Alex Ross on the Physicality of Music

THE New Yorker’s classical music critic is one of the least stodgy and most forward-looking of writers; he got in on blogging early and thinks classical music and digital technology are natural allies. But even he has reservations about the disappearance of records and CDs into the cloud. His new piece, about “The pleasures and frustration of listening online,” is well worth reading.

The idiosyncrasies of aging critics aside, there are legitimate questions about the aesthetics and the ethics of streaming. Spotify is notorious for its chaotic presentation of track data. One recording of the Beethoven Ninth is identified chiefly by the name of the soprano, Luba Orgonášová; I had to click again and scrutinize a stamp-size reproduction of the album cover to determine the name of the conductor, John Eliot Gardiner. A deeper issue is one of economic fairness. Spotify and Pandora have sparked protests from artists who find their royalty payments insultingly small. In 2012, the indie-rock musician Damon Krukowski reported that his former band Galaxie 500 received songwriting royalties of two hundredths of a cent for each play of its most popular track on Spotify, with performance royalties adding a pittance more.

Then comes my favorite line in the piece:

Spotify has assured critics that artists’ earnings will rise as more people subscribe. In other words, if you give220px-Leon_Fleisher_1963 us dominance, we will be more generous—a somewhat chilly proposition.

He concludes this way, talking about a record label that has put out a Leon Fleisher (pictured) recital he quite likes:

Bridge Records, a family-run concern, has placed most of its releases on Spotify and other streaming services, and you can have equally intense encounters there. But only by buying the albums are you likely to help the label stay in business.




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  1. says

    Look at the data for top selling classical music CDs last week (as listed by Norman Lebrecht on his blog.)

    + Number one was Cameron Carpenter’s album of organ music. Released by Sony, it sold just 387 copies.

    + The next best was Benjamin Grosvenor on Decca with 229.

    + Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Bach on DG follows with 211 sales.

    That’s the US market of 314 million people. 0.000123% of Americans bought the top selling classical CD.
    Sales drop off even more sharply after a few weeks.

    In classical music, the idea of selling CDs to make money is for the most part a bit illusory. For contemporary classical music, the numbers would generally be even far smaller.

    Can we find a place in the market simply by insisting we ought to have it? Or do we need new models for most classical music that redefine the purpose of recordings? Have they become less a product and more a promotional material?

    With high quality recording technology now so economical and widely available, and with the means of worldwide distribution via the Web so readily accessible, are recording companies becoming a 20th century anachronism? For classical music, the market was always a social construct that served business men far more than artists. Will classical music fail because this construct is collapsing? What will the long term effects be? To what extent did market structures actually hinder the creation and distribution of classical music?

  2. Milton Moore says

    I just tried to locate the best-sellers in Europe and Asia and could not find a listing. My hunch is that in Europe, sales figures are far different. In Asia, everyone has a bud in the ear, so perhaps not.

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