Classical records not in trouble?

Classical records not in trouble?


norman lebrecht

May 17, 2007

‘The classical recording industry can’t possibly be in trouble,’ writes Don Rosenberg in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. ‘Compact discs keep piling up, like sonic mountains.’
What kind of logic is that? You might as well say city newspapers can’t be in trouble because there are piles of them every day at the vendors. Or that pizza deliveries must be the hottest thing on earth because so many fliers are shoved through your letterbox.
It must surely be obvious, even in the misty Cleveland heights, that the mainstream classical industry has shrunk in a decade from 700 releases to fewer than 100 and that most of the inflow that clutters reviewers’ desks consists of non-commercial vanity products, paid for by the orchestra, the artists or their anonymous best friends.
The facts of decline are laid out in my book, which has not yet been reviewed in Cleveland, and there can be no excuse for such wilful myopia.
Nor is the blindness total, since Rosenberg continues: ‘Most of (the discs) stay put in their plastic wrappers.’ Of course they do. A disc that may sell 100 copies cannot claim review space in a newspaper that sells 344,704 daily.
The Dealer got a new editor this week, the well-respected Susan Goldberg. She will doubtless wish to take a fresh view of its narrow cultural perspectives.


  • Your book may not have been reviewed in Cleveland, but it was reviewed in Time Out London the week of April 18, issue No. 1913. The review is not online, but it is on page 112.

    The reviewer, unsigned, noted “We need a wider context,” as well as “…what finally causes unease is Lebrecht’s factual sloppiness when he ventures out of boardroom politics and (justifiable) war on the men in suits. He gloats [on page 44 of the American edition] over a photo of Karajan and cohorts in April 1955 [photo No. 9], ‘the most powerful maestro on earth,’ in charge among other things, of the Vienna Opera and Salzburg Festival. Er, no. The rebuilt Vienna Opera wasn’t open yet; Karl Boehm was boss, succeeded later by Karajan (ditto with Salzburg). Lebrecht gets it wrong even reviewing his favourite recordings,” followed by a dissection of recordings in which the principals’ roles are wrongly assigned.
    NL replies: How very corporate and loyal of you to quote an anonymous colleague with a tiny nit to pick. For every imputation of inaccuracy about the book – many of them specious – there have been positive reviews and strong endorsements from people who really know the business.
    On the particular issue of the Vienna Opera, Boehm had submitted his resignation and Karajan had been asked to take over by the dated cited, April 27, 1955.

  • Nicholas Adams says:

    You go banging on about the death of classical recording. I know you have a book about it and you are, thus, convinced of your argument, but I am not quite there. I think we are witnessing a change in the way that recordings are reaching the market. I now download things that I would never ever bought as a CD. It is a way to experiment–it doesn’t cost as much; it doesn’t clutter up my shelves if I don’t like it. So old men can’t stand around shopping for CDs as they used to. I am unimpressed. The CD is only thirty years old; it was a technology that disrupted the consumer patterns of vinyl dsitribution only minimally. The new technology is going to change how music is produced, how it is distributed and how it is consumed. Working how that experimentation can be harnessed will take time but it is something I hear over and over. That story is far more complicated and far more interesting than the old dirge on the “death of classical music.” And, I think, a good deal more interesting.
    NL replies: Read the book, assess the new information within it, tell me what you think.

  • Dennis says:

    Though I enjoyed your book Mr. Lebrecht (as I did The Maestro Myth, and recently your novel) I do have some concern about the title, and perhaps a way in which the title distorts the argument: “The Life and Death of Classical Music”. Are we really talking about the life and death of classical music as such, or just about one method of recording and distribution? It’s not at all clear to me that the death of the traditional mainstream recording industry should be equated with the “death of classical music” itself.
    I still buy my fair share of CDs, but I also download a lot of new music, and through downloading (at legitimate royalty paying sites like eMusic and ITunes) have discovered lots of new music I would never have heard of before (especially since the classical section of local book and music stores is very limited).
    I also think you’re too condescending and dismissive toward in-house, so-called “vanity” labels paid for by orchestras, like LSO Live, RCO Live, CSO-Resound, etc. – these aren’t mere vanity projects. I have a number of recordings from labels such as these, and far from being mere vanity projects, I think they’re producing some of the best new stuff available today in exciting, fresh live performances.
    Then, as far as new music itself goes, there’s been great new stuff within the last couple of years from composers like Gorecki, Arvo Part, Vladimir Godar, etc. Maybe classical music isn’t as visible commerically or on the radio as it once was, but I think it’s far from dead yet.
    NL replies: The music is not dead. On the contrary, it is flourishing. What is dying is the means of transmission: the record. And how we get around that, how we get all the wonderful new music and artists to the public, is the major conundrum of the coming years.
    Little labels can;t do that; it needs big engines. Any ideas?

  • Nicholas Adams says:

    Read the book? I have read the article (Prospect), heard the radio program (Radio 3) and read the blog. I live in the United States. I am thoroughly depressed. So what should we do? Just be depressed? I see Joanna McGregor (New Statesman, 14/5) takes my view: move on. I’m more interested in finding the new audience and imagining new paradigms. You win, Mr. Lebrecht: the CD is dead. But instead of lamenting the fact that no newspaper in a midwestern city has reviewed your book (that’s a mug’s game), find the places where good and imaginative things are happening and tell us about that, please.
    NL replies: Cheer up. I keep telling audiences that I have never in 30 years seen more promising young conductors or heard more engaging new music. The talent is there, and the invention. What we’re losing is core media. That’s why the death of recording is so important, and why I believe it is necessary to understand the causes.

  • I don’t know if classical recordings are in trouble, but finding a decent place to buy them is. Consider Chicago for a moment, a place we can all agree has a vibrant classical scene. Come July, there will not be one place, for example, to find 15 recordings of Scubert’s 9th or some unsung stuff like Fesca. Borders and B&N will only be left, and they are booksellers first with shockingly ignorant music staff and fairly standard selection.
    As much as it pains me to say the following, I do weep with envy when I think back on a particular area of the Notting Hill district in London which boasts an entire store of classical recordings.
    Boy do I miss Tower.

  • John says:

    One of the largest costs of making classical music recordings is the cost of the orchestra itself. Such costs are largely determined by agreements within the industry between unions and the record companies or their representatives. Invariably, these costs are non-negotiable. Contrary to received wisdom, it was the RPO which was among the very first orchestras to set up its own label, and which paid its musicians full fees for making the recordings – some of which were even passable. The new generation of ‘own labels’ are largely put together without paying the musicians their usual recording fees: instead, there is an agreement to render payment on a future royalty basis ‘after costs have been recovered’. That can be a very long piece of string indeed! So, the recording costs are much lower than traditionally has been the case for the majors. Not only that, even some of the named artists are giving their services for either reduced fees, or no fees, on these ‘own labels’. The LSO pioneered this approach and was very clear about its purpose: to market the orchestra. Not to build a complete repertoire. Is this vanity recording? Well, yes, and it’s cheap. Not necessarily bad and not necessarily good.
    The other way of making cheap recordings is to use BBC orchestras, whose subsidies from Auntie (i.e. us) ensure that they can undercut the costs of any other orchestra, if they so choose. And that, by and large, is a disgrace.
    You cannot blame the orchestras for trying to do what the deceased majors aren’t doing, and that is giving them air time; and the BBC and the other broadcast media are certainly not giving them as much air time or TV time. Without exposure through the various mass media, orchestras cannot raise their repsective profiles and thus leverage sponsorship and other sources of funds: corporate sponsors want a ‘bang for their buck’ and will not readily sponsor organisations that have little or no mass profile. But that stratgegy does not make for good A&R, and that is what is missing now. It’s not the sheer volume of output, it is the mix of quality among artists and repertoire that has gone and with it, increasingly, the ability to discern the wheat from the chaff

  • Marc Cotemans says:

    Dear Mr. Lebrecht,
    I enjoyed your recent book about the classical record industry, like I enjoyed your previous books on the classical music business. Your thoughts on the record business confirm the experience I had during my 15 years of work in this business.
    I have some remarks:
    1)The nicknames “Pro Musica …” etc. were first used by Vox, not by Remington.
    2)I regret that you did not mention Michael Emerson’s “reign” as head of BMG Classics. He tried to rebuild the RCA artist roster, signing to the label Paavo Berglund, the Tokyo String Quartet, Claus Peter Flor, Evgeny Kissin, Natalia Gutman, Yuri Bashmet, Vladimir Spivakov, Yuri Temirkanov, Joseph Swensen, Barry Douglas, Evelyn Glennie, André Previn… Michael confirmed the already existing deals with Julian Bream and James Galway. One may not agree with all his choices, but he at least tried to bring some line into the label again. he was the one who negotiated and signed the deal with Deutsche harmonia mundi, getting along very well personally with that label’s owner Rudolf Ruby. Unfortunately, BMG’s management let Michael Emmerson go and appointed Günter Hensler as his successor. We at BMG experienced this appointment as a “back to lethargy” period, in which not very much happened, to say the least.
    3)In my opinion there is still a great future for the “record” business. With new technologies available one of the main tasks of record companies, besides of course providing new and actual recordings, will be to make their archives available through internet. From a sheer financial point of view one can admit that sales per cd are very often not high enough to justify a release. Putting the recordings on internet, where consumers can download them in good quality, will create new awareness for all those marvels in the vaults of EMI, RCA, SONY etc. But record companies will have to do something they neglected in the past: they will have to inform their public much and much more about their recordings and their artists than they did till now. If f.e. DGG release recordings by Ferenc Fricsay, then their website will have to offer lots of background material on that artist: sound an deepgoing biographies, forums,… . Only that way will record companies appeal with their archives to newcomers and specialists again. They will perhaps even be able to create a new public for their archives. Record companies have been used to provide marketing tools and publicity. In the future they will have to provide content and background. They will have to be cultural information brokers. This asks for knowledgable staff, knowledgable not only about marketing, but also about communication and about music.

  • John Harris says:

    I often refer to your books on Maestros and Covent Garden and note with pleasure your appreciation of Sir Georg Solti. I saw somewhere a quote from your new book saying that he made of the CSO “the loudest symphony in the world”. This may have been true on occasion but I have many of their CDs when this is not the case. As a Solti fan, I would be interested to know if I can buy your book without wanting to sell it off at the earliest possible occasion!
    NL: I admired Solti as a musician and was personally very fond of him. He spent with me his last morning in England, ten years ago this summer, before leaving on holiday to France, where he died.

  • John Harris says:

    Other sources confirm Mr Lebrecht’s findings: The 20% drop in CD sales has not nearly been compensated for by sales by iTunes, etc.. From my own observations, I have noted among friends’ children, now in their 20s and 30s, that even those brought up listening to good music or having learnt to play an instrument do not become music-loving adults. Not what I call music, that is, but ephemeral groups, whose CDs they collect in dozens. Fear of being thought “old hat” is a factor. Also music is seen as an insignificant background.