Classical Music - On Demand
There are those who believe that the compact disc is a thing of the past - that within a few short years we will be getting all of our electronically reproduced music through downloads and streaming. Recent reports are revealing that digital downloads of classical music over the Internet are stronger than ever and extremely profitable for classical labels...
Despite the current popularity of digital downloading, I'm not so sure that downloads will ever completely replace the CD - nor am I sure that it matters all that much. (Click here to see what Alex Ross has to say on the subject.) I think there will always be people who want the music they collect for home listening to come in a package with some kind of accompanying notes, and a package they can feel and put on a shelf and show to their family and friends. And a package that someone else has assembled for them - not one that they've had to work to put together. There may be fewer buyers than there were before (after all, there seem to be fewer now than there were ten years ago), and they may purchase them from websites rather than record stores, but I believe that market will still exist. I'll admit that I might well be prejudiced, since I am an addicted collector (if you want proof of my addiction, you can browse my collection at www.henrysrecords.org).
If I'm wrong about CDs, however, I'm not sure it matters very much. The format in which the music comes is not what's important. After all, there was a time when it came in very heavy multi-disc twelve-inch packages, each disc playing about four minutes per side. Symphonies were broken up into segments, sometimes rather oddly. My favorite example was an old set of 78s of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, with Karl Böhm conducting. Side 11 was the scherzo and side 12 the trio section of the third movement. Since the scherzo section then was a pure da capo repeat, the label of side 12 gave the instruction: "Please play side 11 again before proceeding to side 13!" I doubt that Maestro Böhm ever gave a real performance of the piece where the repeat of the scherzo was precisely the same in every way as the first time through - but there it was.
The point is that the format for electronically reproduced music has changed throughout its history (never mind the eons in which it did not exist at all), but ever since it has been available people have wanted access to classical music at home, on demand, hearing what they wanted when they wanted it. Declining sales for classical recordings in the past decade or so does not mean, at least to me, declining listening or even interest. There are many reasons for declining sales. One significant one is that CDs, unlike LPs, don't wear out (never mind that they don't actually crack, like 78s) - and thus there is no real market of people replacing scratchy, distorted old records. Another is that modern sound quality has been more than adequate for most listeners for forty or fifty years, thus removing the need to replace recordings because of a new technology (such as stereo). And the growing past inventory of good recorded performances in good sound means that each individual recording released in the past decade was a less significant drop in a growingly larger ocean.
So the biggest change, it seems to me, in the area of electronically reproduced music is that the parties involved in making the music (musicians and orchestra administrators among them, along with soloists and conductors) can no longer see recordings or electronically reproduced music as a significant source of revenue. Some revenue? Possibly (we haven't lived in this new world long enough to know). But not meaningful. What is meaningful is that rapidly expanding technological innovations will make it easier for every orchestra to bring the music it makes to a wider audience. Recorded music (and we really have to find a better term) will serve to expand audiences, to document a point in an orchestra's history, and to serve as a musical calling card. All of those are good, valid reasons for investing time, energy, and resources into thinking about technology - even if our favorite record stores have largely disappeared from the landscape.
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