Why Sony’s howler is a not-sorry sign of our times

Why Sony’s howler is a not-sorry sign of our times


norman lebrecht

February 09, 2020

There has been a huge amount of chatter about a tweet from Sony Classical which confused John Williams, the film composer, with John  Williams, the guitar virtuoso.

Some kindly souls have ascribed the howler to a lowly intern.

Wrong. On two counts.

First, never blame the mouse if the house caves in.

Second, it is symptomatic of a label that, under present management, treats artists as product.

Sony is not driven by editorial objectives and aesthetic taste, allied to acute commercial nous.  It no longer identifies talent and nurtures it to stardom. Nor does it lead any intelligent issue or talking point in classical music, with the possible exception of Igor Levit’s Beethoven piano sonaata cycle.

Sony is just there.

Not a leader, not a nurturer, not an entity that engages meaningfully with music.

If it were not there, one would hardly notice.

In such circumstances, one artist is just the same as another, the more so if they happen to share the same name.

No regret has been expressed for the error.


  • Ned Keane says:

    Except the head of Sony Classics UK is a total classical music aficionado. Inconvenient for your argument, but true nevertheless.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Glad to hear it. He must be, what … out of the office?

    • Silvio says:

      The intern is only a liberal.

      No talking to those simpletons about standards or ethics. They don’t care about a couple of white males whilst they complain about everything possible laughing at somebody else’s achievements. Too busy watching CNN no doubt.

      “Sony is just there.

      Not a leader, not a nurturer, not an entity that engages meaningfully with music.”

      “No regret has been expressed for the error.”

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    This is a confusion which cannot easily be explained in any other way. Obviously it is written by a youngster who is only aware of the film composer but never heard of the guitarist. So much for the expertise in the classical division.

  • laurent says:

    Except also Arcadi Volodos, whom I believe is our time’s best pianist.

  • Gustavo says:

    Nevertheless, John Towner Williams sounds great on Sony!

    Boston Pops Spielberg Edition, 2nd volume, for example.

    Still better than on DGG…

  • Ross Amico says:

    On one of the occasions I heard Williams (the guitarist) in recital, he performed “Schindler’s List” and wryly observed that he has, on occasion, been confused with the composer. So this is not the first time. I have often wondered how Sony has managed to keep the royalty payments straight.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Your “keep the royalty payments straight” reminds me of Bohuslav Martinů’s story that during the dark war years in Europe one thing that helped keep bread on the table was royalty payments from certain European radio stations, payments which seemed all out of proportion to the number of broadcasts of his music. It turned out that due to an error (by a lowly intern?) he was getting royalties for every broadcast of the popular and much-recorded “Plaisir d’amour” by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini. Who died in 1816!

  • Tamino says:

    Igor Levit‘s artistic output is not a fruit that depended on this label. One wonders how they connected with him in the first place.

    Treating artists as product is the business culture with all major corporate ruled labels though these days. Sony is especially disgusting about it though, true.
    The golden days, when artists were artists, and the product – the recording – was the product, only live on in boutique labels, owned and managed by musically inspired and artistically aspirational professionals. ECM comes to one‘s mind and some others.

  • Rinaldo says:

    Not as simple as “blame the intern.” Most labels will have a social media team that works with marketing. I would imagine social copy is routed to marketing, A&R, or PR who would sign off. That’s the best of all possible worlds. We don’t live in that world now. Now we have marketing teams who are not classical music fans. They may be superb marketers, but they generally don’t know/care about the music. Consider Sony Classics. This label division includes the core classics–Igor Levit, Volodos, and a healthy reissuing program. However, it also includes Broadway, soundtracks, and crossover like 2Cellos. There are few people with knowledge and passion for the music “working” the product. It shocked me when I worked for Sony. It’s the case for most major labels. Sad.

  • Olassus says:

    Igor Levit’s Beethoven cycle is only a “talking point in classical music” because it is so clunky yet receives so much hype!

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    A ‘lowly intern’? Or could that be a robot?

  • Robert Levin says:

    The level of incompetency in the recording industry was pretty much the same in the late seventies. At an international meeting in Europe, the head of A&R at CBS Records, who had previously been an assistant to Zubin Mehta, stood up and suggested they had better sign up the singers for their upcoming recording of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Singers??? You can imagine the looks on all of the faces in the room!

  • Fliszt says:

    How could Sony allow a lowly intern to design a catalog reissue album without any executive input or expert oversight? Where’s their quality control? Clearly the inmates are running the asylum at Sony Classical.

  • Tony Bridge says:

    I worked for Sony Classical (the clue is in the nickname!) as a digital music editor for 6 or 7 years at the turn of the century. This latest gaffe would be depressing if it were not so predictable! I worked with Williams the Guitarist and a nicer guy you couldn’t meet. As someone has said, he was well aware that his record company would usually confuse him with another John Williams (who probably, to be fair, made a lot more money for the company), but was resigned to it!

    The profligacy in recording for even the weakest product was enormous! 5-star hotels, First-Class flights for the producers, weeks of recording, months of editing and meetings at every turn… Oy! No wonder most Sony artists disappeared from view after the first disc…

    John W the Guitarist was, I have to say, not at all into any of this – he flew economy, was content with a Pret Sushi for lunch with me, and was completely unselfish as an artist and quick and pragmatic when recording, no Take 453 with him!

    One of my favourite people!

  • You can't make this stuff up says:

    An example of the level of “competence” that leads classical record labels: Some years back, a German journalist smelled something “fishy” when BMG-RCA released an amateurish Rachmaninov 3rd Concerto with a pianist named David Helfgott (who had 24 hours of fame for the bio-pic ‘Shine”. In a full page expose of the ineptitude of BMG in the Suddeutche Zeitung, the journalist asked the label president (a former wine salesman) how a prestigious label like RCA which owned Rachmaninov’s own recording of this work (as well as Horowitz’s) could possibly release a recording of the same piece with such an amateur. The clueless man replied “So where is the harm? We have Rachmaninov, Horowitz, and now Helfgott playing it!”

  • This is not such a big deal; it happens with some frequency and to the least of us.https://www.nme.com/news/music/ludacris-7-1339031

  • Alexander Graham Cracker says:

    Just askin’: Has anybody ever seen John Williams the soundtrack composer and John Williams the classical guitarist together?

  • Plush says:

    What about Sony’s recent album with Ivo Pogorelich?? Playing is poor and the recorded sound is ugly. No supervision, poorly produced.

  • Nick says:

    You are right Mr. Lebrecht, SONY is a factory, but please do NOT exclude Levit from their product line. Levit is a hugely overrated mediocre product and belongs exactly on SONY conveyor line! The real exception from this is the recent Ivo Pogorelich CD with Beethoven & Rachmaninoff. And we must thank SONY for attempting to change their highly commercialized image.

  • Michael Turner says:

    It’s lucky that John Williams, the former principal oboist of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, did not as far as I know recorded for Sony.

    To echo thoughts on the guitarist John Williams, I once met him to discuss copyright issues with his recordings of music by Barrios. He was very thoughtful and pragmatic and, once the meat of our discussions were over, we enjoyed a sandwich and a pint together. A thoroughly nice chap!

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    Well, it was very confusing in the 1970s, looking at labels. The composer should have changed his name. Not to mention his music.