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August 14, 2007

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.

Posted by hfogel at August 14, 2007 2:40 PM

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I realize your point is really about declining CD sales not saying much about interest in classical music, but I think what's happening here may be more fundamental than some orchestras realize...

At a conference I was at a few months ago, Phil Hardy, the editor of the journal "Music and Copyright", gave a speech in which he made the point that the digital revolution is unlike all previous format revolutions, and is the last such revolution.

The change from 45s to LPs (or from cylinders to acetate disks, or acetate disks to 78s, or 78s to 45s, etc) was merely incremental improvement. All those media shared the same fundamental properties, the main one being that you couldn't copy them. Even cassette tapes are basically uncopyable — you can do it for a few generations, but the quality degrades each time. (Cassettes even degrade if you just let them sit for a while, and all of the above degrade a bit when you play them.)

CDs, on the other hand, are not really a medium at all. They're just packaging for strings of bits — the 1s and 0s that are the actual recording. The data is digital and permanent; the packaging is irrelevant. You can transfer the data to other places, such as your computer's hard drive, your iPod, or your friend's iPod, leaving the CD behind if you want. The pattern of 1s and 0s is the same in all these places, no matter what the packaging. I could destroy every CD in my collection and not lose a drop of music, if I wanted to.

That's the difference between digital and analog. Analog has media, while digital just has access methods. Media requires care: you have to use that particular medium to get at that particular data; you usually damage the medium even by putting it to its intended use; and you can never separate the data from the medium (unless you're willing to accept degradation at every transfer point). Meanwhile, access methods require no care at all: there's a wireless network surrounding you, there's a wire coming into your home, there's a hard drive on your computer, another one on your iPod... and they all store and transmit the same formats, with zero degradation. Data is data, it lives in the global data cloud, and when you need another copy, you reach into the cloud and grab one. That's all there is to it. (Right now, there are some parties claiming that you should pay a small fee every time you reach into the cloud, but I suspect that will one day be seen as a silly idea.)

When music went digital, that was the end of the line. CDs themselves were only necessary because digital playback equipment became widespread before networks did. Those who get all their music from digital networks now (which is to say, an ever-increasing number of high school students with iPods) will one day not even understand what this discussion is about. They already have "albums" assembled for them by friends or by their favorite web sites, rather than needing to accept the groupings provided by record companies.

Perhaps the revolution that really matters now is the one that places small, high-quality recording devices at everyone's disposal. Soon, it may not be an orchestra's decision when or how they are recorded — the audience is going to take care of that for them. And when they do, they'll put the data into the cloud.

The best thing an orchestra could do right now might be to just hang a microphone in the hall and stream every sound out to the Net, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. People are going to get their hands on the data anyway; might as well make it easy for them, and get a higher level of sound quality in the process.

Posted by: Karl Fogel at August 15, 2007 5:20 AM

By the way, if you don't want to keep getting blog comments from your son, you'll have to stop writing about such darned interesting topics! :-)

Posted by: Karl Fogel at August 15, 2007 5:53 AM

I've been collecting recordings, via whatever medium, for most of my life. I built my first Heathkit when I was 19, & today I'm building Siegfried Linkwitz's latest speaker systems. I'm a lifetime "audiophile." But it's not really about the equipment or the medium, it's about the music. Since retiring several years ago from 40 years as an orchestra manager and moving to a small city, I've become reliant on the radio and recordings for the music that I need to sustain me. Fortunately, here in central NY we have a decent NPR station that plays classical music a few hours a day. More fortunately, through the computer, we can hear our all-time favorite station, WBLV from Blue Lake Music Camp in West Michigan. But I still figure I'm falling further behind every day in awareness of the newest & best in contemporary music, because I no longer have a way to learn what's newly available (not a completely bad thing, it's great that so much more new music is being released than used to be), nor can I afford to buy everything I'd like to on my now (more) limited income.

Posted by: Peter Smith at August 15, 2007 8:48 PM

I wounder if the classical records sales in music stores such as Virgin would rise if the sales staff had a clue about their wares... The $8/hour wages are much too low to attract anyone how knows the first two things about classical music. Most of the customers come in looking for a piece they heard on the radio. So imagine a man who walks in and asks for "Dixit Dominus". The sales person sends him down to the country and western section because "Dixie Dominos" sounds like a name of a country band. After looking through the wrong shelves for half an hour in vain the customer turns around and leaves because it's just not worth the trouble. True story. Happens all the time. What would the real estate sales look like if 99 out of 100 real estate agents didn't know how to get to the house they are trying to sell?

Some years ago my wife went to a record store to ask about a CD of Michael Feinstein singing Irving Berlin. "Irving Berlin? That's Classical isn't it?" asked the clerk!

Henry Fogel

Posted by: Nastya at August 16, 2007 10:04 AM

From the days of vinyl, when wages were $3/hour, comes an incident at an old Record Bar outlet. A clerk was put in charge of labeling a placard for Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps," and thought he had better translate it. The label turned out, "The Bag of Spring."

I love it. There was also a Russian recording of Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" that was translated on an English LP jack as "The Wonderful Tangerine."

Henry Fogel

Posted by: Mike Huebner at August 16, 2007 9:18 PM