Early this summer, Polish pianist Elżbieta Bilicka got some exciting news. Bilicka is 28 and lives in Logan, Utah, where she is on the piano faculty at Utah State University. At the time, the novel coronavirus was spreading rapidly throughout the United States and Europe, wreaking financial havoc on the performing arts. In the midst of this chaos, Bilicka received an email from a label called Orpheus Classical, soliciting musicians to apply to record an album. If Bilicka was selected, the company said, it would cover 75 percent of the costs of producing her record.

Bilicka suggested a program of pieces in a certain Impressionist vein: Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 and Andante and Grande polonaise, along with works by Szymanowski, Ravel, and Scriabin. A day later, Orpheus Classical wrote back: Bilicka’s proposal had been unanimously accepted. She was going to record her first CD.  

“I was really happy,” Bilicka told me. “They were overwhelmed with the number of applications, so I thought it was a really great thing that they chose it.”

In July, Bilicka posted a GoFundMe to raise money for the remaining 25 percent of costs for her album, which were significant. Bilicka was told that the Orpheus Classical recording studios were closed until 2021 due to COVID-19, so she would need to supply a professionally recorded and mastered CD to the label. This usually costs several thousand dollars.

Orpheus Classical told Bilicka that their total costs for producing the album—excluding the actual recording—ran to $30,000. She would need to pay Orpheus Classical the remaining 25 percent of production costs, or $7,500, an amount the company said included CD pressing, as well as “the graphic design of the album’s cover, the legal matters to obtain the ISRC codes, EAN/UPC, phonographic rights, and the transfer to all the major digital platforms.”

In all, Bilicka aimed to raise $11,500: $4,000 for a recording engineer she knew through Utah State, and the remaining $7,500 for Orpheus Classical.

Bilicka didn’t quite meet her goal. As she acknowledged on her GoFundMe page, “this time is financially difficult for everyone.” But in their acceptance email, Orpheus Classical had also offered a cheaper, digital option, which entailed distribution of Bilicka’s album via online streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Shazam, and a bevy of other platforms.  

Less than a week after posting her GoFundMe, Bilicka had made up her mind: Even if she couldn’t raise the funds for a physical CD, she would pursue Orpheus Classical’s digital option, priced at about $1,500 (in addition to the recording costs). “I can cover it from my own savings, if I stretch a little,” she told me. (Her GoFundMe has since raised over $2,000.)

Many other musicians have gotten similarly exciting news. This winter, the members of Duo Volgaris—Italian flutist Bartolomeo Audisio and the Swedish-Chinese pianist Richard He—responded to Orpheus Classical’s call for applications. They received their acceptance in March, at the beginning of the European coronavirus lockdowns. Orpheus Classical offered the duo the same conditions as Bilicka.

Duo Volgaris’s CD would feature original compositions. Their idea was a concept album about, as He put it, “coming out from something that is negative… [and moving toward] the light, the brightness.”

“During the lockdown, everything was completely blocked,” Audisio said. “And then it was like, ‘Maybe we have the opportunity to do something with a label!’”

Classical music recordings are rarely lucrative for performers. Spotify pays artists fractions of a cent per listen, no matter the length of the track; specialist apps like Primephonic offer fairer payment models for classical musicians, but aren’t as omnipresent. While musicians frequently complain that labels give them a raw deal, even the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon, as Hartmut Welscher wrote in VAN in 2017, has turned to “neo-classical” artists to increase its streaming reach.  

Almost all record labels producing classical music CDs today require artists to pay them, as companies are unlikely to earn enough profit on sales to cover their costs. John Anderson, the owner of Odradek Records, a label which uses a pioneering anonymous selection system to choose its artists, told me, “Not even huge stars get their CDs for free anymore.” Costs can range from about $6,000 to release with a small label, to up to $70,000 for a recording with a major label (including a worldwide publicity blitz). At any price point, records are not expected to pay for themselves, but rather to increase the artist’s prestige, hopefully leading to more concerts with higher rates. (According to the German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, DG even receives a cut of some of its artists’ future performance fees.)

Still, recordings are essential to musicians: For applications, networking, press, and the psychological satisfaction of capturing an excellent performance of a given work for posterity. As Audisio said, “When you play music, and above all, start [composing] a few of your own notes, you want to record a CD. Not because of the success you can get—actually you can’t get so much success from a CD nowadays. But you want to see the result in an artistic kind of composition.” Releasing a record with a label feels more prestigious than navigating the contemporary recording industry alone.

But even considering the conditions in the recording industry today, Orpheus Classical’s business model is unusual. It is rare for labels (which are often overworked and understaffed) to solicit applications. And many small imprints represent a specific curatorial vision, while Orpheus has published CDs ranging from “Voices of Silicon Valley” to “Liszt in Italy,” performed mostly by young or lesser-known musicians. The artists I spoke to about Orpheus had been unaware of the label before they received the emails encouraging them to apply for sponsorships. “I’m not sure I did a lot of research on this record label at that time,” Bilicka recalled.

The 75-percent sponsorship offered by Orpheus Classical also raises questions: The label told artists that the cost of producing a physical CD would normally run to about $30,000, with digital releases priced at $6,000. (Minus this sponsorship, the musicians were left to pay the label about $7,500 and $1,500, respectively, excluding recording costs.) Since Orpheus Classical doesn’t appear to be marketing itself or its artists on the same level as a Deutsche Grammophon or Sony Classical, these quotes seem incongruous with industry standards. Services such as RecordJet offer digital distribution packages like Orpheus’s for as little as $50. In Germany, a pressing of 500 CDs costs roughly $700, including jewel cases, booklet printing, and cellophane packing.

Several musicians said that Orpheus Classical declined to provide them with an itemized budget. The company also doesn’t name its sponsors (Orpheus told me this information is “strictly confidential”). One label owner wondered whether Orpheus simply set a fee with a healthy profit margin, then multiplied it by four to create the appearance of a generous sponsorship.

Acceptance emails, sent out by the label’s project manager Paul Ackroyd, were identical: “Our artistic commission in Europe and America has reviewed your recording project very carefully, and we are pleased to inform you that it has been unanimously accepted. The artistic commission unanimously considers that you possess outstanding talent, as well as a very distinctive artistic personality.” Orpheus Classical gave artists deadlines for their responses, warning that if they chose not to record with the company, their sponsorship would be given to another performer.

“It’s a psychological phenomenon: When you’ve been chosen for something, you feel flattered,” said Sebastian Solte, the director of the Berlin label bastille musique. “And if you don’t have other options, you think, This is my big chance.

In the spring of 2016, German cellist Benedict Kloeckner got some excellent news: He had won a First Prize in the strings division of the Manhattan International Music Competition. His award was professional representation by an artist management company called Manhattan Concert Artists, and a performance at Carnegie Hall. Another prize, awarded to Japanese pianist Kotaro Fukuma, was a CD recording with Orpheus Classical (valued at $25,000 on the competition website).

Unusually for the time—long before the coronavirus era—the judging for the Manhattan International Music Competition took place entirely online. Kloeckner was unable to attend the Carnegie Hall concert due to a scheduling conflict. He exchanged a few emails with Sarah Anderson, an agent at Manhattan Concert Artists, but they never developed a management strategy together—or even met in person. (In an email, Paul Ackroyd told me that the agency and Orpheus Classical are “completely separate entities.”)

In any case, Kloeckner’s agreement with Manhattan Concert Artists was non-exclusive, which he appreciated since he had recently acquired separate American representation. His communication with MCA quickly trailed off, and the company didn’t get him a single gig. Kloeckner is still listed as a client on their website.

“This is their business strategy,” Kloeckner told me, referring to the competition. “They say, ‘OK, you’ll get management in America.’ A concert in Carnegie Hall sounds fantastic.” He continued, “I bet they earn good money with it.”

In the 2020 edition of the Manhattan International Music Competition, performers competed in two categories: one for cash prizes and either a recital at Carnegie Hall or an Orpheus Classical CD recording ($95 registration fee), another for both the recital and recording ($155 registration fee).

In addition to the two main prizes, over 200 musicians received distinctions that were not tied to specific awards. That means the competition took in somewhere between $21,000 and $35,000. As WQXR has reported, the rental fee for Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall on a Friday night is around $2,000.

Two other competitions, the Vienna International Music Competition and the Berliner International Music Competition, run on remarkably similar systems: They are judged online, offer winners’ concerts in Vienna’s Musikverein and Berlin’s Philharmonie, award representation by Manhattan Concert Artists and an Orpheus Classical CD, and require similar registration fees. Like Manhattan, they also give out an unusually high number of awards in a wide variety of instrumental and vocal categories.

While other competitions require application fees, they hold in-person auditions, pay their juries, and invest in professional promotional material. In comparison, these three competitions likely don’t incur significant costs beyond venue rental. Jay Gottlieb, an American pianist based in Paris who studied with Nadia Boulanger, served on the jury of the Berliner Competition from its founding in 2017 until 2019. Three pianists were chosen by a pre-selection committee; their YouTube videos were then sent to Gottlieb. He ranked them from worst to best, which took him about half an hour. I asked Gottlieb if he was paid for his work. “Here’s the shocking and very exceptional part: No pay,” he answered. Gottlieb never attended one of the final concerts in the Philharmonie, since his travel costs wouldn’t have been covered.

Interested in breaking into the European opera scene, the New York-based coloratura soprano Sarah Heilman applied to the Vienna International Music Competition this year. “This competition seemed like one where I may have been able to be a contender, even though I am still in the early process of ‘making it’ as a professional,” she said. She paid her $95 entry fee, sent in her videos, and won a First Grand Award in the Virtuoso category. But she was unable to attend the winners’ concert in the Musikverein due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, and was therefore told that she would forfeit her $1,200 prize. In the end, all Heilman got was a certificate sent via email.

It is not entirely clear who runs Orpheus Classical, Manhattan Concert Artists, or the three International Competitions. No staff names, individual email addresses, or phone numbers are provided on their websites. I couldn’t reach staff at the phone number listed on Orpheus Classical’s Facebook page. All of Bilicka’s communications with the company took place in writing.

My email inquiries to Orpheus were answered by an administrator named Andrés Alonso. Alonso declined to be interviewed by phone or to set up an interview between Orpheus staff and VAN in New York, citing the coronavirus restrictions. From the same email address, Paul Ackroyd later responded to a detailed list of questions by writing that my “behavior is highly obstructive.”

Orpheus Classical’s addresses on the Gran Vía in Madrid and Fifth Avenue in New York, appear to be virtual offices—spaces where small companies can rent postboxes on prestigious streets for fees as low as $15 a month. The address of the Vienna International Music Competition also appears to be a virtual office. (“We… rent a large number of venues in different international capital cities,” Ackroyd said.)

The address of Manhattan Concert Artists matches exactly the Manhattan offices of Trimboli & Prusinowski LLC, a labor law firm. The headquarters of the Berliner International Music Competition actually belongs to CMS, a law firm specializing in tax cases. Two receptionists there had never heard of the competition. My emails to each competition went unanswered, but after my email to Orpheus Classical, the addresses of the Berliner and Vienna competitions were removed from their websites.

The publisher Universal Edition is named as a sponsor on all three competition websites. A representative of the company told me that Universal Edition does not provide financial sponsorships. A picture of Orpheus Classical’s recording studio on their website is a stock photo. (Ackroyd said that the label has sound engineers on staff and multiple recording studios.)

Benedict Kloeckner provided one possible clue to the leadership of these organizations. His contact at Manhattan Concert Artists, Sarah Anderson, is also listed as the assistant of the Spanish conductor and pianist Félix Ardanaz on his website. Ardanaz appears to be closely involved with the network of companies: He is represented by MCA and has recorded several albums with Orpheus Classical. On the label’s homepage, a Facebook icon redirected to Ardanaz’s artist page on Facebook. (Ardanaz said this was a mistake.)

Ardanaz agreed to an interview—but only by email, citing his “extremely busy” schedule. After receiving my questions, he declined to comment on the record.

In the meantime, Bilicka did some sleuthing. In July, she had been attracted to Orpheus Classical’s under-the-radar vibe. “I saw on their advertisement that there were a lot of CDs of young people; names that I had actually never heard of. And that might have been something more motivating, even,” she said. But by August, Bilicka began having doubts about the legitimacy of Orpheus Classical. She asked other people in the recording industry about the label. Echoing Anderson and Solte, they told her “that Orpheus’ prices are outrageous and [they] had never heard of them.”

When Bilicka told an Orpheus Classical representative that she had decided not to pursue her album with the label, they responded that they could “arrange extra money from their donors.” She refused, and will instead release her CD with the Louisiana-based Centaur Records, which was founded in 1976 and currently distributes through Naxos Records. Centaur’s transparency about costs, combined with its legacy and reputation, was a major plus for Bilicka.

“Plus,” she added, “they charge 10 percent of the Orpheus price.” ¶