I can’t remember the last time a major label put out anything interesting. Give me Hyperion, Chandos, CPO, Naxos, et al any day — at least they’re interested in putting out good music, not in grooming sexy superstars in funny hats.

  • Lauren says:

    The Yellow Lounge idea is a good stepping stone but not the full answer to the problem. I am quite excited about the possibilities of classical music in unexpected places and intend to pursue the idea and see where it goes. As I stated in another post, classical musicians should follow the trend of indie rock and jazz musicians and dump the dinosaur music executives, giant labels and re-brand itself as music for the people. Many forget that much of the standard repertoire for the classical world was once radical music that rattled conservative society to its core. We need that again. The “gag me with a spoon” posted displays the sort of pissy, elitist attitude that drives so many people away from the classic arts. If Anne-Sophie Mutter did a set with Amanda Palmer before her own in a mid-sized club somewhere, her CD and ticket sales would rise. When Yo-Yo Ma worked with rock artists like Sting, suddenly I was hearing rock fans talking about how cool a sound a cello makes. Carl Barat in the UK toured with Dirty Pretty Strings to full and appreciative houses. Recently, in Portland, OR Project Runway winner Michelle Lesniak used both live and pre-recorded classical music, film, and fashion to show her collection of clothing. Ditching, or at least, serious reshuffling of the classical record companies coupled with more accessibility to the music and artists will save the genre. Adapt or die.

  • Cindy says:

    Avant-garde hybridism for the sake of artistic experimentation is one thing, kitschy and sentimental idiocy designed simply to sell is another. To conflate the two is to make the kind of slick argument marketing strategists love.

    • DavisA says:

      Although it might be idiotic to you, to those whose living is actually selling records it is their life blood. Without your despised marketing strategists there is no industry!

  • Yi-Peng Li says:

    Mr Lebrecht, could I write a clarification and ask a question on this blog post?

    The clarification is that Universal is not demolishing the Decca label in the USA. Its classical, crossover and niche music group was called Decca Label Group. They are only rebranding it as Universal Music Classic.

    The question is: Can you tell me whether this label grouping will include jazz labels like Verve and GRP, film scores and Broadway shows? If this is so I sense that Universal might be following Sony’s example in bringing classical, crossover, jazz, film scores, musicals and even easy listening under the same roof.

  • PK Miller says:

    Forgive a bit of ignorance. Is this the Decca that was, once upon a time, what was known in the US as London records or is this a very different label? With the advent of CDs, and our local classical music station not only no longer giving record labels, #s etc., for the music it plays but, indeed, become de facto Classical Top 40 (too m,any putsches over the years, lost all the announcers who were themselves classically trained musicians who could speak intelligibly about the music, composer, performers, performance…) I remain appalled that so much of what once was available on LP has NOT been released on CD or so hideously remastered one would be better off using the CDs as drink coasters! Worst of all is the release of some of the seminal performances of the comple Bach works on Telefunken Das Alte Werk. The phenomenal multi-language liner notes are gone, what’s left is impossible to read & the performances like so many remastered for CD sound dull. Glorious things of thee are spoken Telefunken Das Alte Werk! Alas, nicht mehr!!!