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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Requiem for the classical record

By Norman Lebrecht / July 4, 2001

THE classical record is almost played out. The five big labels that command five-sixths of world sales have lost the will to produce. The minnows that swim between their cracks have lost the means to survive. This summer, it looks as if the game is up.

It began with an aborted merger between EMI and BMG - one British-based, the other German. Classics never came into the equation. BMG has halted classical output and may shut it down altogether. EMI Classics has reverted to desperate gimmickry, signing 12-year-old Becky Taylor to warble movie and musical hits. Will they never learn?

Six years ago, EMI spent a promotional fortune on the swimsuited Vanessa-Mae Nicolson, who played pop medleys on her violin but was dressed up as classical. Ms Nicolson, having reached the age of informed consent, switched to rock. A parallel course is being charted by Charlotte Church, Sony's pre-teen sensation who, at 14, is off to rock, and good luck to her. There is no point in sticking around once the classical marketing cow has been milked dry.

Among other majors, Deutsche Grammophon are down to four discs a month and Decca fare no better. To sustain market share, the group is issuing a flood of Westminster reissues from the Fifties family favourites conducted by the likes of Hans Knappertsbusch, Hermann Scherchen and Pierre Monteux - giants beside today's stickmen.

Warner has shut its Erato and Teldec labels in France and Germany, centralising a diminished trickle of recordings in London with - guess what - another teenie fiddler. Will it never end?

Well, yes it might. A tremor along the Californian faultline is bringing matters to a head. Tower Records, the Sacramento-based retail chain, is in trouble. With 229 stores in 17 countries, a Tower crash would endanger the entire classical species. Corporate record labels would survive, but dozens of independents, especially classical and jazz, would be wiped out.

Tower was founded in 1960 as an alternative outlet, a store that stocked the kind of discs that were too quaint or quirky for big chains to handle - the kind that every self-respecting music-lover would pay twice as much to own. Over time, Tower went global and dressed up in wall-to-wall Britney Spears. Then it overstretched.

Early this year, Tower demanded deep discounts and 360 days' credit from suppliers. Corporate labels agreed, but the minnows refused. Small labels need cash flow. They cannot wait a year to be paid, any more than Tower could let customers borrow discs for 12 months before paying up.

So Tower, whose parent group took a $34.4 million (£24.5 million) loss in the last quarter, dropped the indies. US stores were instructed to stop ordering from the three main distributors of small-label releases. The decree was later softened, amid customer and media backlash, but not before a crippling blow had been dealt to the most sensitive parts of the struggling industry.

Tower insists it is not going bust and will overcome "temporary" difficulties. But independent labels took a long, hard look around and wondered aloud whether it was worth their while to continue. The margins on which they operate are so tight that an £8,000 bad debt last month very nearly sank one of the brightest new labels. The chances of scoring the Hildegard von Bingen hit that launched Hyperion, or the Anonymous Four that sustained Harmonia Mundi, have sharply receded as record stores and magazines swamp their space with major-label white trash.

The top-selling so-called "classical" artists in Britain this year are the industrial-strength tenor Russell Watson, the Greek crooner Nana Mouskouri and the authors of the Gladiator soundtrack. Real classics have nowhere to go, nowhere to show. The internet is the only remaining option, the last frontier. Independent labels missed an opportunity last year to unite in a single dotcom site. That chance is now gone.

Orchestras and opera houses are issuing their own products. The Vienna Philharmonic has formed a partnership with, a cyberspace distributor.

Two US orchestras, Oregon and St Louis, and two British, Liverpool and the LSO, have set up their own labels, distributing both online and in-store. The LSO made the Japanese top 10 with a Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Its new four-CD pack of Les Troyens is an irresistible bargain at around £20. The Liceu opera in Barcelona issues its highlights on DVD.

These enterprises have much to learn about design, marketing and sales strategy, but they have already made a mark and blazed a path towards delivering live performances. They have also demonstrated that record labels and chain stores are no longer needed to bring music home.

Apart from bargain-shelf Naxos, orchestral own brands are the only growth area in a dying industry. The future of musical delivery, still summer-hazy, is likely to centre on live downloads. Time has run out for record labels, big and small.

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




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999