Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bernard Coutaz, founder of the Harmonia Mundi label, dies

December 30, 1922-February 26, 2010

Bernard Coutaz was a man of many facets: a man of nerve who loved hard work, a man of faith who could also show bad faith, a man of flair and daring who could mock in public but jest in private, a man of humour and a great fun-lover. Above all, he had an innate sense of marketing; founder of harmonia mundi, he could bluff, he could boast, was wise and wilful, but was an eminent member of a profession whose “morale” and craftsmanship he wished to preserve. 

What made Bernard Coutaz different from others was first of all a geographical difference. The harmonia mundi adventure had started in Paris in 1958, but four years later, in a movement heralding the exile to the country taken by some of the May ‘68 protesters, Bernard Coutaz chose to set up his headquarters in Saint-Michel-de-Provence, a lovely little remote village tucked away in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. A sort of autarchic phalanstery for record production developed there in a series of futurist buildings that housed the first employees of what would later become a multinational with nearly 350 co-workers and a turnover of some 60 million euros. Bernard Coutaz soon handed over the artistic reins to Eva Coutaz, his second wife, of German origin. Though they separated later, they continued to work closely together with mutual respect and understanding. In fact, Mme. Coutaz succeeds her husband as the head of the business.
Educated the hard way in the Salesian religious order, from which he was excluded because of his independent turn of thought, Bernard Coutaz was not a musician; he started his career as a journalist for the Catholic Left, on the Témoignage chrétien [Christian Witness) paper, and published committed novels and essays (Les Dents agacées, Témoignage Chrétien, 1952, and Civilisations, je vous hais !, La Table ronde, 1955). He made a first record (of authors’ voices!) on the Barclay label, and became manager of a record-pressing factory.
Harmonia Mundi was founded by subscriptions and private shareholders; the first recordings were of historic French and Spanish organs with organists Michel Chapuis, René Saorgin and Francis Chapelet. In 1968 came the decisive meeting with countertenor Alfred Deller, who had already made several records for Vanguard; he had faith in this small new label, and became its first star.
Harmonia mundi soon covered two lines: creative contemporary music and early music; Boulez, Berio and Cage on one side and on the other, the new generation of baroque artists such as the Collegium Aureum, pianofortist Jorg Demus (released under licence on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi), harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert, countertenor René Jacobs and his ensemble, the Concerto Vocale, harpsichordist William Christie and his Arts Florissants, Philippe Herreweghe and the Chapelle Royale, the Clement Janequin and Organum specialist vocal groups. Though William Christie did eventually leave the label, without ever finding another stable base as solid as harmonia mundi, almost all the others have remained loyal to it.
The company did in fact provide a home to “refugees” coming over from other major labels when catalogues were purged in the early 2000s as the market began to show signs of collapse – hence the welcome extended to pianoforte and harpsichord player Andreas Staier and baritone Matthias Goerne, released by Teldec and Decca respectively, when they came to swell the ranks of in-house artists. As the well-mannered lady she is, harmonia mundi also took back artists she’d helped to launch, who had then left to seek glory and profit with the majors; they now came humbly back for a new contract (German countertenor Andreas Scholl, for instance, “stolen” from hm, then released by Decca). Bernard Coutaz claimed loud and clear that the record crisis did not exist, but he didn’t stop short at taking any paradoxical fallouts it may or may not have produced…
In 1976, to consolidate its independent stance, harmonia mundi broke away from CBS France, official distributor of its records, to become first an auto-distributor, then a distributor, opening its doors and its network to other labels, French and foreign, in 1980. In 1981, the company inaugurated its first subsidiary in London, followed by others in the USA, Spain, Holland etc.
In 1988, as the true bibliophile he was, Bernard Coutaz launched his own book marketing and distribution branch, then founded his own publishing company, Editions Bernard Coutaz, for works of various categories including some about music. During the seventies M. Coutaz was in the news once again when he joined forces with Georges Chérières, founder of the music magazine Diapason, in the campaign against VAT the magazine had launched.

The first budget-price CD
The two men led a militant combat to have VAT on records lowered from 33.3 % to 5 %, so that it would be on a level with that on books. Coutaz even went as far as to invent the idea of the booklet and cover, the most expensive items in the manufacture of a CD, being taxed at book rate, and the record itself at the VAT rate applicable to records.
This bold decision went unnoticed for quite a while until harmonia mundi was called to order by the Ministry of Finances, who simultaneously threatened Diapason with withdrawal of its status as an organ of the press. But this did not stop M. Coutaz from denouncing time and time again the excessively high taxation levelled on cultural products, and from demanding that the 19.6 % VAT rate be reduced to the same rate as that on books (5 %).
Harmonia mundi has always made a name for itself by its distinguished and distinctive booklets or record covers, though this did not stop M. Coutaz from releasing several collections of low-price records in plain sleeves during the period from 1960-1970. First came the 10” (EP) vinyl series known as “Opus” (one of its most successful releases was Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame by the Deller Consort), then as a friendly allusion to the 10/18 book collection, he launched the 30/18 series of 12” (LP) records priced at 18 francs, plus the “Musique d’abord” collection with its minimalist white sleeves, where the titles ranged from John Cage’s Sonatas for Prepared Piano to Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas. When the CD first came on the scene in the early eighties, M. Coutaz considered this small, square, plastic object as a retrogressive step for record producers, and swore he would never subscribe to the idea. Yet he was the first to release a budget-price CD series in September 1985!
Once again Bernard Coutaz had no faith in the dematerialisation of sound. As a man who considered himself to be the producer of a product that would appeal to all the senses, the digital file was just another step backwards in his opinion. But once again the idealist in him gave way to the pragmatist, and harmonia mundi was amongst the first record producers to propose its titles for downloading.
In 1995 when independent record dealers were disappearing and the large specialist shops were beginning to see their classical music space diminish, Bernard Coutaz opened the first harmonia mundi boutique. Nearly fifty more have opened since, in France and abroad, selling in-house titles (records and books) and those of the in-house distributed labels. This has brought music and harmonia mundi to the inhabitants (and therefore potential clients) of average-sized towns without a Fnac, and proved to be an excellent business move, one of Bernard Coutaz’s real strokes of genius. But the success of the four boutiques in Paris has also proved that a real record dealer and the service and advice he can provide also has something to offer in the capital.
We should not forget the media stunts Bernard Coutaz was so expert at arranging, even though he pretended to despise them: to poke fun at the major label that had sold a large boxed set in homage to the fall of the Berlin Wall, together “with a real piece of the Wall” in 1989, Bernard Coutaz put a record of French religious music on sale with a “real Baroque angel’s feather”…
In 1995, in mockery of the flourishing business around The Three Tenors, Harmonia Mundi launched the lampoonist The Three CounterTenors with the Camargue Philharmonic assembled for the event… Bernard Coutaz could set people on edge just as he could make them smile…

Renaud Machart

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