How André Rieu made classical music a multimillion dollar business

A business based on classical music? Notes Andre Rieu: "Strauss did it."

Known by millions of fans as “King of the Waltz”, Dutch violinist André Rieu has turned his love of classical music into a multimillion-dollar business – an idea, he says, that was inspired by Johann Strauss.

Dutch violinist André Rieu sells more concert tickets than Beyoncé, is the most successful classical musician around and tours with his own 60-piece orchestra. He lives in a castle, keeps butterflies and wants to be the first artist to perform on the moon.

But don’t let the extravagance distract you. The breadth and reach of the André Rieu business is utterly extraordinary. Estimates put his net worth at about US$40 million.

The operation is far removed from the common concert merchandise fodder of mugs, key rings and T-shirts. Rieu has turned his classical music roadshow into an all-swaying, all-dancing business that encompasses everything from childcare, doctors, chefs and transport to a complete concert production and media company.

Rieu compares himself to Johann Strauss, explaining that the 19th-century Austrian composer and conductor had fun with his music, but also made a business of it. Rieu’s business nous couples well with his musical talent. In 1995, he bought a minute of airtime during a European football match.

He strode out onto the pitch at half-time (with Dutch side Ajax up 3-0 against Germany’s Bayern Munich FC) and played Shostakovich’s “Waltz No.2” as the fans swayed and hummed in the stands. It was an inspired move that saw his CD sales soar. He was on his way.

"People always say it’s not possible to combine art and money, but I think it’s very possible."

Rieu came from a musical, though humble, background. One of six children, he watched his father earn a modest living conducting the Maastricht Symphony Orchestra. Rieu started playing the violin at the age of five. A desire to perform for the masses came early as he watched the audience respond to his father’s concerts. 

Rieu’s own concerts are unashamedly flamboyant. He is famous for the tuxedo and ballgown-clad orchestra that accompanies him on a set more fairytale than classical performance. An overly ambitious replica of Vienna’s Imperial Palace, complete with fountains, ice rink and a gold-covered carriage, sent him bankrupt. But that “stupid” financial decision brought him so much publicity that his subsequent and less flamboyant tour sold out and brought him back into the black.

He showed former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley around his castle home in Maastricht in an interview for the second series of In Conversation with Alex Malley, broadcast through the Nine Network Australia, and for INTHEBLACK magazine.

Alex Malley: Thank you very much for the invitation to your castle. How did you come to own it?

André Rieu: Great to have you, Alex. Twenty years ago, we were walking – me and my wife, Marjorie – along the river and we saw the castle. We thought, “That’s nice … but you should sell some records.” It was very gloomy and dark. I had my first piano lessons here when I was a boy; I hated the teacher. I still don’t like the piano!

Malley: Your dad was a big mentor for you. When he ran his encore, you were fascinated by the change in the audience’s reaction. What did you see?

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Rieu: I was sitting there as a small boy, very impressed by the music; classical music is really beautiful. At the end of the concert, very often he would play Strauss and I saw the people around me standing up, moving and smiling. I thought, “Oh my God, this is nice. That’s what I would like to do.” 

Malley: You were one of six in your family, all playing instruments. You refer to yourself as the black sheep of the family. What did that mean and are you still the black sheep?

Rieu: No, not now. But at that time I was, because I felt inside me that this way of life was severe. I thought, “There must be something else? There must be more freedom in life?” Freedom of thinking, not only literally freedom ... freedom of thinking and doing is the most precious thing we have as human beings. 

At that time, I did things that my parents didn’t like very much so I was the black sheep. But now? No.

The business of music

Malley: Your life must be confronting for the classic music set, because you combine success, money and fun.

Rieu: Yes, but my big example, Johann Strauss, was the same. People always say it’s not possible to combine art and money, but I think it’s very possible. Strauss did it. I only have one orchestra, he had five! 

Rieu's Maastricht home doubles as a business HQ.Malley: Your combination with Marjorie, from a business point of view, is interesting. How do your roles divide and how do you get the time to be creative with so much going on? 

Rieu: That was a growing process. In the beginning, I didn’t have money. We literally did everything ourselves. And now I have people for that and we have more time to think things over artistically – what is going to be the next record or the next DVD or the next tour? And what is going to be the next program?

Malley: But the “do it yourself” principle that you started with seems to have stayed because while you bring people in… 

Rieu: I still do it myself!

Malley: There are the doctors, there’s childcare, there are buses – all managed by the family – Marjorie and Pierre [Rieu’s son]. Has that been a conscious decision to run every aspect of the business?

Rieu: I want to control everything. When I control things, things go better and faster. It’s like one little line, “chk”, I do it myself. It’s done.

Malley: To someone who knows nothing about music but may be building a business, to hear you say, “I control everything” – [but] you also seem to be able to pick the people with the right skills and empower them to do what they do best. So what’s a typical interview like when a new musician comes in; what are you looking for?

Rieu: In the old days, I had an interview. Now? No. They play and then [within] one minute I hear. “When can you start? Tomorrow. OK, tomorrow we fly to Frankfurt, you come with us.”

I can see how you are in the bus or on the plane or on stage. That’s a much easier and direct and quicker way.

Part of the family and local economy

Malley: When you appoint people they tend to become part of your business and also part of this extended and unbelievable Rieu family.

Rieu: Most of my people stay with me more than 25 years and I’m very proud of that. I have 110 people on my payroll. [Rieu’s Johann Strauss Orchestra travels with him for every performance.]

Malley: I arrived in Maastricht last night and I walked around. I saw André’s shoes, the André menu in the hotel. You are effectively part of the economy in Maastricht – it’s quite extraordinary to see. [People] said there will be something like 8000 people at the concert tomorrow and 3000 in the restaurants and I even understand that you have spoken to every restaurant owner. What did you ask them?

Rieu: Twelve years ago, I said I’m going to give a concert in the square [Maastricht’s Vrijthof square]. But I said there is one condition, you shouldn’t serve during the concert. [They said] “Are you crazy? It’s high season.” I said the tickets on the square are from me and the tickets you sell with your menu and your wine and everything is for you. 

"Most of my people stay with me ... I have 110 people on my payroll."

After the first three concerts they sent me so many flowers because it was a success. The restaurants serve wine and dinner from 5 or 6 o’clock and the concert is at 9pm.
So they are in a good mood when the concert starts and I come with my cameras to film all that good mood, and that’s the combination that makes the success of the square.

Malley: That is part of the brilliance of this because these cameras are showing you how people react to what you do and the first principle in business is to look at what the customer wants.

Rieu: Exactly.

Malley: Is there something you’ve done in a show, but later studied the reactions and said, “Well, I thought that was really cool, but the audience didn’t?”

Rieu: People very often ask me, “You play waltzes, isn’t that dull?” Or, “You play only music that pleases the people.” “No,” I say. “I’m playing music that touches my heart”. Otherwise I couldn’t do 100 concerts a year, for 30 years.

It touches my heart and it pleases me, and when it pleases me and my orchestra, I know it will please you because we don’t play a role. It’s real and genuine. 

Malley: I’ve heard you speak before about visualising things, having drive, but ultimately being the same person on stage as you are off-stage; perhaps a little bit more flamboyant at times on stage, but the same person.

"When we don’t play well, then people don’t come back, so it has to be 100 per cent, always. The fun is in trying to reach the perfection."

Rieu: It’s the same person. When I’m nervous, they see that. When I’m glad, they see that. When I have to cry, they see that. That is important. I’m really the same. 

Malley: There will be a lot of people reading this who are trying to make a name for themselves. You did certain things early on. One of them was back in the mid-’90s, there was a big soccer match and you bought a minute of time during the game. 

Rieu: That was fantastic. I was sitting with people from my record company, Universal. “The Second Waltz” was already going on and [I thought] how can we make it bigger? Then I said, “Let’s play in the break, let’s buy a minute.”

I remember it was 3-0 in the break so I came on the grass [with my violin] and the crowd started to hum “The Second Waltz”. The day after, Universal sold 100,000 CDs in one day.

The show goes on

Malley: Do you still get nervous before a concert?

Rieu: Terribly.

Malley: That probably means it still matters to you. 

Rieu: It matters to me because we have to perform every night again from zero. When we don’t play well, then people don’t come back, so it has to be 100 per cent, always. The fun is in trying to reach the perfection. Not only in music, in life, everything. That’s the fun. That keeps you going. You never reach it.

When ambition backfires

Malley: There was bankruptcy about eight or nine years ago because you got carried away with your palace buildings. It’s important for people who have an interest in business to understand how you climb out of a hole. So the bank manager called you in on a Saturday …

Rieu boots for sale in Meulenhoff Shoes, MaastrichtRieu: The other guys wanted to pull the plug. He [the bank manager] said, “No, let him play, because that’s the only way we can get our money back.” He was right. Doing this stupid extravaganza gave me so much promotion. [Rieu explains that building three elaborate castles as the set for his world tour was an unaffordable extravagance. That tour put him 34 million euros in debt. The publicity gained from the extravagant show saw his next tour sell out, reaping 22 million euros.]

It was stupid. I promised Marjorie I will never do it again. We were in Australia to build this castle with 500 people, including the artist. Now when we come, we travel with 110. 

Malley: Banks normally do not look for the solution in those situations, they just look for shutdown. So this incredible banker clearly saw some opportunity to stay with you and build a relationship. Ironically, in the business world, sometimes those opportunities don’t abound. 

Rieu: Yes and during this meeting … I phoned my German promoter. My contract was about to end [and] I said, “I need three million euros; can you get three more years with me?” He said yes. So within one minute I had three million euros. So I called the record company. “I found more DVDs; can I get them to you?” Another three million euros.

So within five minutes, I had six million. He was so impressed that other people believed in me. The last five or six years we have been healthy.

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