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?