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This just in: Classical's not dead

David Hurwitz has written a fine rebuttal to Norman Lebrecht's article on the "death" of classical recording. I thought I would post it here, since that topic is so frequently discussed in this forum. Here's piece:

Fine Whine From Stormin’ Norman

In his latest effort to sound the death knell for the classical music record business, Norman “Cassandra” Lebrecht writes in his December 31 column in La Scena Musicale (www.scena.org for those of you interested in checking out the whole thing), “I am about to make the rock-solid prediction that the year 2004 will be the last for the classical record industry.” Yawn. The proximate cause of this dire prophecy is EMI’s decision to terminate the contract of never-terribly-popular-despite-heroic-PR tenor Roberto Alagna, along with the usual Lebrechtian carping about declining sales, stupid industry executives, vanishing new release lists, foolishly greedy artists and ensembles, and the evils of various corporate mergers and acquisitions.

That the reality does not necessarily conform to the picture of universal distress and despair that Lebrecht paints is of course beside the point, particularly when there’s a juicy bit of gossip to blow out of proportion or some trivial detail of corporate behavior to turn into a major rant about the State of the Industry. Indeed, most of what Lebrecht has to say is so old and tired by now (when it isn’t just plain silly) that it certainly doesn’t bear quoting, much less refuting, but there are a few points that are simply too amusing to let pass without at least a cursory comment or two.

The principal “evidence” to support Lebrecht’s prediction that 2004 heralds the coming of the classical music apocalypse stems entirely from generalizations concerning the behavior of the so-called “majors.” These labels, as we all know, have not been committed in any meaningful way to classical music for at least a decade or more. Not a single corporate decision, not the Sony/BMG merger, the Warner Classics takeover by Edgar Bronfman, or any other such maneuver cited by Lebrecht has been influenced in the slightest degree by the fact that classical music even exists. The fact that these labels bother with classical music at all is something of a miracle, a function of their back catalogs and historical inertia more than anything else. So to define the “classical music recording industry” in terms of what they do is ridiculous. They are a shrinking piece of a much larger whole, and nothing more.

The vast majority of classical music recording activity belongs to the so-called “independent labels.” Some of these are struggling (nothing new in that) but despite the glut of product most manage to survive. Even Lebrecht admits that some, like Naxos, are even thriving. So while the volume of releases from major labels has diminished, the overall quantity of new releases has not because more labels and more artists come onto the market all of the time. This never has been a high margin, high volume business, and the illusion that it could become one caused the majors to squander their resources on classical music in the first place at the time of the “great changeover” from LP to CD. The death of that illusion is a healthy thing, signaling a return to the reality of the marketplace and hopefully a winnowing of what everyone agrees is a much too crowded field.

I have to admit, though, that I enjoy the way Lebrecht uses his “evidence.” He explains the comparatively robust British market thusly: “Only in Britain, where the public cannot tell the difference between a bare-chested belter and a genuine opera singer, have sales held steady.” Now even though I may be inclined to agree with him, I somehow doubt that this explains strong sales in the United Kingdom. Could it be that British labels and retailers are simply doing a good job? Perish the thought! What, after all, would be the shock-appeal of an article extolling the efficiency of the British system of CD distribution as compared to the appalling mess here in the States, or the willingness of the British public to support local talent and labels, or the marketing savvy of British shopkeepers?

Of course, at the heart of the above thesis lies the assumption developed throughout his article that the greatest loss stems from the fact that “major” artists (meaning expensive artists on major labels) are necessarily the best artists. Take this swipe at the generally excellent work of the BBC Philharmonic, for example: “Instead [of ‘major’ orchestras], record companies use 'buyout' bands like the BBC Philharmonic which lease their work free of charge. The playing may not be exquisite but it is economically attractive.” Not very nice, Norman, particularly when the august London Symphony Orchestra has its own (budget) label for which, on any given day, it may very well play or sound worse than its BBC cousin. The evidence is there for anyone who cares to listen.

And that’s exactly what the public has been doing: listening. Over the past decade, and thanks to labels like Naxos, BIS, Hyperion, Ondine, CPO, Harmonia Mundi, Chandos and others, music lovers have learned that the quality of music making today is generally so high that excellence may be found well beyond the cloistered catalogs of the major labels. Their classical divisions are dying because they are no longer necessary: the myth of their uniqueness and monopoly on great performances has been exploded forever. That’s the reality of the classical music recording industry at present. It’s also reason for optimism, not despair, because while the majors may or may not survive depending on their adaptability, excellent music making will continue to thrive and reach the public via the classical recording industry, whatever its actual form.

Lebrecht concludes his article with a final touching lament: “I shall particularly regret the loss of comparability, our future inability to concretize Simon Rattle's never-to-be-recorded Bruckner Fourth in the context of past masters.” I personally find it hard to regret the loss of anything that Simon Rattle does not record, but beyond that who cares about his Bruckner Fourth when we can have someone like Skrowaczewski’s? Simon Rattle does not matter. If we don’t see his Bruckner on disc, then someone else will do it eventually--and most importantly it will likely stand just as good a chance of being excellent. So this new reality poses an insurmountable problem for Simon Rattle, perhaps, but for the “industry?” Nah.

On the other hand, maybe Lebrecht is right and the success of any new production today inevitably stems from the fact that the public of [insert name of country] wouldn’t know the difference between a [insert low class example of musical entertainer] from a [insert high class example of same]. It strikes me quite forcefully on reading this and other such penetrating insights that someone certainly isn’t listening, and that someone is definitely not the British public, or any other for that matter.

David Hurwitz

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Topic - This just in: Classical's not dead - M. Lucky 10:50:30 01/09/04 (4)

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