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Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Classical Music Market Is Still Strong

By Donald Clarke

I look at ArtsJournal every day and I am grateful for it. But I wonder sometimes why we never learn anything. A case in point is "Downloading helps, not hurts, record sales" (BBC 07/09/03). Well, duh! Any life-long music fan could tell you that! Weíve been buying, swapping, taping and borrowing music for years! I discovered singer-songwriters Guy Clark, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen etc when I was living in England, taped from the collections of friends, and then I went out and bought the albums (and such artists are one of the reasons I live in Austin today). The people who are "stealing" music off the net are "stealing" stuff they might not bother to buy in any case; they are making compilations of tracks they like instead of having to buy albums full of filler, and most of the stuff they "steal" is throw-away music anyway.

And you have written one of the more interesting of the spate of articles about the state of classical music. At first glance it seems to be true that "The structure supporting the art itself has busted." When my father bought me my first classical records fifty years ago (a box of RCA 45s, Horowitz playing Schumannís "Kinderszenen") he said, "This is the kind of music that doesnít go out of date."

He didnít know or care very much about classical music, but he was paying a kind of lip service to the art that no longer exists. And itís true that the local industries that supported the symphony orchestras in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and elsewhere are now operated out of boardrooms in Frankfurt and Tokyo. And so on, and so forth. But I have still not seen any evidence that the market for classical music is any smaller than it ever was. Indeed, I believe it is probably bigger than it ever was, but today it is a much smaller portion of the total market for music.

When I was a kid I was lucky if I had 89 cents for a 78; nowadays every eight-year-old has 18 bucks for a Britney Spears CD. Back then, Columbia had the Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York Philharmonic symphony orchestras under contract; nowadays it has none at all, because there is so much money involved that the lawyers and accountants wonít let them invest it for so little return. (Instead they lose a lot of money on most of the pop records. Donít get me started.)

But have you any idea how many new, obscure classical record labels there are doing business? A retired film composer does Laurel Record [sic] on his dining-room table in the hills above Hollywood. Every day on the Net I come across labels I never heard of before; every day there are a dozen reviews of recent classical CDs on www.musicweb.uk.net alone.* Here in Austin there are Kent Kennan, Dan Welcher, Donald Grantham and Kevin Putz composing interesting music (well, not Kennan; heís very old and dying of renal failure, but he is seeing his music recorded) while all we read about in the papers are Philip Glass and John Adams -- I suspect you know perfectly well that all we get in todayís arts pages is knee-jerk journalism, while the Madonnas of each generation snaffle all the hype.

The broadcasters and the print media have a lot to answer for, and the financial side of the business is messed up; the best thing that could happen to music (*every kind* of music) would be the five multinational label conglomerates all going bust. But donít count classical music out just yet: there are more new string quartet recordings alone than Iíve got money to buy.

Donald Clarke

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