The music critic of the New Yorker has reproduced statistics from the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) purporting to show that classical recording is alive and well and healthier than ever.
Having just published a book that asserts the very opposite, I am not about to enter here into a detailed refutation. However, here are a few quibbles to the contrary:
1 No cultural industry in my long experience has yielded less reliable stats than the record biz.
2 Official record stats usually consist of units delivered, rather than actual sales, and never configure the huge volume of returns – the great unsold.
3 The decline of classical recording is best measured at the point of production: the record studio. In 1993, six major labels were resonsible for making 700 new classical recordings. Today, there only two majors still active – EMI and DG-Decca – and their combined output is fewer than 100 new releases a year, of which half are crossover. If you are looking for evidence of classical demise on record, start here.
4 Naxos, based in Hong Kong, is the only label to maintain consistent classical output, but it does so without artist promotion, denying the element of interpretative individuality which has fuelled the history and tradition of classical recording.
5 A host of small labels continues to produce classical records but at a risible economic level, close to or below subsistence – and often as vanity publishers, accepting free submissions and issuing them untouched by editorial intervention. Many orchestras and artists have been reduced to publishing their own work. Some of it is high quality, but it is unfiltered by objective or commercial consideration at the point of selection and destribution. It is, in other words, vanity publishing.
6 As is the uncritical regurgitation of RIAA press releases by the music critic of the New Yorker.
7 In my first university course in statistics, the lecturer warned us to be wary of ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, a statement variously attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Mark Twain, Alfred Marshall and others. Numbers require informed analysis. You cannot analyse the state of recording by sitting at home and sifting review copies and press releases. The truth is out there – in the idle studios, in the shut-down record stores, in the shrinking space for classical debate in mainstream media. Some of us are still out there, still making a noise, making sure that a good artform does not go down without a fight. Or at least a loving epitaph.