An Interview with Luc Van de Ven by Doug Raynes © 2014
Based in Mechelen, Belgium, Luc Van de Ven has been a familiar name to film soundtrack enthusiasts for 40 years, from his early days in publishing and editing Soundtrack! magazine to establishing the Prometheus record label. For many years he has also headed a record distribution business. Never one to rest on his laurels, a few years ago Luc embarked on an ambitious and prestigious series of classic film soundtrack re-recordings in association with Tadlow Music. Although tending to keep a low profile outside of his business interests, Luc was kind enough to agree to this rare interview.
Luc, for 27 years you published Soundtrack magazine which progressed from a simple fanzine in 1975 to a glossy semi-professional magazine – a route which Film Score Monthly later followed. As one of the earliest film music magazines it was highly influential in raising interest in film music at a time when there was very little published material. What was your motivation in setting up the magazine and did you expect it to last as long as it did?
I was dissatisfied with the existing film music fanzines that were being published at the time. There were no interviews to speak of, just long-winded and to my mind boring articles. The filmographies they published were often copied from other sources, including errors and omissions, as these previously published filmographies were usually “selective” in the first place, because no-one bothered to do any research – there was no internet.
In those days I was (and still am) a collector of mystery novels, and subscribed to various US fanzines like The Armchair Detective that did a far better job, with numerous interviews with favourite writers and extremely comprehensive bibliographies, including books published under a pseudonym. I felt, rashly, that we could do just as well. It took a while to find knowledgeable contributors who worked in the industry, like John Caps and David Kraft. They were instrumental in forging the format. I was working for a magazine publisher at the time, this experience helped in setting up the magazine later on, which relied not just on subscribers but also on sales through shops, and a bit of advertising. At no time did I think we’d be around that long, things just developed.
Early issues of the magazine had interviews with some of the legendary composers such as Bronislau Kaper. Did you propose who to interview or did contributors submit them unsolicited?
In those days composers were not as readily accessible as they are today, with modern technology. John Caps, David Kraft and others usually made suggestions and I relied on their contacts in the film industry – agents and film studios. I was particularly interested in interviews with the older generation of composers, people who had seldom if ever been interviewed, so that their stories could be published before they passed away! I recall we were attending the Ghent Film Music Festival at the very beginning of its long career and discovered that David Raksin was attending, although he had not been mentioned in any press release. Daniel Mangodt did a 45-minute interview with Raksin off the cuff, without any preparation whatsoever, his knowledge of film music was truly phenomenal.
Did the magazine ever make a profit?
We never broke even in those 27 years. Whenever we acquired more readers I put the extra money into adding extra pages, using better paper, and especially reproducing colour photos. By 2002 we were literally losing approximately €50,000 per year on Soundtrack! magazine. The main problem was not so much the extra pages but the colour photos which required much more work for our lay-out person, and most especially the postal rates, which went up year by year, so that in the end postage actually cost more than the subscription fee our readers were paying, while advertising (the lifeblood of any magazine or newspaper the world over) was minimal.
These losses were offset by introducing the Prometheus record label, and later on, by adding other specialized labels that we were selling to both subscribers and specialized dealers. But for them the magazine would have folded.
You finally closed down the magazine in 2002. Had it become too much of a chore by then?
I loved editing the magazine, but running the Prometheus label and especially distributing the other labels took more and more of my time. I also knew that the internet was going to mean a steadily declining (paying) readership. Who would pay for a magazine that you could read for free on the Web? The funny thing was, the magazine was selling better and better in the USA, but general expenses were outrageous (we had to extend a 55% discount on the cover price to the U.S. distributor, and pay for overseas shipping charges ourselves, while we had to accept returns (torn-off covers, to prove they hadn’t been sold), which inevitably meant we were losing money.
What made you set up a record label in 1988 and why did you decide on the name Prometheus?
Launching a record label had not been my intention, but in those days European film music was being ignored by the US labels. In view of the expense in running a magazine, finding an additional source of revenue was critical if we were to continue. It was my intention to call our label Tarantula Records, but being somewhat naïve, I mentioned my plans to Ingo Curth and his wife who paid me a visit at the time. Before I knew it they had “borrowed” the name for their own shop and label. A German friend, Gerd Haven, came up with the Prometheus name; he felt rightly that it would make a nice logo.
Your first soundtrack releases on Prometheus were Georges Delerue’s THIBAUD THE CRUSADER and Maurice Jarre’s ROBINSON CRUSOE on LP. Did you have a lot of co-operation with the composers themselves, such as Delerue, in obtaining tapes of scores and in obtaining approvals?
Georges Delerue was particularly helpful in more ways than one. He trusted me, although I had no experience in the recording business and he had no way of knowing if I’d come through; we had met only a few times over the years. He copied music tapes for me at a studio in Paris, helped me to refine contracts with the music publisher and so on. John Scott was equally generous. My associate at the time, the late Daniel Mangodt, went to visit John Scott in England on a whim, and returned with a contract for TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH, which is still one of my favourite orchestral scores.
What are the major problems you have encountered in acquiring or releasing soundtracks? I assume one of the big hurdles is finding out who has the rights in the first place?
Yes, finding out who owned what proved to be very tough, there was no internet, no IDMB or anything similar. Composers who wanted their scores released were helpful, but in cases where the composer could not help us we approached SACEM (the French equivalent of BMI/ASCAP). Although they were supposed to encourage record releases indirectly, I can’t recall a single case where they provided information that was of any use.
Are there many projects planned which you have had to abandon?
There are dozens of titles that I wanted to release but couldn’t, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the music publisher or the Hollywood film studio proved indifferent, sometimes paying the re-use fee proved insurmountable, sometimes the money asked was exorbitant (I recall we wanted to release John Scott’s complete score to THE FINAL COUNTDOWN, but the guy holding the reins told me on the phone we’d have to pay $100,000. At the time the $ was much stronger than it is now, it’s probably closer to $200,000 today. I remember thinking at the time that he probably quoted an outrageous price just so he’d get rid of me and my phone calls.
Another one was a television score by Georges Garvarentz, which had impressed me greatly: WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR. I called the composer at his villa (more of a castle) in France, and remember the unmistakable voice of singer Charles Aznavour who picked up the phone. It turned out that the composer was on holiday on his yacht, and that Mr. Aznavour was staying there as a kind of house-sitter. Of course the two of them had collaborated on several film songs, they were close friends. Later on I phoned the owner of the music rights in England, but again I met with total indifference. There was no market for film soundtracks as we know it today, and most businessmen did not want to bother.
There were also opportunities that I passed up on because the asking price was too risky to invest in those early days: Ford Thaxton gave us the opportunity to spend a $10,000 advance on the complete score to the first INDIANA JONES score by John Williams. I backed off. Today these prices are peanuts (we have paid much more, in more recent times, for titles like BASIC INSTINCT, CUTTHROAT ISLAND or THE CASSANDRA CROSSING) but in those days that was a lot of money for a label like Prometheus that was still feeling its way.
What sort of time scales are involved from start to finish on a project?
It depends from project to project. Getting the paperwork signed, acquiring the tapes, remixing them, getting the liner notes written and the booklet designed, the CD pressed etc, takes up several months. After all there is no real deadline; most agreements in those days ran 5 to 10 years.
Were there any unexpected big sellers which surprised you?
I think it’s fair to say that we’ve only had one real bestseller since 1988, our re-recording of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (seven pressings so far). A number of titles have sold well over the years and have gone back for several pressings, such as QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER (a consistent seller even today), THE BLACK STALLION, JULES ET JIM, PLATOON, BASIC INSTINCT and others.
Which surprised you as being unexpected poor sellers?
Others proved disastrous in the sense that they did not even recoup the advance, in particular Ennio Morricone’s Italian & French film scores such as COSI COME SEI, LA DONNA DELLA DOMENICA and LA DAME AUX CAMELIAS (on the other hand Morricone’s HUNDRA and BUTTERFLY sold much better). Which is why we’ve never released any other Morricone film scores since! Other non-sellers include Poledouris’s AMANDA or Joel McNeely’s WILD AMERICA, which has always puzzled me as both are orchestral scores. The cover for WILD AMERICA was imposed on us and looks like it’s a kids’ movie, which gives the wrong impression, in fact it was an adventure story with a couple of remarkable action cues. Another one is Ken Wannberg’s RED RIVER (paired with DRAW!), which contains a few truly exciting action cues, but which has never gone back for a second pressing. Go figure.
With so many specialist film music labels in business nowadays releasing so many discs, is it more difficult to sell titles than when you first started Prometheus?
Hard to tell. In the beginning we released titles there were less commercial, because the licenses were cheap, and sales were modest. Then, little by little we began taking financial risks, paying more and more to acquire the well-known stuff like CUTTTHROAT ISLAND, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING, THE SWARM, BASIC INSTINCT, THE CHALLENGE, and so on. Sales improved, but profit margins were way down, and in some cases non-existent, due to the money paid out for the licensing. A somewhat conflicting situation.
You haven’t released any original soundtracks (as distinct from re-recordings) on Prometheus for some years now. Do you intend to do any more?
At present there are no plans to do so. One reason is that a few of the more recent albums resulted in an agreement with four different Hollywood film studios and/or the composer’s estate for one single score, with royalties to be divided among all of them, which really means the banks are the only ones making any decent money – let alone doing the paperwork involved! Another major reason is that with very active labels like Intrada and La La Land, who needs yet another label like Prometheus to smother the market entirely? They are doing a superb job, they are right there where the Hollywood studios are located. It was very different back in 1988…
You used to have a website. Why did you stop doing it? Would it not be an advantage to be able to publicise and perhaps sell your releases on your own website?
Running a website means selling to collectors direct, in addition to distributing to shops and to wholesalers, the way we are doing now. It means hiring extra personnel, unfairly competing with the shops that we happen to sell to now (a bit like selling through Amazon, which we also don’t do for the same reason).
In association with James Fitzpatrick’s Tadlow Music you’ve released a fine series of classic soundtrack re-recordings on Prometheus; THE ALAMO, THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, CONAN THE DESTROYER, QUO VADIS, HOUR OF THE GUN, THE SALAMANDER and QB VII. I’m not expecting you to reveal any future titles but as a Rozsa fan I wonder whether there is any prospect of doing more Rozsa?
Possibly. Our QUO VADIS re-recording is doing very well. In general scores from epic films outsell westerns and do just as well as soundtracks from sci-fi movies. However, there are very few potential Rozsa re-recordings left, the scores that matter most (such as EL CID, SHERLOCK HOMES, BEN-HUR, KING OF KINGS, SPELLBOUND…) are readily available on other labels like Tadlow and Intrada.
You’re probably fed up with me going on and on about it but one score which really deserves a new recording is George Antheil’s THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION. I know you and James like the score and two or three years ago James said he had looked into it. Antheil does have a strong classical following and maybe there is the possibility of a crossover interest, but I understand you think it wouldn’t sell?
THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION is indeed a score I like very much, but most collectors only tend to buy a soundtrack album when they are familiar with the film. The older the film, the smaller the sales potential. I have been advised by specialized dealers who ought to know, that film scores from the fifties, sixties and even the seventies will not sell in any significant numbers today. And I have found that many of the younger collectors (even those in their thirties or early forties) are not familiar with a film like THE ALAMO nor a star like John Wayne, and therefore couldn’t care less about the ALAMO boxed set.
The fact that a segment of the classical music market might be interested is no sales argument, simply because the shops stocking classical music will not buy film soundtracks, there is no crossover to speak of. And the few record chains that are left standing are unlikely to invest money in stocking up on film scores going back 50 or 60 years, titles that might appeal to just one or two customers – or to none at all! The risk of their getting stuck with unsold product is far too great. Also, much to my astonishment, the people running the gift shop at the Alamo site refused to stock the re-recording, which we had counted on. With so many people visiting the Alamo ruins every single day, this would have been a certified bestseller. A bit like visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris and being unable to find a figurine of it in any of the local shops later on. With the added insult that people know the Eiffel Tower figurines exist and can look for it, whereas people visiting the Alamo site are totally unaware of the existence of our album. Sometimes that’s all it takes – one major financial setback, and everything changes. Including my outlook on potential re-recordings.
Do you ever have conflicts with James on what to record? For example, I wonder whether there may be recordings which you would like to finance but James may not care for the music.
James and I don’t have “conflicts”, that is much too strong a word. Obviously we tend to discuss potential projects, and he tends to ask me whether I’d be interested in re-recording this score or that one… His musical tastes are very different from mine in that he likes composers like Maurice Jarre, and I don’t (the exceptions being LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and THE MESSAGE). As everyone knows by now James is interested in preparing a re-recording of THE BLUE MAX, whereas I feel that the existing album is good enough – complete as far as I know, and reissued on a regular basis and therefore does not need an expensive digital re-recording.
What’s more important – whether you personally like the music or whether you think it will sell?
In the beginning it mattered most whether I liked the score in the first place. By the time an album is eventually released you’ve heard it any number of times, and I didn’t want to play an album multiple times by a composer I didn’t care for and be bored to tears as a result.
Life is too short. Nowadays, with hindsight and sales figures of the first eight re-recordings at hand, I’d say that the sales potential comes first. You can’t stay in business otherwise. It’s no secret that other labels like Varése have stopped doing re-recordings because you can’t break even any longer unless you hit the jackpot. Which we have done with CONAN THE BARBARIAN. The fact that our recordings can be freely downloaded from piracy sites hasn’t helped, although collectors seem to prefer the real thing.
The second important aspect concerns the amount of extra music not previously released. Although the HOUR OF THE GUN album is readily available in several incarnations, I felt doing the entire score had merit. Approximately 20 minutes of music are missing in the original soundtrack album, and the size of the orchestra was reduced to save money. Our re-recording was done the way Goldsmith had intended the music to be heard in the first place, in its complete form, performed by a complete orchestra.
You mentioned the problem of piracy sites and you expressed irritation to me once before about THE ALAMO recording being pirated and made available for download. Is there no action you can take against such websites?
Taking such action has proven hopeless. As soon as one website is shut down, another one pops up offering the same download.
Thanks to modern technology I believe you usually listen live at your home to James recording the Prometheus productions in Prague via Source-Connect. Do you ever have the need to contact James during the sessions or do you leave everything to his judgement?
I leave everything up to James. He’s a perfectionist, and Nick Raine is a wonderful conductor who obviously commands respect by the orchestra, what more could I possibly want?
Presumably you could make your Prometheus re-recordings available for download. Do you have any plans to do so?
Not in the very near future, although we’ve discussed it.
James has said that none of his soundtrack re-recordings on Tadlow have recouped their cost. You said CONAN has sold well but do you expect others to come into profit eventually?
Hard to tell, as my crystal ball is somewhat fogged up. Sales figures vary from title to title, and the ones you expect the most of (like THE SALAMANDER) actually disappoint. When downloadables first appeared on the internet, people predicted that CD sales would drop to an all-time low and they’d become a thing of the past. Instead, the opposite has happened: There have never been so many new film soundtrack releases by such a wide variety of labels, and some have proven outstanding sellers. I am thinking of titles like THE AVENGERS or THE BLACK HOLE (both on Intrada). Given enough time, I think we’ll manage to break even on some titles. Making a profit has never been a major consideration of mine where it concerns Prometheus Records or Soundtrack! magazine. All I want is being able financially to continue.
You tend to be somewhat cautious about publicising your upcoming projects but do you expect to be able to continue financing re-recordings in conjunction with James and, if so, can you give any clues as to possible future recordings?
At the moment two more recordings are in the pipeline for this year – neither one by Goldsmith.
We’ve discussed Soundtrack magazine and Prometheus Records but most film music fans are probably unaware that your main business is distributing CD soundtracks for numerous labels from which you’ve been able to finance your recordings with Tadlow. How long has that business been established and how did it come about?
We’ve become distributors by sheer accident! At one time we were selling to 4 specialized soundtrack dealers in Belgium alone, and another specialized dealer in Holland, while a local wholesaler covered the rest of the existing territory throughout the Benelux countries. Douglass Fake was apparently experiencing some problems with his local distributor in France, and asked me if we’d be interested in taking over. It took me maybe five minutes to decide and jump at the chance!
Apparently Doug liked the arrangement and eventually he asked us to ensure distribution in other European countries. In those days that was not such a hardship: in the UK for example we were selling to seven specialized dealers at one time, and to a wholesaler as well, so we had that region pretty well covered. In Spain we were doing business with 3 specialized dealers and a wholesaler who took care of the remaining regular record shops. And so on.
After a while I felt that would make sense to try and acquire other labels. I had worked for a chain of book shops in the seventies and the early eighties who had done precisely that, selling books to the competition, and although I was against the idea in the beginning I soon realized that the “rival” bookshops had different customers than we had, maybe as many as 95%, so in effect we were not competing with our own bookshops but creating a new and much bigger market. Being able to sell to so many book shops allowed us to buy much bigger quantities per title, which in turn allowed us to get much bigger discounts. That was one of my jobs at that time, phoning publishers and asking for better terms, and I adopted the same system many years later when we began distributing record labels. The Australian OneMone label and the Super Tracks label in America were among the first but by no means the last ones.
Next I approached Lukas Kendall, suggesting that we handle his European sales. We never met, never signed any paperwork, he just trusted me. Other record labels included (and still do) – Craig Spaulding’s Screen Archives Entertainment, Brigham Young University (Tribute and Counterpoint did not exist at the time), Michael Lewis’s own label… Michael Gerhardt’s La La Land label is a much more recent addition and is certainly one of the Big Three; the others being FSM and Intrada, and excluding the big commercial labels like Varese, Sony, and so on as they are distributed through normal channels.
Although there are few traditional retail stores left in the United States selling CDs, there are still quite a few major store chains in Europe such as FNAC, Virgin, Media Markt and Saturn. Do you find those outlets useful or do soundtrack fans purchase almost exclusively over the internet nowadays?
The few remaining chain stores are infrequent customers, and the quantities ordered are pretty small if you consider the total number of stores involved. It’s no secret that HMV in the UK went from 220 to around 60 shops recently, most of which do not sell soundtracks from old movies anyway. FNAC and Virgin in France have vastly reduced soundtrack imports, for the usual reasons. Media Markt / Saturn is not a customer as far as I know, the CDs that you come across in their shops are from recent films, or compilations, but not the sort of thing that we carry.
Finally, do have any plans to retire? I hope not because we selfishly want you to continue producing soundtracks!
I’m planning to continue as long as my health allows! Finding a successor would not be easy in any case: I’m used to working six days a week, often every single day during the winter months. The internet has changed our work ethic completely. It’s not a good thing; the constant work pressure can be exhausting but going back to the old ways is not an option. In the old days, a weekend was something to look forward to, restful, apart from a fax with new orders now and then, but you could recuperate. Nowadays you can’t. There are new releases every day, emails every moment, paperwork galore (VAT forms, bookkeeping etc). Many dealers didn’t last long because they underestimated the work and the cash needed, others went out of business. The market is in constant flux, and the number of internet dealers that can survive and flourish is limited. Labels come and go (like Percepto) and others are dormant (such as Trevor Jones’s and Michael Lewis’s own labels).
Thank you Luc, for giving of your time to provide such an interesting and wide-ranging interview.