Commentator Norman Lebrecht says the classical recording industry is worse off than the pop industry, and for a surprising reason:
- You may wish to jot this in your diaries and upbraid me with it in twelve months’ time but I am about to make the rock-solid prediction that the year 2004 will be the last for the classical record industry.
The unravelling has run faster than prestissimo. Major labels which, a decade ago, pumped out 120 new releases a year are now reduced to a trickle of two dozen. Epochal concerts are no longer recorded for posterity. Classical stars have lost their license to twinkle.
Where labels once fought bidding wars over shimmering talent they now compete in shedding it. The latest on the dump pile is the tenor Roberto Alagna, once trumpeted as the next Placido Domingo, now a victim of poor sales. EMI has declined to renew Alagna’s contract which expired earlier this year. His wife, Angela Georghiu, remains under contract but has no further recordings planned.
The words ‘record’ and ‘contract’ can no longer be juxtaposed in any meaningful way. EMI recently announced an exclusive seven-year deal with the fine-toned Norwegian, Leif-Ove Andsnes. All it means is that the hottest of current pianists gets to cut one disc a year, just the one, if he’s lucky.
….Life has been no easier for cottage labels. The German firm Haenssler, which employed Sir Roger Norrington and Sir Neville Marriner to conduct symphonic cycles, ran into financial difficulties and had to be restructured by its parent company, a Christian books publisher. Andante.com, a French-financed venture which sold archive recordings and internet access to live performances, stumbled into a protective alliance with another French group, Naive. Hypothermia set in to classical sales. The lone exception is budget label Naxos, which plans 150 new releases in the coming year, plus 60 historical remasters. ‘We are no longer in the same industry as Decca and DG,’ laughs its founder, Klaus Heymann. Naxos apart, there is almost no activity left that is coherent enough to be described as ‘industry’. The day of classical recording is done and the post-mortem has begun.
High in corporate towers, overpaid executives blame a lack of compelling new repertoire, of charismatic artists and of public tolerance for long-winded classics – in short, they blame everthing except their own failure to invest in talent, allowing it to grow a personality as it steadily acquires a following. They also misread the effects of social and technological revolution.
….In the industry’s heyday every self-respecting label had its own catalogue version of every masterpiece, and every decade brought a technological improvement which prompted a further set of recordings. These were rhythms on which the industry ran happily for half a century: sensible, profitable rhythms that made great music continually relevant to changing times.
Those rhythms were disrupted, distorted and ultimately destroyed by digital recording, which delivered sonic utopia and exposed the flaws in the process. Attentive listeners were able to hear underground trains rumbling beneath Decca’s Kingsway Hall, and botched edits in supposedly authentic performances. Digital clarity revealed the artificiality of recording, the fundamental fakery of producing an inhumanly accurate replica of all-too human music. As the digital sheen wore off, so did the sales.
Expectations of exponential growth were shattered and desperate execs polluted their labels with pop-like ephemeralities. Neither DVD nor super-audio CD will rekindle public interest. [La Scena Musicale]
So has digital recording exposed the imperfection of real people playing real music? Does the hermetic sterility of digital reveal human musicians as fatally flawed? Is the classical industry really at the end of the line, or just at the bottom of a cyclical trough as in the ’30s when the industry in America virtually disappeared?
My guess is that Lebrecht’s apocalyptic view is exaggerated and that the industry will rebound, though perhaps in an altered form. But perhaps it is really the old form itself that he will miss. Though digital recording may lay the process bare, over time listeners will become more sophisticated and realize that lack of perfection doesn’t destroy greatness, just emphasizes its humanity.