An account of the decline and fall of classical records

A reader has sent us an editorial from Fanfare magazine, a publication that we have exposed in the past for having too close a commercial relationship between advertising and reviews. Despite our misgivings, the article below contains some significant home truths for surviving periodicals in the music industry.

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Is Fanfare Now the Magazine for Serious Musicians?

An editorial by Joel Flegler

Once upon a time…

In the 1970s the two most prominent classical LP review magazines in the US were High Fidelity and Stereo Review. Not only did both depend on equipment manufacturers for most of their advertising support, but also both magazines were publishing an average of only 30 reviews in every issue. Because I was buying a lot of notable recordings that weren’t covered by those magazines, I reasoned that a classical music magazine that would cover hundreds of new releases in every issue would work if it were supported by the record industry, and I published the first issue of Fanfare in the fall of 1977. Within only a few years it got enough subscriber and ad support to enable me to quit my day job and work full time on the magazine. Six years after that first issue, CD coverage began to dominate the magazine, which was sold in hundreds of stores and which continued its upward growth. Until the …

In a word: Internet. During the first years of this century, I noticed with dismay a decline in ad support, as well as subscriptions and store sales. Now I admit I was slow to connect the dots to the Internet, but when the marketing manager at a major distributor of classical CDs told me that Fanfare had become “obsolete,” I quickly got a Web site going; and when I was given the opportunity by Peter and Celeste Stokely to add an Archive to the site, I grabbed it. However …

Store sales not only continued to plummet, but also the largest retailer of classical CD sales in the country, Tower Records, went under, and many other retail outlets followed in its quicksand, affecting Fanfare’s circulation. Plus, most of the labels and distributors that had supported Fanfare for years did a vanishing act. One executive at a top label told me that he was divorcing the magazine because readers couldn’t get “a quick fix” on his new releases. Fanfare’s lead time was – and still is – about four months, which means that it usually takes that much time for a review to appear after a CD is released. (This same executive told me recently that the average number of sales for a classical CD in the US is between 100 and 150 copies, with most of those sales coming with the first few months of its release date.) Advertising support declined so much that in 2009, the average issue of Fanfare was barely 300 pages, with fewer than 20 ads in each issue. The worst result was that I couldn’t afford to publish reviews of all the CDs I wanted to assign. But …

One day in 2009 I came up with an idea that I’d never tried before, at least in its current format. If most labels were indifferent to Fanfare’s survival, I’d offer musicians exposure in the magazine that no other publication was providing. I thus decided to bypass the labels and instead approach musicians directly and aggressively with a concept that came to be known as “the interview proposal”: an in-depth interview, a review of the artist’s CD attached to the feature, and a major ad in two consecutive issues. (If you’re shocked, keep this in mind: In the first 10 years of the magazine, I was contacted by hundreds of publicists, all of whom wanted their artists to be interviewed in Fanfare, and it was only by usually making ad support an integral part of the package that I was able to keep the publicists at bay. That, plus the fact that the support enabled me to publish more reviews!) I quickly drafted the interview proposal and sent it to dozens of musicians who had new releases, but to my disappointment nothing happened for a few weeks. Finally, I got a positive response, then another, and things started to build. But there were unanticipated repercussions, as …

I quickly realized that I couldn’t contact many artists directly, usually because they didn’t have Web sites, so instead I contacted their labels and requested their musicians’ e-mail addresses.

Most labels wouldn’t cooperate, with many ignoring my requests as soon as they realized what my “scheme” (as it was referred to by one) was; and two major labels (Avie and Hyperion), which had been supporting Fanfare for years, stopped advertising permanently as a result of the proposals. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with Mike Spring, then the marketing head of Hyperion, when he told me that the label disapproved of my directly contacting their artists and thus wouldn’t advertise in the magazine anymore. When I failed to convince him that having an artist accept the proposal could only benefit sales of his label’s CDs (which was the same thing I told Melanne Mueller at Avie), I then stated that I thought that what most of the slick magazines were doing with their pervasive awards was far more reprehensible than anything I was doing with the proposals, but Mike wasn’t moved by that argument, either. (Am I the only one who thinks that most classical magazine awards are shameful, possibly even more spurious and ludicrous than most movie awards?) Many musicians also told me off, saying that they were offended by my asking them to pay for ads, reviews, interviews, etc. But before you also hasten to prejudge, listen to this…

The majority, the vast majority, of CDs that are produced are funded by the musicians and not by their labels. That’s right: Odds are that the CD you just bought wouldn’t exist if the main artist on the CD hadn’t paid for it to be made at a cost of several thousands of dollars to him or her personally. And are you also aware that the majority of the labels that release classical CDs do absolutely nothing to promote them? Check the ads not only at Fanfare but also at all of the other magazines, and you’ll see that hardly any advertising is being done for hundreds of new CDs that are released monthly.

In 2006 OC Register publicly ran a private message that I had sent a musician about advertising his CD and being interviewed and reviewed. I urge readers to read the various posts that were published there, and then to go to Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc site and read the numerous posts about the magazine’s interview proposal, which Lebrecht exposed in 2011. Most of the posts were antagonistic and written by people who had never been Fanfare subscribers, and many displayed a total ignorance of the classical record and publishing businesses, too, but, thankfully, there were also several posts in my defense. Some who were offended by the non-separation of editorial and advertising concluded that the reviews here weren’t honest or objective, but apparently none of those irate commentators were aware that many musicians accept proposals after reviews have been submitted by the reviewers. In other words, when a critic submits a review of a CD that impresses him, I often attach it to the proposal when I send the details to the artist. As for the proposals that are sent prior to the CDs being assigned, I think that the least I can do that’s fair to an artist who accepts the interview proposal is to try to get a critic who appreciates his music. After all, would I dream of sending a new Bruckner CD to a critic who dislikes Bruckner? No, but this same policy also applies to artists who want to work with the magazine, especially if they’re composers.

Recently I added something significant to the proposal: a mini of the artist’s CD or, occasionally, another medium on the cover of the issue in which he’s interviewed. This costs nothing extra, but it’s definitely an incentive toward accepting the proposal. But, you may wonder, why should musicians support the proposals when they know that the sales of their CDs might not significantly increase, not to mention the fact that in many cases the sales go directly to their labels and not the musicians? There are actually many reasons for the exposure: e.g., publicity for their sites, concerts, etc.; recognition (that’s one of the big ones); resumes (especially if they’re college professors); and the possibility that the reviews and interviews will lead to commissions.

If, after you’ve read everything, including all those posts at OC Register and, especially, Slipped Disc, you appreciate the fact that the proposals accepted by musicians and authors in the past five years have enabled me to publish issues with far more reviews than were published in the previous five years, there’s one and only one thing that I would like you to do now and in the future: Take the time to read the interviews and their attached reviews in every issue, and, if you have any interest at all in the CDs or books or DVDs or whatever’s being covered, consider buying them. While I’ll always be grateful to the labels that are still supporting Fanfare, some of which have been loyal to the magazine for decades, and while I’m confident that you look at the ads and reviews of their CDs and that they influence your decisions as to what to buy, I hope that you’ll now make it a specific point to peruse the many articles that are being published in every issue. The treasures that you’re looking for in every issue’s reviews can also be found in its features, which not only often highlight special recordings but also provide information about the artists that you won’t find in liner notes, that will enhance your enjoyment of their recordings.

And finally …

Although Fanfare will always be the magazine for serious collectors, it also has now become the magazine for serious musicians. What this publication is providing for musicians and vice versa is unparalleled in the history of publishing, certainly from the standpoint of quantity, but this two-way street would never have succeeded were it not for the unusually high quality of the literate and perceptive interviews and accompanying reviews. And although performers and composers will never get an award at Fanfare, the rewards they get might be more valuable in the long playing….

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  • Simon Sullivan says:

    As someone once said, you can’t polish a turd. This is about the best example of ‘methinks the lady doth protest too much’ that I have ever had the misfortune to read…

  • Luciano says:

    Sure, nobody is buying CDs anymore, but why would you? For less than the cost of one cd per month you can subscribe to a streaming service (CD quality) and have access to libraries consisting of tens of thousands of recordings, including new releases. This is the future.

    • Marty H says:

      Yes, it’s the future – and one I hope to delay as long as I can. Growing up, I would spend a lot of time at record stores browsing the classical section, reading the jackets. 30 years ago going to Tower and entering the classical section and seeing all the cds was a thrilling thing. Wading thru Spotify or Pandora, trying to find something on Amazon or Arkivmusic just isn’t the same. About the only site that offers a similar experience is Records International. Anyway, I want the physical product. When they stop making cds I suppose I’ll stop caring about new recordings. My 12,000+ cd collection means a lot to me, even though there are many I haven’t listened to in years (or at all in some cases). The only thing I worry about it that in a world with music in the cloud, what I am I, or my heirs, going to do with them all?

      • David Boxwell says:

        Wading through the streaming services is like going into a giant warehouse filled with CDs that have never been inventoried or catalogued, are strewn all over the floor haphazardly, and many of them have been smashed into bits and pieces. And there’s no staffing in the place.

    • Ricky says:

      What CD streaming service are you suggesting which gives CD quality? Surely not Spotify? Please give details – I’d sign up like a shot.
      Thanks.

      Ricky

      • Luciano says:

        I use Tidal, which offers CD quality streaming. I believe there is also a french service as well, though I can’t remember the name. Like other streaming services the search function is less than perfect, and you sometimes need to try different combinations to find the disc you’re looking for. You get used to it though.

    • Albert Combrink says:

      Too bad we artists can’t live off streaming smd the streaming income doesn’t cover our costs for producing new music
      Artists are reduced to commercialisation and repetition of material perceived to be popular. You won’t hear my music being ase there is simply too much to wade tthrough. Reviews and publication acts as a filter to help sweep ip those thousands of new releases lying on the floor. Independents are being killed off and your attitude is helping to kill off our careers.

      • Luciano says:

        Seriously? I’m helping to kill off your career? First off I am also a performing artist – I don’t know anyone in the classical music industry who has made serious money off recordings in any format this century. They’re promotional vehicles, that’s all. Secondly, I’d argue independent artists will get more play through streaming services, maybe not more money, but that’s not what it’s about. It costs nothing to take a punt on an artist/composer you have never heard of. You are free to explore all sorts of things that you would never take a chance on in a CD shop. Thirdly, I also own 7,000 CDs, so though I won’t be buying many more, I think I’ve done my bit there…

  • Luciano says:

    This also means you don’t need to read a review – you can listen to a new release and judge for yourself.

    • Olaugh Turchev says:

      Right on! And while listening to the disc and making your own opinion, you can also have fun reading the reviews and seeing the industry for what it is…

  • Prewartreasure says:

    The two publications mentioned in Joel’s article are, of course, American, but he’s omitted two other well-known titles, namely The Absolute Sound and Stereophile (sp?)

    Nevertheless, ‘paying’ for favourable reviews is as old as prostitution, even in this so-called virtuous place called England. About the only serious mags that I know of (knew of) published here in this country was Gramophone, and that WAS squeaky clean. I am not quite so confident giving HiFi News and Record Review such a warm recommendation, but that’s all water under the bridge as they say, I’ve been out of the industry a good many years, but once upon a time I was in the know, but thankfully not involved in the seamier side of the business.

    As I knock-out these few lines with my iPad propped against my knees, I can see several hundred CDs (all recordings of serious music) filed neatly in racks opposite my favourite chair. Haven’t played one of them for several years. These days I prefer to have some visual excitement as well, so I watch opera on my TV, very often via YouTube, which I think is a truly fantastic source. (Apologies for going off topic a bit – the ramblings of an old man, I’m afraid)

    • Stephen says:

      “Gramophone” squeaky clean? Record companies (big ones) would request an easy-going reviewer, such as Ted Greenfield, for an important new release.

  • Peter Rosen says:

    Joel Flegler doesn’t know about Classic Arts Showcase? (classicartsshowcase.org)
    This TV show ( available in 60 million TV households in North America ) and live global internet stream is the primary classical music CD and DVD marketing tool for all the major and smaller labels, artists, and performing arts groups.

    Free broadcast, without commercials, of their promo videos over the last 25 years.
    Flegler’s head is in the sand, it seems.

  • SVM says:

    The essence of Flegler’s editorial appears to be that performers should expect to pay for exposure, and that they could not possibly expect a periodical to operate professionally and actually find its own budget for producing its interview content (in which it, presumably, retains copyright, and levies additional charges for the artist to post the interview elsewhere). To me, this very much resembles the argument advanced by some promoters that performers should accept unpaid engagements (because it is ‘for charity’, or because there is ‘no budget for musicians’) for the publicity. This spurious idea that ‘publicity’ is worth any price or gamble needs to be challenged, for it — besides being exploitative — manifests a fundamental contempt for music as a *profession*.

    A serious periodical should be prepared to put its own money on the line and *invest* in its editorial content, instead of expecting the professionals being interviewed to take that gamble on behalf of the periodical, whilst the periodical gets to enjoy the profits arising should the gamble go well if subscriber numbers increase. Finally, it is also pertinent to question whether the amount of money the periodical charges interviewees also yields a profit for the periodical, in which case it can be classified as little more than a parasite, sucking up the money in the CD market on two fronts. In fact, I would be curious to know how much Mr Flegler earns.

    • Herbert Pauls says:

      Because of its small circulation, compounded by the fact that each issue must be very expensive to print because of the five or six hundred pages, I would be very surprised indeed if the magazine does much more than break even at this point. Below a certain point, all magazines run a loss and must be discontinued. I am surprised Fanfare is still hanging on. Out of desperation perhaps, there was a very substantial subscription hike not that many years ago – a catch-22 situation that cannot help the number of subscriptions (It was when I decided to cancel).

      More than anything, I see Fanfare as a labour of love on the owner’s part. As any long-time reader knows, many of the (essentially unpaid) reviewers are vastly knowledgeable, and the type of reader most likely to pick up the publication regularly would be in the same specialist category, and would be one who aspires to reach the same level since there is next to nothing in the way of Gramophone-like gloss to attract more superficial and casual readers. Flipping through a copy of Fanfare feels somewhat like picking up a reference book with a very small handful of illustrations.

      Seems more like a charity staffed by volunteers than a business venture.

  • Tom Gossard says:

    Why not let revenue from streaming services partially subsidize cd sales – say for $5 extra you get to hear the program once, and for an additional 5 dollars you can download and burn a cd, or receive a “hard copy” of the performance in the mail? Or perhaps even a direct to cd performance which you also receive a cd copy in the mail. Possibility?

  • Tom Gossard says:

    …or 15 plus 5 dollars, whatever covers a significant part of costs to produce, etc.

  • norman lebrecht says:

    A response from Joel Flegler:
    The Editor Strikes Back

    An editorial by Joel Flegler

    It’s not every day that someone goes on a public Web site and calls me something that all of us produce daily, but that’s just what Simon Sullivan did August 7 at Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc site. I refer readers to “An Account of the Decline and Fall of Classical Records” and the vulgar comment posted under the reprinted editorial that was first published in Fanfare’s March/April edition, “Is Fanfare Now the Magazine for Serious Musicians?” Putting aside the legality of having used my editorial in toto and without my permission, they say that even bad publicity is better than no publicity, and, trust me, most of the comments posted would never qualify as good publicity! (And no, “SVM,” you won’t find the answer here to your query: “I would be curious to know how much Mr Flegler earns.”)

    “Nobody is buying CDs anymore.” This, from the would-be-omniscient “Luciano,” whose generalization might result in tsunami (Tidal, by the way, was cited as one of the sites for streaming) waves of protest from the hundreds of labels that are still manufacturing CDs. Hey, Luciano, I’m still buying CDs, despite the fact that I can get plenty for free; and, after publishing an editorial in a previous issue about downloads, I heard from plenty of readers who much prefer CDs to downloads, so maybe you’re exaggerating a wee bit. We can debate CDs vs. streaming ad nauseam, but no point is served.

    After endorsing Classics Arts Showcase, Peter Rosen says that I apparently don’t know of its existence, and then makes the statement, “Flegler’s head is in the sand, it seems.” I maintain that my knowledge or ignorance about such sites is irrelevant, and that the value of Fanfare is mainly twofold: 1) enlighten readers as to what’s available, and 2) guide them as to what to buy. Whether or not new recordings are being released as CDs or downloads (and Fanfare reviews both), how many sites have lists of the hundreds of new titles that are being released every month? Fanfare doesn’t review everything, but I
    believe it covers more than any other publication, and anyone who wants to see what’s been released recently can find a huge listing of many of the titles at Fanfare. Can one see such a list at Tidal or Classic Arts Showcase or Amazon or ArkivMusic? The second value lies in the opinions of Fanfare’s critics.

    Luciano and Peter don’t seem to be much interested in what others think of recordings, since their “argument” is that they can sample hundreds of downloads and then decide which ones they want for their collections without any input from professional critics. Now I could go on and on about how reviews by knowledgeable, articulate, and intelligent critics – you know, the sort who review for Fanfare – can be a significant aid to anyone who’s trying to discriminate “the good, the bad, and the ugly” from the hundreds of new releases out there every month, but this really isn’t the place to defend the usefulness of reviews per se. (And I’m not even going to mention the factual details that accompany a
    large number of Fanfare’s reviews of unfamiliar works and artists.) Tersely put, either you benefit from reviews or you don’t.

    SVM writes (and at least I’ll give him credit for sticking more to the major point of the editorial): “It is also pertinent to question whether the amount of money the periodical charges interviewees also yields a profit for the periodical, in which case it can be classified as little more than a parasite.” Excuse me?!

    Does SVM really think it’s sinful for Fanfare’s interview proposals to be, gasp, profitable?! SVM is a classic study of ingenuousness in extremis.

    One of the things I most liked about the editorial was my snide remarks about most other magazines’ tawdry awards, and yet not a single post at Slipped Disc mentioned anything about what I thought might upset at least a few people, e.g., the editors of Gramophone. Instead, I was called a few names (no surprise there, considering the past record of those who reacted to previous “examinations” of Fanfare and me), and most of the posts were submitted by guys like Luciano and SVM, who wouldn’t appreciate the magazine even if their lives depended on it. Speaking of which, I like to think that, based on what I’ve been hearing for decades from the magazine’s subscribers but especially in recent years, it’s obvious that a lot of Fanfare’s readers’ lives do depend on it for many reasons, so perhaps for them when the new issue arrives, it’s – in the memorable words of Uncle Remus – a “wonderful feeling, wonderful day.”

  • Fiauto says:

    Mr. Flegler outlined his “quid pro quote” scheme to me in the late ’90’s. I passed. The “indie” CDs in question ultimately sold several thousand copies each.

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