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By Laurence Vittes | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s acquisition in May of the Dutch label Pentatone, added to their acquisition of New York/Berlin-based Opus 3 Artists in October 2020, creates a unique platform for the conservatory’s already formidable array of professional music education resources and opportunities. It expands the range of skills students can learn through actual projects, complementing classroom work, and promises to provide tools for community action and arts advocacy. It is an indicator of an appetite for ambition and innovation among investors with cultural portfolios.

For Pentatone’s managing director, Sean Hickey, the acquisition allows the label to explore areas “that we couldn’t manage to do on our own,” have access to SFCM’s state of the art Bowes Center and its extensive recording facilities, and to tap into the student body. “It points to a vision of a broader and more unified approach to the classical music ecosystem,” he says, “one that historically has walled off different sides of the business from one another.” He might have added that the United States is the market leader in both total aggregate numbers and percentage of overall music consumption via streaming.

Soon after the papers were signed, Pentatone announced that the first new recordings to be made in San Francisco under the new ownership would be in June at Davies Symphony Hall: The San Francisco Opera’s new music director Eun Sun Kim conducting the National Brass Ensemble in music by Wagner, Strauss, Arturo Sandoval, and Jonathan Bingham, and the San Francisco Symphony’s Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Bartók’s First and Third Piano Concertos with Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

It is a bold step to take when the recording industry is reeling under the impact of streaming and the disruption to touring brought about by Covid. It seems an even bolder step to take when the heart of the alliance is an institution whose bottom line is public trust. I spoke to SFCM president David H. Stull about the acquisition and his vision for the unique alliance of for-profit and not-for-profit classical music entities he has created. 

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music's recording studio.
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s recording studio. Photo by Carlin Ma

Why a record label?

For labels that aren’t part of a larger label group, or who receive subsidies of some kind, operational costs make it difficult to achieve profitability. We have the Bowes Center, which was designed to accommodate such an entity. There is faculty housing on the top floor and a world-class recording studio on the lower two levels. We have three full-time audio engineers. We can say to artists and management companies, “If you have a great project in mind, let’s use Pentatone and do it at the conservatory. You can stay upstairs and record downstairs. Now the label can record for pennies on the dollar.” 


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Why a management company? 

Owning a management company means that we are searching the world for the next young artists of tomorrow. They don’t have to necessarily come from the conservatory. They can come from anywhere, any major conservatory, globally. We offer apprentice programs. We co-present with major artists. 

How does Pentatone affect you immediately?

Suddenly our students are learning how to work at a record label, including participating in high-end recording sessions. It’s an expansion of employment opportunities, as these companies are constantly looking for new talent. Now we get to spot it and train it in-house and fuel those companies with really talented people. 

Why Pentatone?

Pentatone already had a close connection to the conservatory and was a natural partner. The label’s commitment to working with the best American artists and growing its catalog of American repertoire fits in alongside the agency’s priority that their artists have robust touring calendars and build their careers with a strong public profile with performance activities and labels. 


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Where did you get the money to buy a record label?

It wasn’t hard at all. As soon as donors hear these ideas and how we’re thinking about building our model, they become inspired. They want to invest in something that thinks about the future, not just from the standpoint of art but also from business, and how these things have to fit together so that we’re not constantly losing money. So it’s in the synergy of these entities, pushing art forward and creating opportunities for artists to give us the new performance experiences we desperately need and educationally becoming powerful as the school looks forward, constantly looking at where art is going, not just where it has been. And we are drawing more investors to this model now that we’ve got a global reach that the conservatory alone never would’ve enjoyed. 

What kind of projects might the conservatory do with Pentatone?

Think about the conservatory itself as an R&D place. We have physical facilities, recording facilities, limitless talent in the form of students and faculty. Artists can work collaboratively to identify potential projects and we can workshop those projects—potential new products for the management company, potentially involving our students and faculty—to manage and market to presenters. Imagine combining, for example, a cellist with a ballet dancer or a media artist or a poet, or all the ways in which we can reimagine concert and performance experiences. And whether we decide to market it or not, it’s a fantastic educational experience because our students get to stand next to the hot fire of creativity. 

Is this something that your peer conservatories and other classical music entities should think about doing?

I think that anyone can think about what we’re doing, and I hope it’s not just conservatories. Early indications are that this is very successful. My hope is that every organization, whether it’s an opera company or a symphony, uses it as an example of what’s possible.