Why Lang Lang left Sony

Why Lang Lang left Sony


norman lebrecht

February 09, 2017

In a nutshell: he wasn’t loved enough.

The US-based Chinese pianist is high maintenance. He needs to know he is appreciated. And while his label, Sony Classical, was behind him all the way, he didn’t get the feeling that the company as a whole supported him. Memories of the $3 million signing-on fee in 2010 soon faded.

Having left DG in a huff with its former boss, he would still drop into the Berlin office to see old friends. The breach was never total. And when Sir Lucian Grainge, chairman of Universal Music Group, took him to lunch in LA, Lang Lang felt the love once more. Universal offered him a global 360-degree marketing plan that Sony could not match. Last night, he signed on with DG.

Sony are left licking the costs. His defection is a serious loss of face and a blow to its faltering Chinese presence. Lang Lang never sold as many records as Sony expected but he was a Sony poster boy and the label is poorer without him.

Perhaps his last record cover revealed more than intended.



  • Ben says:

    It could be just me: I hear more ego than music from Lang Lang since day 1. More of that in years to come, I guess.

  • Novagerio says:

    He satisfies the masses and the lobbies et all. Pity for a once sacred label like DGG…

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    It is no longer the 20th century. Big record labels, big name artists, publicity, counts less and less as we proceed into the 21st century. The public does not have to buy only what has been presented to them; rather, they have the world at their fingertips. Perhaps someone who likes music will click their smartphone and find a wonderful recorded performance of a piece–regardless of the performer–and use that as a starting point to find more about the music and/or performer. It is slowly coming full circle–it is more about the music than the performer. Music moves people–first. The techniques applied by far lesser known artists can, eventually, bring them and their performances to a wider far-reaching audience, simply because they utilize technology to make their presence noticed. Surely, a DG or Sony contract can be very prestigious–and I would certainly enjoy that personally–but there are many components to building and sustaining a long term career, reaching a wider audience and not depending on name recognition. I, for one, admire the fleet pianism and wizardry of Lang Lang’s handling of the keyboard. Few possess this wonderful, innate ability to play almost anything, effortlessly. But when it comes to record labels, grabbing the hottest item on the shelf does not always guarantee long term success. The personal relationships between artists and their label execs has its own components. Another point: in many cases, artistry begins to take fullest form when many artists reach their 50s. All of their technique and musical values take on greater depth as they enter these years. Looking back at Artur Rubinstein, I do not remember him in his 20s, 30s or 40s. His recorded legacy is strongest from his later years and his career was strongest in his later years. Perhaps record labels should begin seeking out artists in this stage of their lives, all the while maintaining their younger roster as they grow and develop over time.

    • Bruce says:

      “The techniques applied by far lesser known artists can, eventually, bring them and their performances to a wider far-reaching audience, simply because they utilize technology to make their presence noticed.”

      Case in point: Lisitsa. There are probably others, but she’s the first one that came to mind.

      • Jeffrey Biegel says:

        Indeed, Bruce. Add Oliver Poole, the fine UK pianist, who was able to reach over half-a-million views for some of his videos. Technology changes, and although YouTube vids are effective, as of late, Instagram (which I do not yet use–the dinosaur in me!), Facebook Live (which I do use) and other means of communication take the lead. In my day, back in the late 20th-century, we as artists relied on working toward major record label contracts, big management to land engagements, and word of mouth. If you had enough money, paying a publicist added spice to your visibility–and still does, of course. There are phenomenal publicists out there doing fabulous networking for artists who do not have the time to do it for themselves. Admittedly, CD sales are down, and digital streaming still holds force. What will be in 5-10 years remains to be seen. Klaus Heymann, of Naxos, has kept up with the times, and has his own vision: https://slippedisc.com/2017/02/no-naxos-release-topped-5000-sales-last-year/

        In the end, most artists do not–and never will–command the advantage of a huge upfront financial gain prior to recordings, followed with a string of recordings. That is rare, but if it can happen successfully, it’s a win-win for the label and the artist–if all pans out that way. As I said–very rare. But as artists age–and I certainly have now at 55–they recalculate where they’ve been, where they are, and what their future may hold. It is like taking inventory and deciding what your legacy will be. Recordings are, indeed, the one product that can eternally keep the artist’s work available long after their lifetimes–not always. If companies decide to delete recordings from their catalogs–a very sad idea–they lose potential sales in the future. Case in point: when I went to YouTube to see if anyone other than Josef Lhevinne recorded a piece, I find a huge list of videos of the piece by artists I have never heard of. Since cds are expensive to manufacture and if they don’t sell well, they are often not repeated, having the streaming recordings available is the best solution.

        • Bruce says:

          Jeffrey — Tangentially, your remark about how many recordings of this & that are available reminded me of a thing I read once, I believe it was in an old review written by Virgil Thomson, referring to an older review from one of the stuffier New York newspapers of the 20’s & 30’s: now that Horowitz and Lhevinne (I think it was, maybe it was Hoffmann) had both recorded the Tchaikovsky concerto, there was no need for any more recordings of it 🙂

          • Jeffrey Biegel says:

            Ha! As if only two were necessary for eternity. What most people do not take into account, is that when society changes due to sociological changes, technological advances, world conflict etc, it alters the emotions of the performers and the audiences. Case in point, with world conflict as we know it, I notice a stronger feeling for the need to have music in people’s lives. This deepens our purpose, moves us emotionally and spiritually to new levels, and removes us from any sense of egoism, rather, only as a catalyst to share something much deeper than any one person is or ever will be. We do not know what the future may bring, but how fortunate we are to have the recorded legacy of so many artists since the beginning of the recording industry. It is the best way we can understand how people truly felt, in listening to their voices and their musical interpretations at any point in history. When artists deeply realize that their purpose is not only in the here and now, but in their recordings–no matter which label–this is truly the lasting legacy. I remember the celebrated music critic, Irving Kolodin, teaching our Music Criticism class at Juilliard. In one instance, he taught us precisely what I just said. He played two recordings of the same aria, and said, ‘Now compare them’. Well, of course you know, we all said #1 was ‘this’ or ‘that’, and #2 was better because of ‘this’ and ‘that’. His response: “Well, I fooled all of you. The two recordings are by the same artist–Maria Callas–first at the beginning of her career, and the second, toward the end of her career!’ Hence, we have the fortunate opportunity to listen to these documented recordings of one of the greatest singers of all time. How sad it would have been if record companies followed the advice of the writer you mention. (Btw, glad you mention Lhevinne–you know why 🙂

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Museart says:

    “Having left DG in a huff with its former boss, he would still drop into the Berlin office to see old friends. The breach was never total.”

    Not really accurate, I’m afraid. His “former boss” went to DECCA at first while Lang Lang was still at DG. And when his “former boss” moved on to Sony he found a kind of homeless Lang Lang at DG who wasn’t happy with the staff people that were promoted to work with him. I have heard that all his “old friends” at DG left the company many years ago. And now his “former boss” is heading to Vienna and so I guess he is looking for new friends at DG. Apart from that he is probably very flattered that Sir Lucian Grange was looking after him.

  • Scott Colebank says:

    Could he not start his own label and become a self-producer like Katsaris? I would think his book and fragrance sales could provide seed money to do so. Or, maybe they are not doing so well either.

  • Plush says:

    Not prestigious for DG. (Which is no longer DG).

  • Nick says:

    Lang Lang was looked after for several years by IMG Artists (the original IMGA still run by founding partner Edna Landau and based in Carnegie Hall Tower) and it was IMGA which was responsible for launching him as a major artist in the international music business. Despite this, in his autobiography there is not a mention of IMGA and its achievements for him. Indeed all the credit is given to his father. Having made his name, he then informed Ms. Landau he was leaving because IMGA was too old-fashioned. CAMI could make him realise his dream of becoming a world superstar. When the Olympics was held in Beijing, he ensured Yundi Li did not also appear despite his earlier having agreed to do so – a fact I have first-hand. I seem to recall an article inferring he left DG the first time because he did not like the competition with Yundi Li. Ironically Yundi did not last much longer at the label.

    Lang Lang clearly has an outsize ego and requires major maintenance. I love Earl Wild’s description of him as “the J. Lo of the piano.”

    • Lisa says:

      The 2008 Beijing Olympic’s artistic director is Chinese famous film director Zhang Yimou. According to some interviews, him knew Lang Lang long before Beijing Olympic through New York based Chinese composer Tan Dun. Lang Lang and Tan Dun has been good friends. Tan Dun has worked on music for several Zhang Yimou’s films and he even wrote some part for piano, so Lang Lang has played on some of the soundtrack of Zhang Yimou’s films. When Zhang Yimou came to New York, Lang Lang invited him to one of his concerto performance and Zhang Yimou was impressed.

      Later when Zhang Yimou was assigned the artistic director of 2008 Beijing Olympic, he was thinking using Lang Lang as part of the program to represent young Chinese people for 1) Achieving world level artiistic performance. 2) Open to the world, having the attitude of being citizen of the world.

      Zhang Yimou was the main decision maker about the Olympic opening and closing programs. I don’t think that he was under pressure from Lang Lang for anything. First Zhang Yimore is not unlikely person that would take order from Lang Lang. Second Lang Lang’s part was only small part of opening ceremony, Zhang might have the part or he might cut it off. If Zhang originally had a part for Yundi Li and was forced to cut it out by Lang Lang, what exactly that part was? To my knowledge, Zhang had never worked with Yundi before and had never been to Yundi’s concerts.

      • Nick says:

        Thanks Lisa. I knew of Zhang Yimou long before the Olympics and some of his movies remain amongst my favourites. My source was directly involved with the Olympics opening ceremony. As told to me in Beijing in the weeks after the Olympics, originally there were to be eight pianists involved in the event showcasing China’s artistic talent, as you rightly point out. However, Lang Lang made representations that he did not want other professional pianists involved. As a result, the agreements with the other pianists, including Yundi Li, were cancelled at relatively short notice. I have absolutely no doubts about my source’s total credibility, but I know neither Lang Lang nor Zhang Yimou and so cannot assume what would have been discussed between them.

  • Lisa says:

    Typo: “First Zhang Yimore is unlikely person that would take order from Lang Lang”

  • Victor Trahan says:

    Poor DG. As one critic aptly said: Lang Lang, Bang Bang.

  • Peter says:

    Questions whether to sign Lang Lang or not, are of purely economical concern, and do not belong into a musical blog.
    Maybe also blogs about stage acting could ponder the topic

  • george benson says:

    Yundi Li is a far superior musician and pianist. No baggage to worry about.