Breaking A Sound Barrier

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra model may help small groups survive, but Michael J. Koss, 39, has a way to help them thrive.

Largely ignored by a recording industry interested in volume sales, second-tier orchestras find it hard to crack the national and international music scene. That spelled opportunity to the chief executive of Milwaukee's Koss Corp., whose $32 million in sales makes it No.1 in stereo headphones. Why not make compact disks of regional orchestras playing underrecorded music? They could win critical radio airplay and higher profiles for the orchestras. Says Joan H. Squires, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's executive director: "It is a terrific opportunity to let people know of our quality."

Since 1989, Koss has released 16 Koss Classics CDs by orchestras in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and Grand Rapids. Six CDs are in the works, and Koss hopes to sign up 10 more orchestras. The CDs focus on such pieces as Saint-Sa ns' first symphony and on such living American composers as David Ott. And they have won critical acclaim as well as distribution in big music chains.

ENTHUSIASM. The CDs do help. When the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra made a European tour in 1987, it was virtually unknown there, says President Robert C. Jones. This spring, "we found great enthusiasm. Bookings were lucrative and readily available."

The collaboration isn't a big money-maker. Each CD must sell 10,000 copies to break even. Koss, which picks up most of the costs, took in just $120,000 from the CDs for the year to June 30. More important is the recent licensing of its name to Holland's Hagemeyer, which is rolling out stereos, boom boxes, and other products in North America. Royalties, plus sales from a line of computer speakers, helped send profits up threefold, to $2.8 million, and Koss's stock from $2.50 to $15. That performance doesn't quite satisfy Koss, though: He likes helping orchestras stay in business, too.

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