The epic career of producer R. Peter Munves has been jam-packed with both controversy and record releases, but it would be hard to find anyone in the music business who wouldn't admit the man knows how to sell classical music. He has been compared to both P.T. Barnum and a pornographer, has collected so many records that at times it was literally impossible to move about in his Long Island home, has worked for just about every record company in existence, and -- last but not least -- is the guy who, while working as the head of RCA's classics division and after listening to Metal Machine Music, told Lou Reed that he ought to consider taking composition lessons.
The latter anecdote, although sort of classic in itself, hardly references the type of records Munves has been so adept at producing. The Reed opus was meant to be as inaccessible as possible, while the entire point of a typical Munves concept is always the exact opposite. His ideas usually result in groups of releases under united themes, and therein lies the scandal -- purists in the genre often blanching at the type of concepts this producer is famous for. While his discography is longer than some novels, even a quick glance reveals his approach, groups of releases unfolding under thematic banners such as "At the Movies," "Mad About," "For Lovers," "Greatest Hits," "Opera Made Easy" and so forth. He was also involved in creating the huge '60s hit Switched-On Bach.
Munves' specialty is the compilation, groups of which he turns out with a gusto that make prolific home-taping artists seem like lazy slobs. Despite the whining of classical elitists, all this producer has really done is articulate the various ways in which people can and do listen to great masterworks, aiming his products not at people who are already seasoned classical listeners but at the massive audience ready to enjoy the music if they just didn't think it was so damn snooty. His ability to create these compilations may be partially due to a savvy sense of marketing but has much more to do with the fact that Munves is simply one of the greatest classical music fans and listeners of them all.
His grandmother, an amateur pianist, was one of the main people who both introduced him to classical music and encouraged a continuing interest, escorting him and his brother James Munves to concerts regularly. The latter sibling went on to become a published fiction and nonfiction writer. The initial at the outset of the name R. Peter Munves is there simply because of a sloppy mistake at the time of his birth: he was originally identified as a female named Roberta! He started out his record collecting hobby quite early and eventually began working for the famous New York City record store managed and owned by Sam Asch.
Some of his initial production contacts came about simply because he had rare, vintage material in his collection that companies needed to get their hands on for reissue purposes. His knack at marketing a form of music that often depends on huge subsidies for survival has continually given him an edge in terms of staying employed within the field he loves. He has received plenty of good publicity in the midst of it all. Very few record producers have gotten the sort of attention he has from major publications such as Time and Newsweek, let alone producers in the classical music genre. It was in a profile in one such mass-circulation magazine in which he compared himself to the legendary circus promoter, saying he was like the "P.T. Barnum of the classics...they've never had anybody like me."
Following a compilation playing on the notion of a new millennium catastrophe, Y2K: A Doomsday Collection for the Coming Crash, Munves returned to a familiar theme for the so-called Love Notes series on BMG. The covers of these releases depict some pretty hot sex scenes, drawn in an imitation of the Japanese anime style. Sure enough, classical big shots such as pianist and conductor André Previn piped in with horrified reactions. "Come on, these composers had stormy love lives of their own," Munves fired back in an interview with Andante magazine. "They were writing their music from the heart, and the music is romantic, sexy, exultant. Music sets a mood, and it's high time that we drew attention to the fact that sex and romance can be one of those moods...."
"And after all," he added, "I didn't invent sex." The marketing techniques he did invent certainly didn't mortally offend everyone in the classical music world: greats such as Vladimir Horowitz and Isaac Stern were in attendance at the funeral of Munves' wife.