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Unfiltered noise

The music critic of the New Yorker has reproduced statistics from the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) purporting to show that classical recording is alive and well and healthier than ever.
Having just published a book that asserts the very opposite, I am not about to enter here into a detailed refutation. However, here are a few quibbles to the contrary:
1 No cultural industry in my long experience has yielded less reliable stats than the record biz.
2 Official record stats usually consist of units delivered, rather than actual sales, and never configure the huge volume of returns – the great unsold.
3 The decline of classical recording is best measured at the point of production: the record studio. In 1993, six major labels were resonsible for making 700 new classical recordings. Today, there only two majors still active – EMI and DG-Decca – and their combined output is fewer than 100 new releases a year, of which half are crossover. If you are looking for evidence of classical demise on record, start here.
4 Naxos, based in Hong Kong, is the only label to maintain consistent classical output, but it does so without artist promotion, denying the element of interpretative individuality which has fuelled the history and tradition of classical recording.
5 A host of small labels continues to produce classical records but at a risible economic level, close to or below subsistence – and often as vanity publishers, accepting free submissions and issuing them untouched by editorial intervention. Many orchestras and artists have been reduced to publishing their own work. Some of it is high quality, but it is unfiltered by objective or commercial consideration at the point of selection and destribution. It is, in other words, vanity publishing.
6 As is the uncritical regurgitation of RIAA press releases by the music critic of the New Yorker.
7 In my first university course in statistics, the lecturer warned us to be wary of ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, a statement variously attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Mark Twain, Alfred Marshall and others. Numbers require informed analysis. You cannot analyse the state of recording by sitting at home and sifting review copies and press releases. The truth is out there – in the idle studios, in the shut-down record stores, in the shrinking space for classical debate in mainstream media. Some of us are still out there, still making a noise, making sure that a good artform does not go down without a fight. Or at least a loving epitaph.

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  1. Donald Clarke says:

    C’mon, Norman. I remember when unsold disco albums were shipped back by the truckload in 1979, the record biz equivalent of a bust, and everybody was laughing except certain record company executives. But how many classical records have you ever heard of being shipped back by the truckload? They never pressed that many in the first place. So the major labels used to release x number of classical records a year: the so-called majors no longer exist; they’ve disappeared into big conglomerate media companies who don’t even know what they’ve got in their vaults. (I’m still looking for Horowitz’s 1947 studio recording of Schumann’s Kinderszenen.) You say Naxos releases are somehow unfair because the artists don’t have fat contracts? But in your books you complain about the huge amounts of money some were paid in the past. I have purchased a dozen classical CDs in the past month, sometimes on labels I never heard of before, but mostly on Naxos, and I hope with some desperation that some of the artists come to Iowa so that I can buy a ticket to hear them in person. I’m spending my heard-earned loot buying the products of vanity publishing? I don’t think so.
    You’re right that the stats are never complete. (I put out six CDs once, one classical and five jazz, and nobody ever asked me how many I sold.) We need to compare the number of releases in, say, 1965, and how many of them turned a profit within a reasonable length of time, to the equivalent stats of today. And we need something on the internet like the old Schwann catalog, with full details for each CD. The changes in the media we are seeing now are only the beginning, but classical music is not dead or dying. It’s just that we’ve got enough recordings of Vivaldi’s “The Seasons” for a while. (Though let me know if you can tell me where to buy Guido Cantelli’s.)
    NL replies:
    Quite right, Donald, they never shipped that many classics – but they used exactly the same techniques that you and I once chuckled at to rig the fictive sales figures.
    As for Naxos, sure there are no fat contracts, but aren’t you troubled by the concommitant anonymity – not in press coverage but in assertive performance? I like a lot of what Naxos do but I see it as a parallel track to the history of recording, not as vigorous mainstream. A personal view, of course, but how many Naxos records would you cite as first-choice in major works?

  2. Donald Clarke says:

    How many Naxos records would I cite as first choice? Not many for the warhorses, perhaps, if we go all the way back to the beginning of Naxos, but the 2nd series of Beethoven symphonies was pretty darn good, and the Kodaly’s Beethoven quartets are the ones I’ve made copies of for playing in my truck. There are more and more things like the recent Rachmaninoff piano trios that are as good as anything any “major” ever recorded. And more to the point, how about Berio’s Sequenzas, Lutoslawski’s orchestral music, Jennifer Higdon’s chamber music (which I’ve been playing over and over), Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, George Crumb, etc etc? For some of these recordings there isn’t even any competition. Of course most people don’t care about “modern” music, but that was also the case in the past.

  3. john mclaughlin williams says:

    I defy anyone to listen objectiviely to what I, Ted Kuchar and many others have done on Naxos and then fairly describe it as “concommitant anonymity”. Additionally, asking “how many Naxos records would you cite as first-choice in major works” is a non-sequitur.
    You write “Naxos, based in Hong Kong, is the only label to maintain consistent classical output, but it does so without artist promotion, denying the element of interpretative individuality.” True about the output and promotion. Naxos doesn’t need artist promotion to sell records, because it sells repertoire, not star appeal, and thankfully so, as all that gets you is another Beethoven 9th. Your third posit (…denying the element of interpretative individuality…) is an opinion you could not possibly take if you’ve really listened to more than several of the recordings. Can you really quantify that? Unllike those of us who are actually recording, I think you may be too hung up upon the concept of an historical classical recording tradition. I’m not.

  4. erostratus says:

    Though Naxos does not have a catalogue that compares to the wonders of the EMI of DG or Decca vaults, you can bet they will soon. As the majors no longer pay those huge fees for recording rights, Naxos will draw more and more first-tier talent. Witness Marin Alsop. In the heyday of classical recording, she’d have been snapped up immediately by a major. Now, we’re getting her work on Naxos.
    As far as first recommendations of major works from Naxos, here are some As and Bs. I don’t have time to do a whole run down:
    - Adams Violin Concerto — Hanslip/Slatkin
    - Bruckner 9 — Tintner
    - Bruckner 7 — Tintner
    - Barber “Knoxville, Summer of 1914″ — Alsop

  5. “How many Naxos records would you cite as first-choice in major works?”
    I would cite nearly everything I’ve sampled from the American Classics Series. Much of this repertoire is now being recorded properly for the first time, and the quality, overall, has been very high indeed. Without Naxos, most of this wonderful repertoire would no doubt continue to be severely under-represented in the catalogue, or only be available on older, rather mediocre (and not to mention hard to find) recordings. I am thinking of, for instance, the symphonies of Schuman, Harris, Thomson and Rorem, among others.
    Larger record labels such as DG only seem to be interested in promoting their current superstars performing the same old warhorses (most of whom don’t interest me all that much anymore). How many new recordings of the standard repertoire do we really need? Naxos is doing us a great service by producing good CDs of worthy and very interesting material that deserves to be heard and appreciated. And really, for the price, you can’t go too far wrong.

  6. Mark Lowther says:

    A few observations from someone who has been involved in watching the classical industry professionally for a while. It is misleading to confuse the death of the big company’s classical departments with the death of the whole industry. Naxos is far from being the only company to ‘maintain consistent classical output’. Internationally there are plenty and one you have consistently ignored (I’m not sure it’s ever mentioned in your book) is Harmonia Mundi. Everything from Arvo Pärt in Estonia to Mozart operas under René Jacobs. Plenty of early music (artists such as Andrew Manze, Richard Egarr, Philippe Herreweghe) standard repertoire orchestral recordings in Germany, lieder, chamber music etc etc. HM has supported young talent in a way that’s paid off (violinist Isabelle Faust, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and now British pianist Paul Lewis) and all from a home in rural France. As a radio producer the single biggest difference I found between a company like HM and the majors was the skill and knowledge of their press and marketing departments. EMI and Universal were consistently the worst at providing product or offering artists to be interviewed. Companies like HM, Hyperion and Naxos (with much smaller staff numbers) knew their stuff and were consistently helpful.
    But, I repeat,the industry as a whole is not dying! It’s changing in some very interesting ways (including the decrease in importance of the majors) but, looking at one of the major online retailers, there are well over 100 new CD releases THIS MONTH. Not reissues, not historical remasterings, brand-new releases. They include major artists such as the Emerson Quartet, baritone Simon Keenlyside, conductor Emmanuelle Haim, the Kronos Quartet, conductor Jiri Belohlavek, tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, cellist Natalia Gutman and conductor Claudio Abbado, Colin Davis and the LSO, conductor Antonio Pappano, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet ….. And, I stress, this is one month – April 2007. Dying – no! Changing – of course.

  7. The major labels have hoodwinked us into believing that they are the bellwether of the state of music today. Similarly, the main way of looking at the classical world has been to measure the state of the main opera houses, concert halls and orchestras. (It’s the same in jazz where I am based.) However, if you look at the dynamism of young musicians appearing today, new venues developing and indeed the range of releases (though not from majors), I think that the state of music should be viewed as in transition, but rather than decline.
    NL replies:
    I agree entirely. But the transition could have been accomplished smoothly if the music industry had held its nerve. This way, the old means of transmission are dying before new ones are fully formed

  8. You have truly, truly missed the point.
    Classical music is spreading, and you can’t always see it. More people…more young people…are finding it, listening to it and looking for more.
    Why not try to dip your toe into that arena instead of spitting on people who are?
    I have a lens about places to find classical music. I don’t really focus on the performer when I encourage people to listen to Schubert or Adams or Beethoven or Golijov…I just tell them the great story of the music, and I try to get them to find what they like.
    Please…go to my lens I mention above and download a podcast or two…find an online radio station…sit back and relax.
    Don’t you think it is time to listen to the music again?
    NL replies:
    And don’t you truly, truly think that this is what I spend half of my life doing?

  9. Paul A. Alter says:

    On what criteria do you base your claim that the record industry is not healthy?
    From the consumers’ point of view, it’s never been healthier.
    We have available to us more recordings of more pieces by more orchestras than have ever been available before. And, many of them at lower cost.
    The stranglehold by the majors has been broken, so now we are not limited to the few orchestras favored by each label; instead, we have access to performances by more orchestras than at any previous time.
    We can order these recordings by mail, with receipt within 10 business days as the norm. This means we do not have to put up with the limited stock of “safe” recordings maintained by most brick and mortar stores, who might agree to special order a recording for you, if you were willing to wait — and wait — and wait — for delivery.
    Artists get to record what they want to, rather than what the company will approve of them doing.
    It is also wrong to disparage “crossover” recordings. As a rule of thumb, 9 out of 10 recordings never make back their expences, so it is up to the 10th recording to pay for all the financial failures, many of them of high artistic value. So, if the companies issue a recording that pleases a lot of music listeners and helps the company make expences, who loses?
    As for recordings by the majors, after watching them for 70 years, it seems to me that a high proportion of their “new” recordings were rerecordings of things they already had multiple versions of in their vaults. (For example, Ormandy/Philly, recorded a lot of the standard repertoire for Victor, did the same for Columbia, then moved by to RCA and started all over again.)
    I wish you would clarify your position as stated in points 4 & 5, above. You seem to be contradicting yourself. In point 4 you complain that the policies of Naxos inhibit interpretive individuality. But in five you complain that the independents issue records that are unfiltered by objective and commercial considerations. It would seem to me that records exmpressing the artists’ viewpoints — not subject to the butchery of producers and editors, who put out recordings spliced together out of multiple takes, and frequently far-removed from the viewpoint of the artists — give us more of what you require. Please clarify that point.
    I can’t share your sorrow for the shut down record stores. I’ve lived in a lot of cities in this country, and it wasn’t until Tower records opened in Washington, DC, that I found a store that could almost — but not quite — fill my needs. But, even then, I had to make regular runs to other shops and order by mail to get the records I “needed.”
    As far as I’m concerned, the good old days is now.
    NL replies: Read the book.

  10. I find it interesting that the recording industry is also having problems with selling CDs of non-classical music. I will not be surprised when the whole industry goes belly up. The simple fact is that in the not-to-distant future, people will get all music on line through subsciption or pay-to-play services. And with better, and faster wireless internet, one will be able to acess music on portable devices. The days of spinning plastic are numbered.

  11. Lapisangeli says:

    Granted. May-be, our world was perpendicular and then is thus in parallels.
    Don’t you just think this way : it’s about time to withdraw from at least one of these restless activities.

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