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|4th February 2004, 03:05 PM||#31|
NYTimes addresses the issue (today)
No Requiem for Classical CD's, Please
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
he British cultural critic Norman Lebrecht has been the Cassandra of classical music. His polemical 1997 book, "Who Killed Classical Music?: Maestros, Managers and Corporate Politics," offered insights into the way conglomerate thinking was ruining a once proudly nonprofit art form. But his bleak indictment was wildly overstated.
Not content as Cassandra, Mr. Lebrecht is becoming a classical music sibyl as well. In a recent column in La Scena Musicale, an online magazine, Mr. Lebrecht offered what he called "the rock-solid prediction" that "the year 2004 will be the last for the classical record industry."
Should classical music lovers take this seriously? His analysis is interesting, but his conclusion preposterous. That the recording industry has been reeling from the one-two punch of poor economic conditions and the proliferation of free Internet downloading is old news. Things have never been worse, Mr. Lebrecht says. Major classical music labels, which a decade ago "pumped out 120 new releases a year," he writes, now produce a "trickle of two dozen." Where the majors "once fought bidding wars over shimmering talent," he adds, "they now compete in shedding it."
He cites EMI Classics' decision not to extend the contract of Roberto Alagna, the French-born Sicilian singer whom the company once touted as "the fourth tenor." Mr. Alagna has been added to "the dump pile," Mr. Lebrecht writes, "a victim of poor sales." (An EMI spokesman said that Mr. Alagna was offered a new contract but rejected it, which amounts to being dropped.) Mr. Alagna's wife, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu, "remains under contract but has no further recordings planned," Mr. Lebrecht writes. Not quite true, the EMI spokesman said. EMI is obligated to make several Gheorghiu recordings, but the programs have not been specified.
Yet Mr. Lebrecht's evidence for the coming demise of classical recording could be viewed alternatively as proof that for once the free market is working. If some greedy major labels are getting the comeuppance they deserve, let them go under.
Smaller labels like Nonesuch and Naxos, which once just filled in the gaps with records of specialty repertory and adventurous artists ignored by the majors, are proving that it is possible to release important recordings at midrange prices and still pay the bills. And though the financial repercussions from the downloading of CD's have the recording industry feeling besieged and impotent, some bold orchestras have, like many rock groups, taken matters into their own hands and released self-produced CD's, recorded live and available on the Internet.
Considering Mr. Alagna's history at EMI, you can only say, "What did they expect?" When EMI signed Mr. Alagna in 1993, he seemed a charismatic lyric tenor with a refined understanding of French style and a dashing stage presence. As he began dating Ms. Gheorghiu, an alluring, dusky-toned, fiery Romanian soprano, her recording company, Decca, tried to lure Mr. Alagna. EMI fought back and won. In 1998 EMI held a lavish news conference and buffet at Tavern on the Green in Central Park to anoint opera's handsome new love couple.
But their individual talents, though considerable, were oversold. The classical market was glutted with an extensive back catalog. It was one thing for EMI to offer its new stars in a welcome recording of Puccini's lesser-known and lovely "La Rondine," stylishly conducted by Antonio Pappano. But the couple's recording of Puccini's "Tosca"? Did EMI expect opera buffs to buy this unremarkable "Tosca" when so many classic accounts were available?
If not meeting Mr. Alagna's demands means that EMI can direct more attention to composers and emerging artists, so much the better. One is Leif Ove Andsnes, the young Norwegian pianist, an exclusive EMI artist and for me the most accomplished pianist of the new generation.
Still, Mr. Lebrecht predicts that Mr. Andsnes will be held to "one disc a year, just the one, if he's lucky." But might not this restriction actually benefit Mr. Andsnes's development? So far he has put careful thought into each of his albums, like his scintillating 2003 Schubert recording, which interestingly offers the Piano Sonata in D major, D. 850, along with a group of mostly lesser-known lieder sung by the British tenor Ian Bostridge.
Every day comes more evidence that the classical music business is facing dismaying economic challenges. Last month the Detroit Symphony Orchestra announced that, to deal with a budget crisis, its musicians and staff members had agreed to a three-week unpaid furlough. The recording industry has been further shaken by seismic shifts in digital technology.
In the glory decades artists like Arthur Rubinstein and George Szell made big money from their recordings. Today, with the exceptions of a handful of stars, most artists understand that recordings will not make them a living. It is hard to speak of classical and pop recordings as the same industry. A violin recital album that sold 5,000 to 10,000 copies over three to five years would be considered a solid success. Sales of 50,000 would be considered extraordinary. By contrast EMI paid $28 million just to buy out Mariah Carey's contract in 2002.
Though the soprano Renée Fleming is a top-selling Decca artist, the Sony Classical label has just released a lovely account of her performance in the title role of Massenet's "Manon," recorded live at the National Opera of Paris with the tenor Marcelo Alvarez, a Sony artist, singing Des Grieux. In the golden days an artist of Ms. Fleming's popularity would have been rushed into the studio to document her major opera roles. Studio recordings of a complete opera have become dauntingly expensive. Live recordings are a viable alternative.
In recent years two major orchestras, exasperated by the declining interest of the major labels, have boldly taken live recording one step further and started producing their own CD's. The London Symphony is one. Its live 2001 recording of Berlioz's epic opera "Les Troyens" was issued on the orchestra's label, LSO Live. The San Francisco Symphony has also established its own label, SFS Media, and issued, among other releases, a blazing account of Mahler's Sixth Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Both recordings received critical acclaim, solid sales and Grammy Awards. Though the CD's are in stores, consumers can also order them from the orchestras' Web sites.
The growth of downloading technology has received lots of media coverage. But not enough attention has been directed to this more benign Internet prospect: instead of manufacturing thousands of discs and getting them into stores, the record companies will increasingly take orders online, burn copies of the requested CD's and mail them.
This mode of operating has already salvaged Composers Recordings Inc., the scrappy nonprofit label that for 48 years maintained the most eclectic and adventurous catalog of contemporary classical music. Though that company folded in April, its catalog was taken over by another nonprofit, New World Records, which has promised to make the entire catalog available by burning to order, complete with printouts of the liner notes.
Here is my rock-solid prediction, though it comes with no deadline: the major labels will set up their own custom-made CD ventures. The move makes financial sense and will allow companies to keep their entire back catalogs in circulation, including oddball specialty items.
Still, consumers will have to adjust to new realities. Custom-burned CD's are not likely to come with fancy packaging. Serious collectors who are running out of shelf space at home have begun jettisoning the hard plastic jewel boxes, slip their CD's into soft plastic envelops and store them in file boxes. After all, a CD is essentially a plastic-coated floppy disk. Maybe we will have to start treating them that way.
Despite the greed and bungling of so many recording executives, these companies still have top-level employees who care about classical music and want to deliver it to appreciative consumers.
If the classical divisions of the major labels totter, as Mr. Lebrecht predicts, so be it. Smaller companies and emerging technologies will offer new solutions. Seems naïve? Well, classical music could use a few Pollyannas right now. It already has a Cassandra.
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