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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

One More Knell for Classical Recording

by Norman Lebrecht / April 26, 2000

ANOTHER torpedo has struck classical recording, inches below the waterline. BMG Classics, one of the last flagships of a shrinking fleet, is being wound down to the point of wipeout. Distraught executives broke the news to the Washington Post, warning that most of the 120 staff would be laid off. More serious is the fate of the artists.

The King's Singers and Evelyn Glennie have lost their contracts, James Galway's is in the hands of a New York lawyer. Plea-bargain attempts are being made for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and for the label's only superstar, Evgeny Kissin.

All recording in Europe has been halted, leaving Lorin Maazel on the shelf along with two new signings, the pianist Olli Mustonen and violinist Nikolaj Znaider. Daniele Gatti and the RPO join the cast-offs, along with the mezzo-sopranos Vesselina Kasarova and Waltraud Meier.

Strauss Zelnick, chief executive of BMG Entertainment, has let it be known that he wants to retain the label as a going concern, specialising in crossover and reissues. The Chieftains, Ravi Coltrane and Marianne Faithfull are probably the only BMG Classics artists who can expect to survive the cull.

Executive lips remain sealed, apart from a one-sentence statement: "BMG is going through a review towards creating a more efficient and corporate structure." For artists who have seen their talent and ideas discarded like used tissues, this was no consolation.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the sinking of BMG was the absence of surprise. Ever since Munich-based Bertelsmann bought RCA Victor in the early 1990s, Thomas Alva Edison's original New Jersey marque sat uneasily with German plans to dominate Anglo-American rock music and literary publishing.

A run of pin-striped MBAs and former wine salesmen was put in charge of classics, only to depart before their signings cut a debut disc. On the rock side BMG flourished, winning a record 24 trophies at this year's Grammy awards. BMG has annual revenues of $16.4 billion and owns 200 labels, including Ariola, Arista and Windham Hill. Classics amount to less than four per cent of turnover. When the bottom line reddened amid a general classical downturn, the division was swatted by an executive fist, like a flea on a giant's hide. That is the way of the corporate world, and that is what is killing classical recording.

For the past quarter-century, six mutinationals have commanded 85 per cent of the classical market. Last year, Universal bought PolyGram, slashing Decca and Deutsche Grammophon to essentials and scrapping the Philips label. In January, EMI and Warner-AOL struck a merger which will, when the dust settles, lay waste to several Warner labels. That left four major players, two of them stripped to their shorts.

Now there are three. BMG, after the EMI-Warner deal, made a tentative pass at Sony. When nothing came of that, minor distractions such as classics were thrown overboard. Sony has also taken the axe to classics this month, shutting its London-based international office.

Who's next? Such upheavals are inevitable in a corporate environment where specialist products such as a Beethoven concerto, appealing to a minority consumer group, are expected to produce the same cost-to-profit ratio as a mass-market rap disc which is played round the clock and promoted on a half-million-dollar budget.

To compensate for the unimpressive 10,000 to 20,000 sales of core classics, rock chiefs rigged the classical charts with crossover acts and film tracks. Next weekend, the industry will launch the first Classical Brit Awards at the Albert Hall with barely a classical act in sight. The bill is topped by teenie warbler Charlotte Church, electro-fiddler Vanessa-Mae and someone called Filippa Giordano trilling O mio babbino caro. There is also a Czardas-playing violinist who used to be known as Nigel Kennedy, the famously bare-backed Leslie Garrett and the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, who might have been mistaken for a musical.

What this amounts to is not a celebration of classical music, but a parade of what corporate culture has made of classical recording. Rest assured, there is worse to come. One boss recently told his staff that anyone who spent more than 10 per cent of their time promoting anything other than blind tenors and movie spin-offs could consider themselves superfluous to the company's vision.

Put plainly, there is no place for a serious artist in the shark pool of corporate recording. There may be some prestige attached to a big-label release, but it is founded on nostalgia. Classical recording was a 20th-century industry, like typewriters and coal-mining. There may be a future for making classical records, but it lies within a cottage industry of owner-operated labels and internet communications. The giants are foredoomed. Tomorrow belongs to the minnows and the start-ups.


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999