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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Musicians on the corporate scrapheap

By Norman Lebrecht / October 3, 2001

THERE is a new Rachmaninov recording out this month by the Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky, a protege of the unforgettable Tatyana Nikolayeva. It is his second recital disc, the first having met with high praise. It may also be his last, since Lugansky, 27, is among the many artists who are losing their contracts in the latest spasmodic contraction of a dying record industry.

Lugansky had the misfortune of being signed to Warner, which lashed out vast sums a decade ago to acquire the Erato and Teldec labels in France and Germany. It is now ruthlessly shutting them down. The only comfort for the young Russian is that he is in great company.

Joining him on the scrapheap of corporate folly are, I hear, the lustrous American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, the rising Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli, the effulgent Argentine tenor Jose Cura and the conductor Daniel Barenboim, whose contract with Warner has ended and will not be renewed. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which Barenboim leads, is left without a record outlet for the first time in memory. Last weekend it also lost its nationally syndicated radio broadcast, apparently for want of sponsorship. Where Solti once ruled, silence now reigns.

It is a measure of the hardening of our sensitivities that we take these reversals for granted. Over four years of classical tailspin, every corporate label has slashed its rosters, plunging dozens of artists, eminent and emergent, into a black hole of hopelessness. Very few get a second chance. The suits that rule the classical summits are investing only in novelties - such as the 14-year-old violinist Chloe and an eight-piece fusion band, the Planets, put together by Wombles songwriter Mike Batt on much the same "personality" lines as Big Brother applied to its contestants.

EMI Classics has just signed the Planets to a five-record deal. Deutsche Grammophon, the acme of classical recording, has been given a new boss by its corporate parent, Vivendi. He is Michael Lang, of the jazz label Verve. BMG and Sony Classical have been shedding staff all summer. Global CD sales are down five per cent in the first half of this year; US classical sales have for the first time fallen below jazz. The biggest noise coming from the industry is the slamming of shutters. Classics are finally paying the full price for being owned by corporate megaliths.

What is to be done with the ragged army of discards? For the past century, recording has been a soloist's main highway to career and celebrity. Without it, how are artists to become known?

For new faces, all is not lost. Two labels, Harmonia Mundi and EMI, have kept up talent nurseries. HM, in its Nouveaux Musiciens series, gives newcomers a three-year, three-disc contract and several opportunities for live concerts. Successful beneficiaries include the pianists Piotr Andrszewski and Paul Lewis. EMI has produced some three-dozen debutants, of whom Ian Bostridge, the Belcea Quartet, Katerina Karneus and Thomas Ades have gone on to mainline careers.

But ex-label artists in mid-career have hardly anywhere to turn. They can earn $500 a disc on budget-price Naxos, without the benefit of artist promotion, or they can flirt with cottage labels, few of which look bankably secure. With US distribution in disarray since Tower Records retrenched, cash flow has turned critical for one-man-and-a-dream enterprises with high artistic ideals.

At the end of this week, Black Box, the sparky new-music label, is to be sold to Sanctuary, a £260 million mini-conglomerate built up by the heavy-metal founders of Iron Maiden, Andy Taylor and Rod Smallwood. The fate of Black Box is an indicator of current stress. Started by a hard-working producer, Chris Craker, with venture capital from two music-loving Tory lords, Young and Chadlington, the label has stood out for its stark design, web-friendliness and blazing commitment to living composers. Its discs were updatable on-line and the content was intriguing and often original - the chamber music of Mark-Antony Turnage, for instance, revealing a hidden side of that apparently gritty composer.

But Black Box could not float unaided in heavy waters. By hitching up to Sanctuary's operation, Craker hopes to ride out the downturn while avoiding the perils of corporate ownership. Other labels will wish him well, while seeking sanctuaries of their own.

The desperate reality is that, 20 years to the month since the compact disc was first unveiled in Japan, the distribution of music is suspended between a dying past and an unborn future. The CD has outlived its appeal. Broadband has yet to bring us nightly live entertaiment. In the hypertense interregnum, a whole generation of artists is hanging in the wind.

2 May 2001: The chamber revolution [Norman Lebrecht on the difficulties facing string quartets trying to make a living]
5 January 2000: How will this century sound? [Lebrecht praises Rachmaninov]
7 March 1998: Who are they trying to fool? [Norman Lebrecht on classical record chiefs]
8 February 1997: Death of the CD [Norman Lebrecht on the dangers facing the recording industry from Computer technology]

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




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999