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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Probably the worst time in recorded history

By Norman Lebrecht / February 20, 2002

OF all the cultural soap operas that command our attention, none has unravelled so rapidly as the classical record industry. Ten years ago, in the first month of spring, six major labels would have each flourished a dozen new recordings. Today, there are three active majors left, with barely a dozen discs between them.

The trickle of corporate product and advertising has run so thin that Gramophone magazine, which has reviewed classics for 80 years since pre-electric beginnings, has decided to open its pages next month to what it delicately calls "other forms of music" - the sort of stuff that Gramophone has previously scorned as primitive, opportunistic and unserious. "We're going to take the opportunity to explore what we believe is 'good' music in other fields," soothes the editor, James Jolly, "particularly in areas where different genres meet and cross-pollinate."

Face the facts, Jolly Jim. The simple truth is that there are no longer enough classical CDs coming out each month to fill a parish magazine, let alone a consumer glossy with scriptural delusions. "The Bible" is what collectors used to call Gramophone, but now the biggest bang in Sinai is the slamming down of shutters.

In a mounting casualty toll, the Japanese label Pony Canyon has just gone out of classics, leaving East European orchestras in difficulty; and the import of esoteric labels to the UK has been imperilled by the failure of two key distributors.

The whispers are out on EMI, where someone is going to have to pay for Maria Carey's $35m payoff and several side-labels have been shut. But EMI Classics is in the black, after some trims, and has won a vote of confidence from the company's new president, Alain Levy.

It is Warner Classics that best illustrates the blindfold ride that the industry has taken in recent years. A decade ago, Warner bosses were thrusting wads of cash at any label that was imprudent enough to open its front door. On top of its small US subsidiary Nonesuch, Warner acquired the German giant Teldec, the French label Erato and Finlandia of Helsinki. It was not uncommon for Teldec and Erato to book orchestras in different cities to record the same symphony for simultaneous release. Such was the giddy madness of the CD boom when classics reached 10 per cent of global sales.

Today, with classics below three per cent and few symphonic discs covering their exorbitant cost, Warner has shut Teldec and Erato and wound down into a tiny London-based team with a budget that would barely have bought an orchestral lunch in happier days. Dozens of artists have been tossed on the skip; many may never record again.

The impact is personal and painful. It is not easy to be a mezzo-soprano in the age of Saint Cecilia Bartoli, but Susan Graham was doing pretty well so long as she had a Warner contract with all the promotional trimmings. Last month, she gave a half-empty recital in Berlin - no fault of hers but a direct consequence of the absence of a big-spending media partner.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the few living conductors whose name is brand-recognised, has been linked for life to Teldec. When I suggested to another label president that Harnoncourt was worth poaching for a couple of albums a year, he replied icily: "The most we could consider is an album every other year".

Yet the industry continues to imagine that it has a future, that the downturn is no more than a blip and that the public will come rushing back the moment they find another Maria Callas or Herbert von Karajan. Dream on.

What the big labels cannot grasp is that their day is done. All the best music has been recorded many times over by maestros more accomplished and celebrated than any alive. The six-digit cost of recording a philharmonic orchestra in Vienna or Berlin, allied to a six-digit salary for the executive producer, has meant that recordings from corporate labels cannot be economically viable without artistic compromise.

The only way to make records without such overheads is cooperatively - when orchestras produce their own, as the LSO is doing, or when artists co-own the company, as happened with the doomed Global Music Network.

Whether the minnows can swim remains to be seen, but one aspect of musical conduct has altered beyond recognition. Maestros who once treated producers as gofers and bellboys now invite them on skiing vacs, all expenses paid. And producers who once bowed to their boots when a conductor entered a studio now seldom bother return his calls. It's a topsy-turvy world, and there's plenty of drama to come in this soap.

26 April 2000: One more knell for classical recording
11 November 1998: A musical death foretold [Norman Lebrecht on the crisis in classical music]
18 April 1998: Just cause for jubilation [Norman Lebrecht on Gramophone Magazine]
7 March 1998: Who are they trying to fool?

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001