Philly record deal

I’m grateful for Peter Dobrin’s fine reporting in his Philadelphia Inquirer story about the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new record deal.

I’m sure some people want the meaning of the story to be something like, “Philadelphia Orchestra Gets Record Contract.” After years in the desert, with no record deal, the orchestra has reversed the trend in the industry and now has a contract with the Finnish Ondine label, etc., etc., etc.

Ondine, of course, is not quite Columbia Masterworks, which for decades recorded the Philadelphia Orchestra in the full glare of national publicity, and distribution to record stores everywhere. But that’s the least of it. Dobrin (and this is why I admire him) tracked down and printed the inner details of this record deal, providing facts and numbers of the kind that don’t usually see the light of day. We all know, or ought to know, that classical recording (especially big projects, like orchestral CDs) aren’t really done on a commercial basis. They’re paid for by the artists being recorded. And here it is in black and white. The Philadelphia Orchestra will pay $75,000 to record each CD. If sales reach 10,000 units, the orchestra will be vaguely in the ballpark of breaking even, expecting to recoup (or so it says) $50,000 to $75,000 from that many sales.

Will the CDs sell 10,000 copies? Not likely. A classical CD that sells on that level is a runaway hit. Sales of even a few thousand are considered a success. Some major-label big recording projects in the last couple of decades have sold, no kidding, in three figures, which is to say just a few hundred sales in their first year on the market.

The orchestra, of course, didn’t say how long it might take to sell 10,000 copies of its CDs, and that’s a fair question. Classical recording, in the old days, when it was profitable, worked by keeping releases in the catalogue for years. It was the entire catalogue that was profitable, not every individual release (and, above all, not every individual release in its first year out). Now Naxos works that way; few other labels do. One reason for all the crossover projects on the major classical labels is the frequent demand from corporate owners that each release have a shot at being profitable. Or, alternatively, that the label as a whole make more profit that classical labels used to make in the past.

So what’s the significance of this deal? To me, it’s two things. First, that the orchestra got its musicians to agree to the recordings, with no promise of payment until the records made some money. (And how many years might that take? Compare, by the way, a related success in Cleveland, where the orchestra got the musicians to agree to let their performances at the BBC Proms be streamed on the Internet, which then made it possible for the Cleveland Orchestra to be booked at the Proms for the first time in years.) And second, that the orchestra is making a big commitment to recording, with money out of its own pocket. 

These aren’t small things. Obviously the CDs, if they’re good, well packaged, and well marketed, can help the orchestra. They’re calling cards, proof of success, items which, distributed properly through Philadelphia, can add a lot to the orchestra’s presence. I imagine that they’ll help in getting tour dates, too.

But I’d think orchestras would do best by making recordings and giving them away, along with downloads and concerts streamed free on the Internet. Philadelphia’s budget, for this extensive new recording project, might not allow that. Or at least might not have been drawn up with free distribution in mind.

But for me, the equation is pretty simple. Orchestras, at present, aren’t likely to make money from recording. They badly need exposure. Put these things together, and it seems very tempting to make recordings and give them away by the thousand, while streaming every concert on the Internet (and probably putting video screens outside concert halls, so everybody can see and hear what’s going on inside; when the Houston Grand Opera did this with a few opera performances, I understand that ticket sales went up).

Let me repeat. Orchestras — almost all classical music organizations — need exposure. Free distribution of recordings would be a good way to get it. And after a while, when the free distribution is a great success, and people really want the recordings, the downloads, and the streaming broadcasts, that’s when you start charging for the concerts people want most…

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