The death of classical music?

Of course I’ve been following the debate (if that’s what it is) between Alex Ross (also here) and Norman Lebrecht (see also the comments to his blog post) about the classical record industry.

Nobody who’s read me a lot will be surprised to know I side with Lebrecht, and I think there’s a very simple way of stating the issue. Classical recording used to be a profit-making venture, both for major labels and small ones, without anybody needing to release any crossover albums. Well, OK, major conductors might record an LP of Strauss waltzes, to boost sales, but that’s as far as it went. And a week later the same conductor would record a serious classical piece, fully paid for by the record company, with the expectation that the recording might — eventually — make a profit.

One key example is the Solti Ring, the first complete recording of the Ring ever made. As you can read in John Culshaw’s famous book about the project, Ring Resounding (Culshaw produced the recording), this was a commercial project. Decca, the record company, paid for Solti, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the best (and therefore most expensive) cast that could be found, all in the expectation that the records would someday earn money, which eventually they did.

Does that happen today? Barely. Classical recordings now are largely subsidized. I’m not saying that the big labels, DG, for instance, might not record a few favored artists at their own expense. But these are largely soloists — stars, or stars in the making. And meanwhile the labels couldn’t make a profit without crossover sales. Really large-scale recordings — operas, orchestral performances — are largely recorded live, and may be subsidized. As

I’ve noted before, even back in the 1980s the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring recording on DG was subsidized with private funds. Most American orchestras that record today produce and pay for the recordings themselves. They don’t expect to make a profit. They make the recordings for promotion and publicity.

And the small classical labels? Many of them aren’t commercial operations, in any meaningful sense. The artists often pay for the recordings that show up in critics’ mailboxes, and that get reviewed so lavishly in Gramophone and other magazines. (And which used to be so bravely displayed at Tower Records, before the chain went bankrupt.)

Yes, there still are a few truly commercial classical label — Naxos, as everybody knows, and Harmonia Mundi, and few others. (Does anybody know how Naïve operates? I’d be curious to know.) Harmonia Mundi operates by, for the most part, recording smallish projects without major stars. And of course I know that they record Mozart operas conducted by René Jacobs — he’s one of my great favorites, and I love those recordings. But Jacobs doesn’t rank as a classical star the way Colin Davis does, let’s say, or Essa-Pekka Salonen.

Harmonia Mundi also told me, some years ago, that they’d diversified into world music, as a hedge against falling classical profits. They also make money distributing other labels, something Naxos does as well. I’m sure that helps them pay for their own releases.

Naxos has its own way of operating, which includes paying artists very small fees, and keeping all rights to the recordings, so that the artists (just for instance) don’t get a cent if something they’ve recorded gets licensed to be used in a Hollywood film. I’m not going to say this is right or wrong; the artists, obviously, accept it, and maybe it’s the only way to do business now. But things were very different in the classical recording industry decades ago. I noticed that people commenting on Norman Lebrecht’s post cited the Naxos American Classics series as a bright spot in the current classical recording world. But American Classics couldn’t be a better example of what I’m talking about here. As far as I know, Naxos doesn’t pay for these recordings. I know one famous composer, who paid a six-figure sum to have recordings made, which then were given to Naxos in final form for release in the American Classics series. Naxos then paid for manufacturing, distribution, package design, and other things (the composer, in this case, paid for the program notes).

And I’m not minimizing that; the composer of course was grateful for it. But this is miles away from how the classical recording business used to function. In the 1950s and the 1960s, and maybe onward into the ’70s, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra (to cite just three examples) had recording contracts with major labels. They got paid to make recordings. They also, I believe, earned royalties on sales of those recordings. In any case, substantial income from recordings showed up in their budgets. This doesn’t happen now. Orchestras that make recordings now tend to pay the cost themselves. So they lose money on recording. As I’ve said, it becomes a promotional expense.

People will give many reasons for this change. They’ll say that record labels in the 1950s thought they should record classical music as a public service. Small labels in the ’50s (Vanguard, for instance) could go to Europe, where many people were still living in the rubble from World War II, and record performances very cheaply. They then could make a profit by selling the recordings in America, especially if they recorded music that hadn’t ever been recorded. This, of course, leads to the other factor that made classical recording profitable, the emergence of the LP, and with it a larger market for classical records, and a sudden demand for recordings of music that hadn’t been on records before.

You’ll also find people saying that all this couldn’t be sustained. I’ve heard that RCA recorded operas in the ’70s that lost vast amounts of money. Some people think that only the advent of the CD in the ’80s kept the classical record business going — and that therefore it’s really only the emergence of new formats that keeps the market lively. And then  DG and its associated labels (Philips and Decca) then went crazy in the ’90s, signing artists whose CDs they couldn’t sell. That, people say, will show that the classical recording industry was in bad shape even then.

But despite all this, the bottom line is clear. For whatever reasons, classical recording used to be commercial; now it largely isn’t. And if major labels in the 1950s released classical recordings because it was prestigious — presumably accepting less profit than they would have made from pop — doesn’t that itself tell a story of classical music’s decline? Clearly it must have been more prestigious in the ’50s, in society at large, than it is now. Besides, pop music didn’t start making giant profits till the 1970s, when multimillion album sales kicked in. So the profits from classical music in earlier decades, small as they perhaps were by current standards, would have loomed larger than they do now.

Footnotes: The Solti Ring actually wasn’t the first Ring on LP. There was an earlier release, on the Royale label, credited to Dresden forces. But it was really a pirated recording from Bayreuth, and of course had to be withdrawn.

Why are there so many classical recordings currently? One reason, I’m sure, is that recording is now cheap and easy. Anyone can do it at home. If you like, you can even design and burn the CDs yourself. Having them burned commercially isn’t terribly expensive. Now factor in the number of classical musicians there currently are, a number swelled by the impressive levels of younger people studying classical music professionally. Why there should be so many young classical musicians is something I haven’t figured out, but the musicians are definitely there, unfortunately not mirrored by anything like a proportionately large younger audience. Given these two things — the ease of making recordings; the number of classical musicians around — it’s no wonder that there are so many small classical labels (plus, of course, some that rerelease older recordings). Especially if the musicians are making recordings without being paid!

But here we come to something serious. Almost all the money in classical music comes from the mainstream classical music business, from big orchestras, big opera companies, and big stars. This includes the money that funds music schools, which of course doesn’t come from big institutions, but (at least to some reasonably large extent) is given by donors inflamed by the big institutions’ prestige.

So if the mainstream classical business declines, what happens to all the hopeful young efforts we’re seeing now? How are the musicians making all these bright and happy new recordings going to make a living?

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  1. says

    You seem to be comparing “Golden Age” major label recordings of the symphonic/operatic warhorses with new independent label recordings of contemporary works. This is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

    Plus, the overhead costs of recording have changed significantly with the digital age. The new labels don’t need to print or ship many physical products, as shown by the large increase in classical mp3 sales.

    I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. Let me give you some apples to apples comparisons:

    Big-ticket recordings, with major orchestras:

    1957: paid for by record companies; made a profit; the orchestras made money

    2007: paid for by the orchestras, perhaps with outside funding; the orchestras may well lose money, but think of the recordings as a promotional expense.

    New-music recordings:

    1957: on big labels, paid for by the record companies; on small labels, might be paid for with non-profit funding (CRI Records, for instance)

    2007: very few of these recordings are on big labels; smaller-label new music releases are often paid for by composers, or else by the performing groups that play the music, using any funding they can get

    These are very rough summaries, subject to exceptions, and needing further research.
    As for recordings made for downloads, it’s true that now the manufacturing and distribution costs are minimal (though not necessarily the marketing costs). But income, so far, is minimal, too.

  2. richard says

    Glad to see your up and about! I think we need to acknowledge that recording and selling CDs of ANY kind of music is doomed. Any pop music you want can be downloaded for free, and there is almost nothing that the record companies can do about it. So pop musicians are going to have to find other ways to scare up a buck. And those whose music is studio-centric are going to have a hard time making the transition.

  3. Tobin Truog says

    I love classical music…my ipod is full with music from Pergolesi to Adams. And I have to say that it seems that you are looking at one aspect of the classical music recording industry. The changes from the 1960’s are paralleled in all music genres.

    You bring up positive things that are happening…there are more young people than ever who are playing, listening to and learning about classical music, and yet you dismiss this out of hand.

    Classical music is most assuredly NOT dead. It is changing…and I firmly believe that those small classical music labels are showing the rest of the music industry the way to build something new.

    My goodness…if you want to attack this concept, try taking a look at both points of view. Try talking to people on both sides of the story.

    One final thing…the “report” from Australia…please remember that that is NOT the only way to grow your audience younger. I contend that many orchestra’s marketing departments are simply not adventurous enough to try other ideas.

    So please…please don’t just throw up your hands in defeat…it is just getting interesting!

  4. Paul A. Alter says

    I’ve got a different impression about the economics of recording in earlier days.

    As I heard, when an orchestra made a recording, an account was set up for that orchestra. The account started with a debit — the costs of the recording.

    As the recording sold, the profits were attributed to that account. When — and only when — the recording “met its nut,” the orchestra received royalties. But that was very rare, because every recording by the orchestra was debited to its account and, since only about one out of ten recordings showed a profit, many orchestras never got one cent of royalties.

    I remember talking with Mira Schoenber, Arnold’s daughter, at UCLA back in the early 50s. She said that RCA had never paid any royalties to her father, even though the St. Louis SO recording of “Pillar of Fire” (ne, “Transfigured Night”) had sold very well as a result of the popularity of the ballet that was using it as the score. Somebody else, present at that conversation, made the claim that RCA had eight lawyers on its staff who were assigned to fighting royalty claims by composers and artists. (As they say in show biz, “the most creative efforts of show biz occur in the book keeping department.”)

    The practice of subsidizing recordings also goes a long way back. The Walter/VPO “Song of the Earth” was backed by the Mahler Society. The Brits used to do a subscriber thing — they’d set up an account and when enough people had bought the recording the company would record it. I think the Schnabel Beethoven sonatas were made that way, and I’m pretty sure the Hugo Wolff Society backed all the Hugo Wolff recordings. And then there was the maharaja who paid for recordings of and by Medtner. I have also heard that Bernard Herrmann paid for the recording of his opera.

    The earliest release of the Ring cycle that appeared in the Schwann Catalogue was attributed to the Patagonia opera company, which later turned out to be performances from Bayreuth recording off the air on a radio located in some hotel room in Vienna. I was done on the cheap, to such an extent that they only had one tape recorder, so when ever a reel of tape ran out, and they had to replace it, they lost whatever music had occurred in the meantime.

    As for the emergence of small labels, after some 70 years as a record addict, I think it is the healthiest thing that has happened in the recording industry. When I started buying records, you had two choices: Victor – RCA/Victor or Columbia. You could listen to the orchestras they recorded — period. The European records people bought in Europe and tried to bring into the USA were confiscated at customs. Victor and Columbia had a quota as to the number of foreign recordings they could import. So, while the NY Phil, NBC, and Philly kept cranking out the recordings, the chances of the rest of the American orchestras making other than sporadic recordings was minimal. (Even the Boston was locked out for many years because of union problems.)

    Today, we can buy recordings from Nashville, Milwaukee, San Diego, Buffalo, etc, etc, etc. As far as I’m concerned, the good old days for record fans is now: We have access to a huge proportion of the standard repertoire, we have more access to riskier stuff than ever before, we can hear more orchestras than ever before.

    If classical recordings are dead, it ain’t the fault of the companies. Look elsewhere.

    It’s not easy to find reliable information on classical recording in past decades. I’ve interviewed some people who were centrally involved, but that’s only a start. I don’t have numerical data — and I also don’t have it for the present day. Record companies are very cagey about their numbers.

    One thing is clear, though. Big American orchestras used to make money from recording, however the royalties were handled. You can see the figures in their budgets.

    And now for some historical footnotes. There was a surge in recording American orchestras in the 1940s. Complete symphonies on 78 rpm records, by various regional groups, for instance the Minnesota Orchestra with Mitropoulous conducting. Early in the ’50s, there were alternatives to Columbia and RCA, at least in big cities. London (the American imprint for Decca records), with all kinds of goodies, including a large opera catalogue featuring Renata Tebaldi. Angel (the American imprint of EMI), with Karajan recordings, Fischer-Dieskau, and of course all the operas with Callas. Some German imports showed up, including a once-famous “Magic Flute” conducted by Friscay, which I bought for my father as a birthday present.

    Vanguard, and its offshoot, the Bach Society (I hope I’m remembering this right) released many recordings of European performances, typically of smaller repertoire, but also including pioneering Mahler recordings with the Utah Symphony and Abravanel. Westminster and Urania also released European performances. Westminster had once-popular recordings of “Messiah” and the St. Matthew Passion, with Hermann Scherchen conducting, and Urania — which I believe specialized in German performances — had some Beethoven with Furtwangler, languishing on the shelves while most people bought RCA’s Toscanini releases.

    And that’s only a start. I don’t mean to challenge Paul’s memories, only to interject my own. It was a long time ago, and people are going to remember things differently. I grew up in New York, and we had a terrific record store, Sam Goody, with what at the time seemed like an exhaustive selection. I also used to read record catalogues, which certainly marks me as a classical music nerd, even at age 11. My first classical recording was excerpts from Don Giovanni, in a Viennese performance on the Haydn Society label, with Hans Swarowsky conducting (later to become famous as a conducting teacher), and Mariano Stabile in the title role. He’d been famous between the wars as Toscanini’s Falstaff at La Scala, and must have been over 60 when he recorded Don Giovanni.

    And those pirate recordings! My recollection puts the Pataqonia Festival releases in the mid-’60s. The very name was a joke. Patagonia? These were performances of Italian operas (Rigoletto was one of them, I think), which in fact had been taken from European radio broadcasts, and illegally released. But if I remember correctly, they were available for quite a while.

    I have a distinct — though maybe unreliable — memory of that pirated Bayreuth Ring. I borrowed it (or at least parts of it) from the Cambridge (MA) Public Library, idly wondering why I’d never seen or heard of it before. Only years later did I learn its history. This memory is intertwined with others — borrowing the Callas Puritani from the same library (which was the first time I’d heard that opera; I remember Giuseppe di Stefano’s brave but strained singing in the tenor role better than I remember what I thought of Callas).
    And at some point, I dated the record librarian. With that, these recollections end up where they belong, in the swirls of memory, and certainly not in the realm of documented fact.

  5. Walter Ramsey says

    You can remove the footnote by just correcting a tiny error: The Solti was the first -studio- recording of the Ring, but far from the first complete Ring that had been recorded.

    Walter Ramsey

    Very true. As we’ve seen, for instance, in the recent release of a live Bayreuth Ring with Hans Hotter and Astrid Varnay, recorded by Decca with thoughts of releasing it commercially. When that didn’t work out, the Solti Ring followed.

    What I meant, actually, was that the Solti Ring was the first complete Iand legal) Ring recording available commercially.

  6. Paul A. Alter says

    Your memory is quite accurage in regard to the proliferation of recordings from foreign sources. This was made possible by the invention of magnetic tape recording. Instead of shipping enormous recording lathes to the recording location, setting it up (preferably on a concrete base, and recording on fragile wax discs, recordists could lug a tape recorder into any hall anywhere in the world and record. It was wonderful — we got music that had never been recorded before from artists that we had never been able to hear before.

    But the point I was making was that subsidized recordings are not new. They have a long history. I would add to the examples I listed the fact that the Ormandy/Minneapolis recordings that gave us — among other things — the Bruckner 7th and the Mahler 2nd — were made at no cost to Victor Records. I differ from Lebrecht in his claim that subsidized recordings are a sign of the downfall of the record industry; they have been with us almost from the beginning.

    You are also right in regard to the surge of recordings. When Charles O’Connell was head of A&R for RCA, it was his goal to record every American orchestra in pieces from the standard repertoire so that, for example, music lovers could compare performances of the Beethoven 5th by every major American orchestra and conductor. He signed up, as I remember, St. Louis, Chicago, Indiannapolis, the National, San Francisco, Rochester PO, etc, and made some recordings with them up to and during WWII.

    Columbia, on its part, signed up Minneapolis (still recording for free), Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philly, NY Phil, etc.

    But it was after the war, and the introduction of audiotape, that the rush begain. Capitol signed up Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Indianapolis. Mercury got Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis. Columbia had the NY Phil, Philly, etc, and set up a special line, Opus?, to make records with Szell, Cleveland, and Leon Fleisher.

    So, the orchestras were busy recording.

    But sales figures prevailed and, one by one, the orchestras were dropped, until only the best sellers remained, and things went back to normal, with only a few saleable orchs making records, with the others getting an occasional turn at the mike.

    And, yes, with the introduction of the LP, European records started flooding in. Capitol Records started it classical division on the basis of the elderly, but still impressive, Telefunken line. Decca records sent its records here but, since Bing Crosby and associates had the name Decca registered for American use, English Decca’s recordings were issued in America under the London label.

    But, returning to the recordins made in American, even the surge of recordings by a variety of orchestras was not as rosy as it seems. When Marek(?) was head of A&R at RCA the rule of thumb was that if a recording was unlikely to make back the cost of printing the four-color album art, that recording did not get made. Hardly a triumph of art.

    There was also a hard and fast rule as to keeping a record in the catalog: as soon as sales dropped below a set number per month, that record was deleted.

    That rule applied until fairly recently. Consider that the SLSO turned out lots of recordings during the period when it was the only orchestra under contract to RCA; consider that virtually none of them are currently in the RCA catalog.

    I believe that Lebrecht is quite simply wrong about classical music recordings. He may not be wrong about current sales figures — I don’t have the data on that; but I believe he is wrong on the criteria he uses to make the decision.

    As to the Ring thing, that was really extraneous. The Patagonia recording is just one of those factoids that I bring up at every opportunity because I don’t want it to be forgotten.

    Me, too — I love the memory of those Patagonia recordings. I used to see them in a record store on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge; the store was on the second floor of a building, as I remember. And there would be those two-LP sets of Italian opera, credited to the Patagonia Festival. That seemed so droll…I wondered what was really going on.

  7. Henry Fitzgerald says

    Things are, undoubtedly, as you say they are so far as recordings go.

    But as I read the Ross/Lebrecht debate, they’re a bit at cross purposes. Ross is claiming that classical record sales are as good as ever. Lebrecht is claiming that classical recording is dying. The claims are consistent. Well, to some degree.

    But what do people think a recording is, anyway? It’s a single performance that can be listened to again and again. The whole point of making a recording is that it reduces the need to make further recordings.

    The raison d’etre of the recording industry is to engineer its own demise: it can hardly be any other way.

  8. says

    The recently-released Bayreuth Ring with Varnay and Hotter was very likely scotched within Decca by Culshaw, who wanted to record a studio version. Take a look at his disparging remarks about it in Ring Resounding. It turns out to be a masterpiece, of course.

    The earliest complete Ring that’s been released is, I think, Moralt’s from Vienna, which is from 1949, predating Furtwangler’s La Scala Ring by a year.

  9. says

    One wonders but that while the number of recordings of classical and new music is increasing, their value in dollars is decreasing. The decline in value is thus reflected in decline in corporate interest in selling classical CDs.

    Technology has made recording and worldwide distribution within the reach of almost any individual artist, so the purpose of a recording is undergoing a change that may be independent of the popularity of the music. It isn’t difficult to extapolate present trends to see the day when perhaps a CD of a given symphony performance will be mailed to every ticketholder as part of the “total experience” and the (rather small) cost of production written off as a promotional expense.

  10. David Irwin says

    Greg, I’m glad to hear that you are back up and at them. Good luck with the symphony premiere.

    The label Columbia set up for the Cleveland recordings was Epic. They also did recordings for Columbia as the Columbia Symphony Orchestra for a while–some of their best as a matter of fact.

    It’s hard for someone who isn’t in the industry to know for sure what is happening in the world of classical music recording, but I can only judge by the shrinking inventory of most of the stores here in Florida.

    I’m thinking that things are leaning toward downloading and mp3, as that seems to be where a lot of the energy is right now. I recently did my first download from itunes (Lieberman Neruda Songs with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) and I have been enjoying it immensely. Of course there are no liner notes and I haven’t figured out a way to listen to it in the car yet, but I guess that is a simple matter once one has done it.

    I predict that orchestras will figure out a way to market things on the internet, and the profits will increase dramatically. Perhaps they won’t make the kind of profits that an RCA would require for a recording, but in a “Long Tail” manner they may end of earning a handsome profit. Just my take on things.

    How to listen to an iPod in the car, for anyone else who might wonder how it’s done.

    You can buy an adapter that broadcasts the iPod sound to your car radio. These aren’t very expensive, and they work pretty well. The only problem will be interference from broadcast FM stations, but you can adjust the frequency the adapter uses, so you can work around that.

    You can also buy adapters that connect the iPod to your cassette player, and I find these more reliable, though the sound isn’t that good.

    If you only wanted to listen to certain music from your iPod, you could burn a CD of it from iTunes, and listen to the CD in your car. A few cars do have iPod adapters built in, and maybe in the future all cars will.

  11. Musician says

    Sometimes Naxos doesn’t pay musicians anything to make recordings. Sometimes it asks the musicians to pay in order to have a recording made.