The British pianist on establishing his own record label, the importance of communicating classical music to new audiences and working on a new Channel 4 series about improving music education in UK schools
What was the initial spark for Instrumental Records?
Well, it’s always been a dream of mine to have my own label. And I am often accused of criticising the state of classical music – the state of the industry particularly – so I thought I should do something to back that up. My manager and I have always wanted to make a bit of a difference.
What makes it different from other classical music labels?
At the moment classical covers often look odd and the liner notes can be inaccessible. I want to open the whole thing up and do something different. Instrumental Records will tour as a label and feature performers who really have something to say. We focus on making really beautiful CDs with brilliant photographers and great designers – Dave Brown from The Mighty Boosh does all of our graphics. I want to make CDs that won’t look weird on a coffee table when you bring a girl back after a date.
You chose to record works by JS Bach, Beethoven and Chopin for your first release on the label. Were these obvious choices for you?
For me, Bach, Beethoven and Chopin will always be the Holy Trinity. These pieces in particular – Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata and Bach’s first Partita – are so heroic and brilliant that it simply felt right to include them.
Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata, Bach’s Partita No. 1 and various works by Chopin and others: it makes for quite an eclectic disc…
I have never been a huge fan of doing a single CD of just one composer – I mean I think I probably will at some point – but for now I think it’s important to offer a choice. I mean if you went to a restaurant and there was only one variation on a chicken dish on the whole menu, you’d get a bit bored! While retaining contact with established fans, I’m always trying to find new people who haven’t heard classical music before. Some may love the Bach and not get Beethoven, or they may hate Chopin but love Beethoven. They don’t have to necessarily like all of it, but it’s a nice introduction.
And what are your plans for the future of the label?
Just to grow it slowly but surely – it could lead to all kinds of exciting things! At the moment royalties can be terrible and people won’t really look at performers unless they are an established artist with a certain number of Twitter followers and YouTube views. I think that’s a real shame. I would love to try and break the whole thing wide open so even those who have never gone to music college or done a competition that can play well and have something to say can be involved. We’ll feature not only brand new artists but also established ones who are bored of the major labels.
The label launch is on 4 June at Hinde Street Methodist Church in Marylebone. What can audiences expect from the evening?
I’ll be introducing the label and playing a few pieces from the album. It’ll a relaxed, hour-long thing and should just be fun. 6.30pm is a nice time as well because you can be out be 7.30pm and can go out for dinner or put the kids to bed. I’m doing it hand in hand with the series I am doing on music education for Channel 4 [The Great Instrument Amnesty]. I am charging people £10 on the door and we’re having an auction – I think they’re auctioning dinner with me and a signed set of my CDs – with every penny from the evening going towards for this primary school I am working with.
Tell me a bit more about the music education series you are working on…
Everything is focused on literacy and numeracy in schools these days, to the point where things that are equally important – like music, and a lot of creative things – have fallen by the wayside. I’m desperately trying to change that. I am currently working with a school that was really at rock bottom in terms of music education. Not only are there no instruments and no music teachers, there is no music in the curriculum at all. I’ve started by getting instruments and teachers for one class and the plan is to spread it through the school. I will eventually get a school orchestra going and put music firmly on the curriculum. If that’s achievable, we can role it out to other schools in the UK. My goal is to see every child in every school in the UK with access to at least one free lesson with an instrument and time to practise.
The launch party for Instrumental Records takes place on Wednesday 4 June at Hinde Street Methodist Church in Marylebone. Visit: jamesrhodes.tv/pop-london-gig to book your place. James Rhodes will present The Great Instrument Amnesty on Channel 4 in August.