Still in the clouds

Continuing (with apologies for letting it drop yesterday) my catalogue of reasons why Heather Mac Donald thinks classical music is in a golden age. Here’s her essay to that effect, and here and here are my previous comments on it.

And even if Mac Donald’s essay is, essentially, fluff, remember that some of these arguments are made by others, too. I’m finding it helpful to put a lot of my answers to classical music optimistts in one place.

Mac Donald’s first argument was that performances are better than they’ve ever been. And from there, more briefly, I hope, we have:

2. Performances are more faithful to the composers’ intentions.

Much of my response to Mac Donald’s first reason would apply here. We have a cult of fidelity now, and this might make performances more guarded, more rule-bound, and less individual. If you read my last response, you’ll see that I found Mac Donald praising a book that makes exactly this point, though it’s an issue — and an objection to her thesis — that she never even mentions.

3. The early music movement has brought new energy to classical music. By reviving a lost repertoire, it’s also given us what in effect is new music.

All true, and a good thing, probably not disputed by anyone, except a few old-school celebrity soloists. But saying that there are good things happening in classical music today — which there are — isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the same as saying that we’re in a golden age. The big question Mac Donald sidesteps (as I discussed in my first response) is whether anything in classical music today is sustainable. If it’s not sustainable, then we’re hardly in any kind of golden era.

The early music movement might, in fact, have given us at least a small new audience. But Mac Donald doesn’t discuss this. She just exclaims in rapture over how wonderful the early music movement is. What tangible difference it might make to the economics of classical music — to classical music’s survival — she doesn’t say.

And note one fascinating argument she makes. Early music, she says, literally becomes our new music, in the classical music world. That’s because new music, as we usually define it — newly written music — is as good as dead:

…the tidal wave of creation that generated the masterpieces we so magnificently perform is spent; we’re left to scavenge the marvels that it cast up….

The public could not be more unequivocal: it finds little emotional significance in most contemporary classical music, especially that produced in academic enclaves.

The first of these thoughts is, to say the least, open to dispute. I certainly don’t experience new music as Mac Donald seems to. Over the nearly 40 years I’ve been in this business, I haven’t heard new music and said, “Oh, too bad. The tidal wave of creation is spent.” Just the opposite. And many others would agree.

So then we have the second sentence I’ve quoted here, where “the public” is brought in as, so to speak, a prosecution witness. “The public” doesn’t like new music! So what good can it be?

But which public do we mean? The established classical music audience? Yes, in the past they haven’t much liked new work. But there are other publics, including the large younger audience that drinks in new music at events like the annual Bang on a Can marathon. I’ve seen that audience at enough New York events to make me believe it’s a tangible reality, even if no one seems to be marketing systematically to it.

And even the older audience may be changing its stripes. My wife, in a major piece on new operas, found that opera companies around the country are having trouble selling tickets to the old repertoire. New operas do much better. This was a surprise to her, as it is to me, but it shows apparent changes that something that, in this case, Mac Donald isn’t alone in taking for granted.

4. Classical recordings are booming.

Contrary to the standard dirge [Mac Donald writes], the classical recording industry is still shooting out more music than anyone can possibly take in over a lifetime.

Sure. But the classical recording industry has changed. The big for-profit labels release far less classical music than they used to, and shore up their bottom lines with crossover. Many of the smaller labels are non-profit, and in many cases there’s a double whammy — the record company has to raise money to survive, and the artists making the recordings also raise money, to pay the recording costs. I’ve known that to happen even on a big,  profit-making label like Naxos.

Does this sound like a golden age, an age when musicians have to pay to have recordings made — as opposed to a generation or two ago, when classical recordings could be profitably sold?

If funding for classical music is endangered (as even Mac Donald gives evidence that it might be, though she quickly runs away from that point; see my first response to her), then classical recordings of course will be, too.

And even for the most successful commercial label around — Naxos — the trendlines seem to point down. Here’s the founder and CEO of Naxos, Klaus Heymann, quoted in an interview with my wife:

Frankly none of [our marquee releases] make any money, if you ask me. Even the Bernstein Mass  [with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra], we sold 20,000 sets worldwide, has still not made any money for us. It’s in copyright; it cost us a lot of money to produce, and cost the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a lot. [Even at Naxos, the artists might pay all or part of the costs of their recordings.] At our price we have to sell a lot a lot of records to break even. For us these are prestige projects. It’s good for the label; we make money from licensing and distribution; it just goes from the pot. The only thing you can make money from these days is guitar solo or piano which doesn’t cost you anything [to record.] With an orchestra recording you have to sell 20,000, and nothing sells 20,000 these days….

right now, in the first five months our recording of the Spohr concerto for 2 violins sold 7,000 worldwide. Then Vaughan Williams, “Dona nobis pacem,” 6,000 in only 3 months. 4,500 Vaughan Williams Sacred Choral Works. Alsop Dvorak Symphonies 7 and 8, 4,000 in only two months. Petrenko Shostakovich 8 Liverpool also about 4,000 in only 2 months. Khachaturian cello concerto also about 4,000. Haydn Stabat Mater from Trinity New York also 4,000, but that’s not selling so strongly any more. Roussel Symphony No. 4 also 4,000 in 4 months.

It’s a very odd repertory nowadays. It’s in many ways gratifying that all this material [is selling]. Of course with sales of 4,000, you’re not making any money.

Can you continue to exist if you’re just breaking even?

This is a question has been debated in the company a lot. Our strategy is that we will be the last man standing in terms of distributing classical music.

He goes on to say that, even if physical records are entirely replaced by digital sales, he’ll find a way to make money. But if his ambition — as he defines it himself –

– is to be the last man standing…

I’ll continue this tomorrow.

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  1. says

    You’ve got way more evidence than she has; she’s even off-base in her discussion/ description of the debate over early music. And the audience for early music is a.)small and b.)overlaps heavily with the shrinking symphony audience. Way back at the beginning it was sort of countercultural, now it’s classical mainstream — valuable, yes, but it ain’t going to be a savior.

    You’re correct that new music is more popular now than it has been in a while. But there may be a reason MacDonald doesn’t want to discuss this. SFCV recently ran an interview with Jennifer Higdon, This is a composer who gets about 200 performances a year, including many by orchestras. Here’s what she says about her percussion concerto, being performed next week at the Cabrillo Festival with soloist Colin Currie:

    It has a real rock-and-roll element. He’s wonderful. I have him running around from side to side. He worked out regularly for this.

    And here’s what she says about what she’s listening to:

    It’s a huge combination. The Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, the Beatles, concert band music. My younger brother was visiting and we listened to Eminem’s latest album. All living artists. I listen to a lot of different stuff. I don’t often listen to standard classical music.

    Hmmmmm…. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

  2. ken nielsen says

    It seems to me that this is a pretty empty argument. Mac Donald’s argument can be reduced to “there is all sorts of stuff happening now that I like”. Certainly it is worth correcting her factual errors but probably not challenging her value judgments.

    To me the most important issue in all this is whether things are bad enough in the industry to make change necessary. Few people running organisations would answer no to this question, though quite a few are frozen into immobility because they don’t know what to do.

    As I understand it, your book will explore ways in which things can be changed to rejuvenate the business.

    That’s gotta be useful.

  3. says

    Forget about the statistics for a moment, I’m trying to figure out what to make of her breathless excitement over the release of the complete Vivaldi operas. Is this the same Vivaldi whose concertos I accompanied steadily from age 14 or so through grad school? I might listen to one of his operas out of curiosity, but you’d have to tie me to a chair to sit and listen to them all.

    From what I’ve heard, the operas might be more varied than the instrumental music. But they have no sense of drama, or at least none I can discover. And the recitatives are endless. Great opportunities for singers, though.

    I’d love to know how many people buy those recordings. Can’t believe they’re even remotely profitable.

  4. Michael Bruce says

    You say:

    …whether anything in classical music today is sustainable. If it’s not sustainable, then we’re hardly in any kind of golden era.

    I do not live in America and am not familiar with the American music scene, so I reserve my opinion on the substance of the debate between you and Miss Mac Donald. However, the sentence quoted above is clearly nonsensical. The concepts of a golden age and that of sustainability are antithetical. If something is sustainable, it is not a golden age; it is humdrum normality. Golden ages, by definition, do not last.

    Consider some of the golden ages of the past: the age of Shakespeare in English letters, the 5thC in Athens, the age of Tu Fu in China, the Spanish Siglo d’Oro. All were over inside a century – most of them in much less. A peak of achievement is just that: a peak. So you might both be right. We might be living in a golden age: in that case it is certainly not going to be sustainable.

    On the main issue: anyone who is disappointed with he state of music in America ought perhaps to move to Britain. Compared with my teenage years (the 1950s) awareness and enjoyment of classical music is high. Compared with the scanty offerings of 50 years ago, record and music shops bulge like an elephant in the 23rd month of her pregnancy – and nobody stocks what they cannot sell. Professional music here is flourishing. Concerts, festivals and other special events are well-attended and the standard is high. Most cathedrals have choirs of professional standard. Amateur and semi-professional music abounds; we still have local choirs and orchestras, many of them of a truly notable standard. In the North where I live the brass-band tradition still continues. Admittedly some musical snobs might deny brass bands the ‘classical’ label, but what they play is often of permanent value and interest, and the best bands are crammed with soloist-standard virtuosi.

    However, it doesn’t feel rich and rare, like a golden age. It just feels normal. Perhaps I ought to wake up to its transience and enjoy it while we have it.

    I didn’t mean to say that the golden age wasn’t sustainable. I meant that mainstream classical music as we see it in the US isn’t sustainable. And if that’s the case, it can’t be in a golden age — not if it’s fading away.

    Thinking a little more thoroughly about your Shakespeare example — if he was part of some golden age of British drama, yes, that didn’t last forever. But British literature — poems, plays, novels — lasted quite a while, and is still with us, 400 years after Shakespeare. And had another golden age in the 19th century, surely, with so many immortal poets and novelists.

    As for classical music today, vs. the ’50s: I went to college in the early ’60s, and any student with any serious interest in music was interested in classical music. That’s not even remotely true now. If anyone had any large number of LP records, they were classical. Record stores in New York at that time had half their stock devoted to classical music — also no longer true. These things measure classical music’s relative position in American culture, which has plainly declined.

  5. David Morse says

    You make much of Mac Donald’s flawed use of statistics, how she finds data that she likes, quotes it, then fails to offer any analysis or context. Good points. But I’m afraid you do the same thing in this post. You quote Heymann, who says that he’s not selling many albums. But where is the analysis and context? To prove your point, you must do more than quote Heymann, you must first put his claim in context: how many classical albums were sold in, say, 2009 (not just by Naxos)? And how does this number compare with 2000, 1990, 1980, etc?

    As for your lament, shared by Heymann, that these albums do not make money and must be funded by the artists themselves, again, we need context. Where is the data to back up this claim? And how do recent statistics compare with previous years?

    I’m not saying that your argument is incorrect, only your use of data.

    I can’t repeat the extensive analyses I’ve made of these things each time they come up. And much of the data is well known. Classical recordings sell many fewer copies now than they did in past decades. Recordings make the Billboard classical charts selling barely 100 copies in a week, and a release that sells 3000 copies (at least in the US) over its entire lifetime would be a miracle and a wonder these days. Some releases by big-name performers might not sell even 1000 copies worldwide, and never earn back their costs. (Some years ago, the then-head of one of the biggest classical labels explained to me the finances of an opera aria recording by a major star. The release would have had to sell well into five figures to make a profit, which was barely even conceivable.) The numbers in past decades were far higher.

    Because I can’t repeat all this each time these subjects come up, I thought I’d quote the man who for years has been the smartest and best-informed person in classical recording, as well as the biggest commercial success. If he, of all people, thinks the future is dark, why don’t you give him some credit for, just possibly, knowing what he’s talking about?

  6. Brian says

    Earlier, you lamented the decline of patronage among the wealthy (from Carnegie to Trump) as a sign of decline. This, to me, reflects the orchestra’s transition to a (somewhat) viable commercial entity, with professional musicians and longer seasons.

    Now, you lament the recording transition from a few high-profit labels to a variety of smaller, dedicated labels with their belts tightened as further evidence of decline.

    My view of both of these situations is the same: when the market does not support classical music to a sufficient level, people with motivations aside from profit will ensure its survival.

    The Carnegie of the past is the Naxos of the present.