CD covers

[This is an old post -- from January 25. But I'm not sure it ever got on my blog, due to some technical glitch, so I'm reposting it now.]

Well, responses have been pouring in to things I’ve been writing lately — the dimensions of the crisis, Baroque and medieval performance, CD covers. I’m glad I’m touching various nerves. And finding so much agreement! We’ve got a fine conspiracy going here. All through the classical music world are people who agree with the kinds of things I say, some of them in major institutions. The institutions are slow to change, but the hunger for change — and the need for it — is growing quickly. Won’t be long, I’d guess, before we see some action. (Which of course depends on what “long” means…)

But about CD covers. Besides the John Eliot Gardner self-produced Bach cantatas, which I mentioned in my last post on this subject, take a look at the Vivaldi operas on the Naive label. Like this one:

Maybe some people think this isn’t suitable for opera, classical music, Vivaldi, or the 18th century. I think it’s gorgeous and provocative – and precisely right for the wildness of opera seria as it was performed in its time, complete with highly sexed castrati. And also precisely right for what I imagine is the blazingly hot performance on the recording, if it’s anything like the one on the same label’s new release of Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso, full of hairraising vocal ornaments (planned, according to the liner notes, on the principle — historically correct, we’re assured, for Italian music — that the melody of a da capo repeat shouldn’t be recognizable). The conductor is Jean-Christophe Spinosi, leading the Ensemble Matheus. They’re fabulous.

And, I’d assume, this CD cover is also right for the piece, which, if it’s anything like Orlando Furioso, is sexy and seductive ear candy. I had imagined, silly me, that Vivaldi wasn’t much of an opera composer. I still can’t say that his operas make any dramatic sense, but purely as music, they’re irresistible. Vivaldi must be (not that I’m breaking new ground in saying this) one of the most underrated composers around. And in part that’s true because we’ve forgotten (a) that Baroque music is extravagant and wild, and (b) that Vivaldi was an entertainer. Put his music in those two perspectives, and suddenly it doesn’t have to be profound. It was meant to be fun.

But back to CD covers. (Harmonia Mundi has terrific ones, too. And, by the way, if you think classical music is by definition high art, you’ll think I’m betraying everything that’s sacred for liking the Vivaldi CD art I reproduced here.) Note that the Vivaldi opera has the basic CD information — the title of the opera, and the names of the performers. The Gardiner CDs don’t have that, and I may have been wrong to assume that wouldn’t be a problem. Because I got this heartfelt (and very fetching) e-mail from Joseph Zitt, who’s in a much better position to judge these things:

As a record store worker, let me just say “Oy” [to my idea that the Gardiner CDs don't need any information on their covers]. I’m the classical music guy at a store in a major city where we have a relatively large classical section (steadily shrinking, but larger than most of our competitors, though I fondly remember the downtown Tower in NYC in the 80s).

 

Imagine that you work in a record store, and a customer has just asked you if you have the Gardiner recording of Bach Cantata #82, or asked for the cantata “Ich habe genug” (assuming, of course, that you’re one of the very few people in the store who would recognize that string of phonemes as a title in German and have a clue how to spell it). You now go to the bin, pick one up, flip it over, read the back, put it back in the bin, pick up another, flip it over, read the back, put it in the bin, pick up a third… all while an irritated customer is asking “Well, do you or do you not have it?” (And yes, we have computerized search tools, though their indexing and their relation to the reality of what we have in the bins are often tenuous.)

 

Pretty, eye-catching design (such as the recent Vivaldi series that also uses striking portraits) is wonderful. But I can tell you from my experience that customers have little patience for being given the pretty instead of the informative, and I strongly suspect that only the most dedicated classical music fan (which, as you indicate elsewhere, is a rapidly dwindling breed) is going to bother picking up any of these to see what’s on them and proceed to buy them. We may get a few people who will be looking for “the Bach CD my friend had with the picture of the guy with the beard on the cover”, but finding that will be tricky. And we all know how little stock we can take in people telling us what CDs they want by describing the cover — if memory serves, today I shelved CDs of a particular recording of a Brahms piece (I think it was the Cello Concerto played by du Pre on EMI) with *five* different covers.

 

And we get lots of annoyed people returning CDs that have the same titles and artists as other CDs that they actually wanted, since when they played them the discs “had the wrong music on them”. We’re not supposed to accept returns of opened CDs, unless we’re replacing damaged CDs with copies of the same disc. In these situations, though, we can often get a manager to approve the return… if the increasingly annoyed customer is willing to wait the several minutes that it often takes for a manager to get to the registers and hear the customer tell his story yet again.

I’m glad to be corrected, and above all to understand more about how record stores really function. There’s more to Joseph Zitt’s e-mail (which, of course, I’m reprinting only with his permission), and it’s all worth reading:

On the other hand, a whole lot of our sales are of compilations, of the type “(More of) The Most Relaxing/Romantic/Soothing Opera/Piano/Classical/Lullaby Music in the World/Universe”. There’s also a very successful collection of thematic mixtapes, as it were, in the “For the…” series, such as “For a Dinner Party”, or “For When You’re Alone” (which, to our disappointment, didn’t have orchestral variations on the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself”). Other than that, the sales are either those of the handful of huge stars or from aficionados looking for very specific things.

 And for those looking for CDs from stars, it’s often quite difficult to explain to them that we have CDs organized both by performer and by composer, so that a lot of Yo Yo Ma is filed under, say, Bach rather than in Yo Yo Ma’s section. And finding the performers’ sections is far more difficult than it has to be since, by a corporate mandate handed down by some idiot who apparently is proud of getting a “C” in elementary school music appreciation class, we have had to take apart our fairly clear sections where we had things alphabetically by instrument and group things together by families of instruments, so that we now have a Strings section that groups together cellists, violinists, guitarists, harpists, etc. (Well, half of the harpists are under “Keyboards”, Celtic harp is under “Celtic”, a lot of the things that come up when looking for “harp” are really harpsichord or harmonica, and the Ocarina Quartet is in “Strings”, but those are different kinds of problems.) And percussion and electronics are in “Other”. (We’ve decided, though, that we’re to going to go against the corporate mandate and once again group all the cellists together, etc, though still within the categories.)

 We have a team of workers who are supposed to shelve all CDs, but they leave most of the Classical CDs for me to shelve (during the time that I should be doing other things in my section and during my information desk shifts — though the information desks will soon be dismantled, leaving workers and customers to wander through the Habitrail of our new aisle design in faint hopes of spotting each other) since they’ve given up on understanding our system and the odds of their placing things in the right place are slim. It’s also the only way that I can tell what new discs have come in or been restocked, given our cranky and delusional computer system.

 Another thing that’s given a boost to some recordings was the well-designed page of “Best of the Year” selections in the NYTimes, where they created a grid of album covers and descriptions — many customers tore out that page, circled what they wanted, and brought it in. Fortunately, when I saw it in the paper, I immediately cut out each item and made a bin card of it. And the corporate office has even seen fit to send us a further copy each of some of the items that we had actually had and of which we sold our single existing copy.

 And the one thing that can pretty consistently trigger a day-or-two-long burst of sales is having them mentioned on NPR. Fortunately, we have access to npr.org (though almost nothing else from the Web) from our systems at work, so we can guess what people are looking for from their blurry descriptions.

 And the surprise hit from last year was the Trio Mediaeval’s “Soir, dit elle”. That’s one of those discs that people will buy almost every time that we play it on our overhead system.

 Just a few rants from a guy who has been dealing with crazy people and trying to sort our Brahms CDs all day…

As I told Joseph, he can rant to me any time. And I’m not surprised that the Trio Mediaeval sold so well. Their two recordings are treasures, immediately appealing, completely individual, sung with the simplicity of folk music, and all of classical music’s detailed concentration. Full disclosure: I’ve written a piece for them. But I fell in love with their CDs before I did that — and wrote the piece because I loved them so much. They’re terrific people, too.

I’ve seen them twice live, and the second time (maybe I’ve mentioned this here; don’t remember if I have) the response of the audience was something else. The Trio sang on an established early music series in New York, one that draws a loyal audience. So people came because they love the series, without knowing the Trio at all. As the concert went on, the applause got warmer and warmer, until finally I thought the three women could have sung “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (or the Norwegian or Swedish equivalent), and had the crowd cheering for hours. And actually they do sing Norwegian folk songs as encores…they’re very special.

But why am I raving like this? Joseph said it all. He plays their CD in the store. People hear it. Then they buy it. It’s as simple as that.

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