Nigel Kennedy says record company 'jobsworths' drove him to withdraw from classical music

·6-min read
Nigel Kennedy said he was unable to work with some executives - David Rose
Nigel Kennedy said he was unable to work with some executives - David Rose

One of the world’s finest virtuoso violinists has hit out at record company executives who stifle creativity.

Nigel Kennedy has revealed that “mental midgets” and “ignorant” jobsworths with little understanding of what it takes to play an instrument drove him to withdraw from the classical world for four years.

He told the Sunday Telegraph that in the early 2000s, he found himself unable to work with EMI executives who were more interested in repeating previous successes than allowing artists the freedom to create.

He said: “It disaffected me from the classical music world, this kind of fuddy-duddy atmosphere.”

He found that some executives had “a very narrow perspective of music” and others had come from completely unrelated industries, adding: “There literally was some geezer who’d managed to sell a certain number of fish-fingers and then he was head of classics. It was a strange mix of a lack of credibility and qualifications.”

While Mr Kennedy wanted to explore all kinds of repertoire, executives wanted “carbon-copies” of previous hits - just like his 1989 version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which sold millions of copies worldwide, breaking records as the bestselling classical recording.

This didn't go down well with a man who is the bestselling classical violinist of all time, delighting audiences with everything from classical to jazz and rock. With his down-to-earth charm and trademark spiky hair, he has broken down barriers, particularly with young people.

He has never forgotten the inspiration of legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who paid for his studies at the Menuhin School in Surrey and who encouraged individuality - in contrast to record companies who, Mr Kennedy believes, are so focused on technical perfection that their musicians sound the same.

Kennedy is the best selling classical violinist - David M. Benett/Getty Images Europe
Kennedy is the best selling classical violinist - David M. Benett/Getty Images Europe

Many “wonderful musicians”, both emerging and established, have “found it impossible to work with record companies, becoming “burnt out, fettered and held back”, he said, because they have not been allowed “to develop in the way that they want”.

Of his own experience, he recalled: “They had such a narrow agenda for me, which I found impossible to live with having been brought up musically by such people as Yehudi Menuhin, who had an open mind, playing with Ravi Shankar, before the Beatles knew India was not a rubber, and with Stéphane Grappelli, who I then met and was touring around with, and meeting other artists like Paul McCartney. There was no way I was going to have such a narrow perspective.”

He added: “It’s a shame that people don’t trust the instinct of artists who have the experience of playing in front of audiences. We know what might turn somebody on or off because we’ve tried it out in public and that’s the best barometer you can use. To have to go by some preconceived theory made by people who’ve probably hardly picked up an instrument in their life is a bit like me saying ‘well, I think an aircraft that shape might be really nice and I don’t know anything about aerodynamics’.”

During his four years of self-exile, he explored all kinds of music, including rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, and writing his own works.

He recalled that period yesterday in lamenting the death last week of Lynn Harrell, “the greatest cellist of his generation and maybe for the last century”. He revealed that it was Harrell who coaxed him back to performing. The two men did not know each other then, but Harrell sent him a letter expressing regret at his withdrawal.

American cellist Lynn Harrell  - Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images Europe
American cellist Lynn Harrell - Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images Europe

Mr Kennedy said: “That I was missed by somebody of that magnitude of achievement was a big compliment and gave me a prod to just think again.” It led to them performing together.

He searched in vain for coverage of Harrell’s passing on the BBC’s website: “They’ve got American TV reality stars and all kinds of stuff. For the world’s greatest cellist, they’ve got no space. A shocking omission.”

He is critical of the BBC in other ways: “Luckily, record companies are like dead dodos now. They don’t play such a big part in the music industry. But you’ve got other people, like promoters and the BBC and various broadcasters who also try and impose similar straight-jackets on creative artists. It’s just that the record companies have been replaced by another ego-centric type of organisation.”

He spoke of a general misunderstanding as to what it takes to play an instrument and the dedication required, and “many an artist whose talent has been put on the back burner at the expense of audiences who probably would have enjoyed listening to their output”.

He added: “It doesn’t help that a lot of other artists let down the team by being too obsequious with the record companies and the powers that be. They’re weakening the positions of every other artist.”

Discussing EMI, he said: “I wouldn’t say that they were any worse than any other record company. They were very good in some ways. But that type of stifling of the creative impulse which is where all music comes from, it was impossible for me to carry on. There’s a lot of random egos from behind the desks making it difficult for the artists.”

These days, he goes to different record companies, depending on the repertoire, and he also has a studio with as good a sound as any, although an “amateur set-up”: “At the moment, I’m working on solo Bach. I don’t think a record company could for a moment understand the idea of putting one movement of Bach out a month or a week. They’d have to have their smart little box-set of CDs, which now no-one buys and then they’d know they’d got something. I’m thinking about how to get the music over to people without the huge expense for them of having to buy something for 15-quid or 40-quid. It’s not fair to rip off the audience that badly.”

Ultimately, nothing beats the live performance and “that magic thing where you can’t quite tell what’s going to happen”, he said. “A recording is a kind of replica.”

A Universal Music Group spokesman said: “We will not comment on EMI under previous management, but can say that following our purchase of the company in 2011, Universal Music brought in new management, shifted strategy and invested in EMI and its artists globally.”

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