Delphian’s Paul Baxter takes on the big boys

Paul Baxter: 'I like making things' . Picture: Contributed
Paul Baxter: 'I like making things' . Picture: Contributed
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PROVING doubters wrong, Paul Baxter’s Delphian Records has been named Label of the Year

The most memorable piece of advice Paul Baxter received when he was setting up Delphian Records in Edinburgh 14 years ago was, quite simply, “don’t do it”. That was from the late Ted Perry, the respected founder of the highly successful independent label Hyperion. Had Baxter taken that advice he wouldn’t be where he is today; which is, following last month’s industry awards ceremony, as a proud recipient of Gramophone Magazine’s prestigious Label of the Year award. Previous winners include Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi, Naïve, Wigmore Hall and, last year, Glasgow-based Linn Records. “Interestingly, they’re all independents, the sorts of labels I’d like to see Delphian viewed alongside”, says the 35-year-old Edinburgh University graduate who went into the business mainly because, “I like making things”.

By going ahead and setting up the label – originally in partnership with fellow Edinburgh graduate Kevin Findlan, who bowed out early on in their business relationship – Baxter showed a determination that would help him overcome initial setbacks to build a catalogue that saw Gramophone editor James Jolly call Delphian “one of those labels whose monthly release list is a genuinely appetising prospect”.

As a regular reviewer of CDs, I can concur with Jolly’s enthusiasm for the Delphian product. Not only does it produce, by and large, bold and enterprising repertoire from a growing portfolio of interesting, mainly Scottish, artists, but in an age of disembodied, featureless downloads, Delphian have preserved the art of packaging, providing CDs with sleeve notes and cover designs that are a joy to read and savour.

Did Baxter ever think he was entering a dying industry? After all, he must have been fully aware that the big boys – EMI, Decca, and the rest of the major classical labels – were already being neutered by boardroom politics and forced into a preference for commercialised sureties over adventurous trailblazing.

You won’t find on these labels such refreshing, risk-taking discoveries as pianist Peter Hill’s premiere recording of a rediscovered Messiaen piano work – recorded by Hill within a beautifully balanced programme of modern piano music issued last month to great critical acclaim. Nor such rarified historical compendiums as the complete 18th-century organ works of William Russell, played by City of Edinburgh organist John Kitchen. Baxter’s vision was to prove that a small, independent Scottish label such as Delphian could plug the gap and explore a balance of niche markets.

“It’s probably a manifestation of my naivety, but I’ve always thought that if we try to make each release as interesting and engaging and as high quality as possible, there will be 
people out there who’ll want to buy it,” he says. “That’s worked.

“In terms of building a catalogue, it’s not about building a range of things to sell equally. It’s about building a catalogue that, as a whole, engages. Such specialised repertoire as William Russell’s complete organ works may take a huge amount of capital to record and produce in a really lavish package, and it may be the case that it doesn’t sell many copies. But in terms of making a catalogue that is culturally broad and engaging, it’s essential to include that sort of thing.”

Sometimes popularity has been unexpected. “Who’d have thought Geoffrey Webber’s fantastic Gonville and Caius Choir with Barnaby Brown’s triple pipes [on a disc entitled In Praise of St Columba] would do so well,” says Baxter. Yet he’s had to re-press that disc twice in the past month to meet huge demand from North America and Germany.

It’s that international reach that has ensured Delphian’s fortunes. “Getting the right distributor is so important,” Baxter explains. “At one point we had three separate UK distributors that went bankrupt on us in the space of 18 months. We had just released Kenneth Leighton’s complete piano music which, after featuring as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone Magazine, sold 130 copies in the first week. Yet because the distributor went bust, we never saw a penny of that.”

Baxter feels much safer now with the highly respected Harmonia Mundi as his key distributor. Signing with them, he says, was a surprise to many of his competitors, and a signal to the industry to sit up and take notice. “We’re with them in most territories, and they’re backed up by their own successful label and a network of 48 stores in France where they are particularly strong, so I think we’re pretty safe.”

Safe enough for Baxter to pursue his vision, and passion for “making things”. Out soon is a disc of organ music from the Usher Hall, featuring resident organist John Kitchen, which he calls “a total scream”, as it includes a riotous arrangement of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer alongside Bach’s epic Passacaglia and Fugue. “It’s really exciting at the moment. Let’s just say I’m smiling.”