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.