It’s a sad fact that classical recording contracts are as rare as shy sopranos or well-read tenors. Baritone and former accountant Mark Stone, passionate about English songs, isn’t fazed. He founded his own label.
Set up in 2008, Stone Records already has four well-received releases to its credit, and a fifth on the way. I hooked up with the British singer, a familiar figure at English National Opera and Opera Holland Park, to discuss how he combines his baritone career with his business plans.
We meet in a London church at the recording session for his latest disc, U.K. composer Paul Carr’s melodious “Requiem for an Angel.” Involving a choir, orchestra and soloists, it’s the largest project so far for Stone Records.
When he steps away from the microphone for a break, I ask Stone, a trim 41-year-old, how it all came about. “I started the company to be a vehicle for my own projects,” he says. “Then I found that there were a number of people who, say, 20 years ago, would have been recording, and who aren’t now.
“Though it’s difficult to sell classical CDs, it’s actually easier than it’s ever been to make them. So from that point of view, it’s not too difficult to get your head around it. There seems to be a gap in the market which we’re fulfilling: to allow independent artists to get their recordings out there.”
Stone has two business models. For his own recitals, he finds the money himself. For other projects such as “Fantasy,” a haunting chamber-music recital with pianist Sholto Kynoch, Stone asks the client to come to him with a master recording. He then packages and markets the disc, and any profits are split.
How much does it cost to produce a disc? “For a small-scale recital, it’s around 4,000 pounds ($6,280). If you involve a choir and orchestra, then we’re looking more in the region of around 15,000 pounds.”
Fortunately, Stone has found many people willing to help him. For a forthcoming complete recording of songs by the English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934), Stone has a benefactor in the U.S. businessman Michael Maglaras.
“I put out an appeal for help in the Delius Society’s journal, and Michael replied,” he says. “He’s a former singer who made money through his insurance company, and now he’s a filmmaker and patron of the arts.
“I find that they don’t have to conquer their fear of personal giving in America, in the way that we do here. And it’s more than just the money. It’s generosity of spirit. It means that when pianist Stephen Barlow (the musician husband of actress Joanna Lumley) and I go into the recording studio, we don’t feel like we’re against the world.”
Passion for Music
Has Stone Records made much profit? “No, not yet,” Stone says. “My recital of songs by the composer George Butterworth has broken even though, and everything continues to sell. I do it because I’m passionate about the music.”
Although always drawn to singing, Stone studied mathematics at Cambridge University, and then afterwards “fell into” accounting, as he puts it. He worked at Touche Ross & Co. in London. “Then I leaped from accounting, as one would leap from the Titanic, in a vague attempt to do something more interesting with my life. I became an investment banker with Robert Fleming & Co. I lasted seven months.”
All the while, Stone had been having voice lessons. A few amateur operatic roles came his way. Then he decided to resign, and study music full time. “I resigned on a Monday, and on Tuesday I thought ‘what the hell have I done?’ I didn’t have a place at college, and I’d missed the deadline for applying. It was straight from the heart, brain not engaged.”
The deadline was waived, and Stone studied for three years at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It was only 200 yards from the bank where he’d been working.
With his firm, even sound and charismatic stage presence, it wasn’t long before Stone received offers of roles from major opera companies.
Does he think about business matters while he’s recording? “Do you mean, am I worrying that if I crack a note, we’ll have to do it again and go into overtime payments? No, it’s not like that,” he laughs. “It’s good to have a producer’s hat on though. I can take risks in my performance, and know that if it doesn’t work, I still have a previous take that’s safe. It helps to have an idea of the technicalities.”
For more information about Stone Records: http://www.stonerecords.co.uk.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)