Checking in with Robert von Bahr

The “BIS Boss” is Going Strong

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Checking in with Robert von Bahr

If Robert von Bahr radiates a sense of satisfied accomplishment, he’s entitled to it. For over 40 years, as the head of the Swedish independent record label BIS, he has survived—thrived, even—in the tenuous business of recording and selling classical music. Over a career that has spanned from the vinyl to streaming eras, von Bahr has been fearless. He once went to the trouble of issuing a dynamically challenging Stravinsky recording as a 45rpm LP and enthusiastically utilized the Direct Metal Mastering system. BIS was the first label of consequence to step away from LPs and produce only compact discs; at a time when CDs were frequently not that pleasant to listen to, BIS’s digital recordings gave more than a taste of what was possible. Not surprisingly, BIS embraced high-resolution, multichannel recording and is currently the most prolific producer of SACDs on earth. With the move to digital distribution of music, Robert von Bahr has not been left behind.

All of this would be beside the point if the musical value of BIS’s recordings were anything but first rate, but a significant proportion are exceptional. Von Bahr has been devoted to Scandinavian repertoire with programs documenting every obscure corner of Sibelius’ output, as well as committed performances of music by Nielsen and Grieg. There are extensive explorations of music by other less familiar northern European composers—Niels Gade, Wilhelm Stenhammer, Hugo Alfvén, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Kalevi Aho, Jón Leifs, Allan Pettersson, Vagn Holmboe, and dozens of others. BIS has also excelled in standard repertoire. Good examples are Osmo Vänskä’s Beethoven symphony traversal with the Minnesota Orchestra, Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach cantata series, and the Shostakovich symphony cycle from British conductor Mark Wigglesworth.

Ever alert to the evolution of music consumption, von Bahr jumped into the downloading fray early on with eClassical.com. In business now for about 15 years, eClassical sells not only BIS titles (files for download are available at the same time as the physical disc is released, if not a little sooner) but also music from a large number of other sources important to classical music aficionados. eClassical carries material from close to 700 labels, representing over 25,000 composers. As of this writing, 2,360 albums were offered as 24-bit files. Apart from the range of available titles and sound quality, what gets the attention of consumers is eClassical’s pricing policy: one pays by the second. “I have always been annoyed having to pay double postage if a letter was 21 grams rather than the 20 grams allowed,” von Bahr told me. “So, for 21 grams, I had to pay for 100. The situation is the same with downloading. If a track exceeds a certain number of minutes, even by one second, you have to pay for two tracks or—horror!—you are not allowed to buy the track at all except as part of the whole CD, the rest of which may not interest you in the least. Since with downloading, the whole concept of a fixed album is obsolete, by buying digital tracks the customer can make his own ‘album’ and make it look any which way he pleases. I wanted to create a system where this was allowed and possible. The simple answer: No restrictions and paying per second rather than per track. This was rather more difficult to do than to say and it took over a year to write the program—but it now is here, and it works exactly as intended.”

I mention to von Bahr that, while classical listeners have traditionally been early adopters and strong supporters of technical advances—SACD and Blu-ray, for instance—they’ve been more reticent, especially outside of audiophile circles, when it comes to downloads. Von Bahr sees this to be changing, at least with his customer base. “Since BIS has become the world’s largest SACD label, we still have a good sell-through of physical products, but a healthy part of our turnover is downloading. At eClassical.com, if an album is available in both 16 and 24 bits, more than 75% of the customers choose the 24-bit version. When, rather soon, surround in high-res becomes available at eClassical.com, we will presumably see an exodus from physical to downloading.” This is an important caveat for von Bahr. “Unless one can offer up downloads in high-res surround in a system that can be easily manageable by the consumer, I cannot see that physical discs—SACDs—will be gone anytime soon, although for the sake of the environment, I personally would like to see downloads take over as soon as possible.” As music-only Blu-rays are in the ascendence, raising the question of whether that format might supplant SACD as the physical carrier for high-resolution multichannel material, I ask if this is a direction von Bahr might consider for BIS. “No immediate plans,” he says, “but I have toyed with the idea of using the storage space to release, say, the Complete Sibelius Edition (68 CDs) on a single Blu-ray disc.”

In terms of the content that eClassical carries, von Bahr explains that labels approach him for inclusion and that he seeks them out, as well. “Everyone is welcome. We do not compete at eClassical—that is, BIS is not a preferred label when, for instance, the same repertoire is offered up. The more forward-looking labels participate in our weekly special deals and new release discounts, something that is working out really well. Every label gets to set its own prices—the price per second.”

Finally, there’s the key issue of streaming. What does the arrival of high-resolution streaming—WiMP in Europe, which is TIDAL in North America—mean for the future of downloads? Will storing—collecting—HD music files become just as passé as (it’s anticipated) amassing silver discs of various kinds? Von Bahr said, “That is indeed the tendency in Sweden today, where Spotify alone has more than 80% of the entire music market. For the music lovers, though, who want to listen in decent quality sound, download or physical is a must. eClassical has no intention to go into that market at this time.” Meaning, of course, that eClassical won’t be streaming itself—but BIS recordings are available from streaming services, including Wimp/Tidal. Initially, Tidal is streaming at 44.1/16, but has plans to offer files at higher levels of resolution soon, which should make fans of BIS SACDs—at least those who listen in stereo—very happy.

Robert von Bahr has always taken his work seriously; he once said, “BIS uses technology not to create an interpretation, but to let composers and artists have their say without the interference of technical limitations.” Likewise, von Bahr’s sense of responsibility to music consumers hasn’t wavered. BIS has “an absolute non-deletion policy” and all of the label’s more than 1700 releases have remained continuously available. eClassical’s pricing scheme is another instance of von Bahr’s respectful treatment of his customers. But the “BIS Boss,” as he is sometimes referred to at eClassical.com, doesn’t take himself too seriously. When I asked for a photo to accompany this article, the one he sent is the one that you see on the previous page. Lying down on the job? Probably not. But if he was, given von Bahr’s sustained level of industry and innovation over the past 42 years, it would be perfectly forgivable.