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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

A Classical Dilemma

By Norman Lebrecht / November 27, 2002

Jose Cura is one of many musicians to be dropped by a major label. They are having to find new ways of being heard.

What are musicians to do now that no-one wants to record them? It's a question that has struck hundreds of artists over the past six years as the record industry shrunk its kids, throwing out debutant babies with long-running bathwater. The clearout continues. EMI, which has just announced results, is down 6 percent on sales, its shares down 38 percent. Neither the 38m payoff to Mariah Carey nor the 80m signing of Robbie Williams has restored investor faith in a waning medium.

Vivendi, the debt-ridden French giant, has put its Universal labels on the block. The rest of the industry is staggering around in post-crash trauma, awaiting the emergency services.

Where that leaves many artists is cruelly orphaned. For the first time since Edison opened his canning plant at Camden, New Jersey, no-one wants to process their product. As the industry contracts, music is steadily reverting to its natural state of ephemerality: hear it live, or it's gone forever.

In the classical sector, where the collapse began, many musicians succumbed to despair. Others founded home-baked labels or joined the high-selling, low-priced Naxos, which pays a $1,000 flat fee but no royalties and, devastatingly, none of the flattery and publicity that major labels used to lavish on their pampered talents. Naxos sells music, not stars.

Self-starter labels cannot get off the ground. To cross the lintel of public attention a record requires international distribution and a publicity machine, neither of which are within the reach of a musician who seeks an outlet for his sounds. The lutenist Anthony Rooley entered my radio studio a year ago with a pile of medieval obscurities that he was putting out on his own after Decca had dropped his contract. The discs were beautifully designed, produced and performed but Rooley, with the best will in the world and a prodigious early-music reputation, cannot get them promoted in high street stores.

Orchestras, their services no longer required by 'major' labels that issue one symphony a month, have begun putting out concerts on own-brand labels. The most successful by far is the London Symphony Orchestra's LSO Live, which conquered the UK, US and Japanese charts with Sir Colin Davis's Berlioz cycle. Sales of 25,000 for Symphonie Fantastique and 27,000 for Les Troyens easily covered production costs, but at the end of the first financial year there is just 10,000 in the kitty to share among the players, about 100 each for making a dozen CDs.

Other orchestral labels - Liverpool, Oregon, St Louis - earn scant attention beyond city limits. In Sweden, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra provides cost-free recordings to Deutsche Grammophon in a desperate effort to keep its name in lights. It's too little, too late. Freebie deals cannot repair the chasm left in our culture by the withdrawal of global record companies.

Which is not to say the future is without opportunity. Among recent start-ups is a London-based label called Avie which acts as a kind of clearing house for eminent musicians who cannot get their work out on record. Its latest signing is the Argentine opera singer Jose Cura, once hailed (like so many others) as the Fourth Tenor but dropped last year by Warner after disappointing sales. Cura is more than just a pretty voice. He has amitions to conduct orchestras, and sometimes does so while singing a role.

Cura, who turns 40 next week, has formed a connection with the Warsaw Sinfonia and founded his own production company in Madrid. He has made two recordings of himself, conducting Rachmaninov's second symphony and singing assorted opera arias. Then he hit the brick wall of distribution and publicity. Many opera buffs have heard of Cura, but where will they find his new recordings?

On Avie, that's where - alongside a San Francisco Mahler cycle conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas; a Handel opera, Tamerlano, led by the ex-DG limelighter Trevor Pinnock and his English Concert; and a range of esoteric repertoire from Strasbourg. Taken together, it starts to look like a regular record label, with two or three releases a month, more in the New Year.

Avie is the invention of two record industry refugees - Simon Foster, who used to run Virgin Classics and Melanne Mueller, once of BMG. They tailor deals to individual need. From Cura, they receive a finished product and take a 15-20 percent commission on every disc they sell. San Francisco's discs are bought outright and in bulk; Mahler's sixth symphony has sold 10,000 worldwide. Pinnock was recorded by the BBC and packaged by Avie; Strasbourg is produced start-to-finish by Foster. Such flexibility, anathema to corporate industry, is an added attraction to disillusioned, long-exploited artists.

The recruitment of Cura, a coup for Avie, implies also that Warners have little to offer an artist of his stature. It so happens that Warners, last week, put most of their classical recording schedule on ice. Draw your own conclusions.

The ultimate in flexibility is Vox, a once-pioneering classical label with more than 5,000 tapes in its New York vaults. Vox is now offering custom-made discs - any of its recordings, pressed on demand. In the forseeable future, when most people order music on the web, labels will never need to overstock.

None of these innovations have made much impact on the corporate suits, who continue to pay themselves exaggerated bonuses - EMI's Alain Levy is up for a 320,000 top-up - and blame customers for all their woes. If it weren't for illegal downloading and public disloyalty, they maintain, business would still be booming.

But those who watched the accelerating decline draw a starker conclusion. In a soft-soap BBC-2 documentary on EMI, the former rock star, Adam Faith, warns that record companies 'are gasping like a fish on the beach to get the last gasp of air before they finally expire.' A new way of presenting music may yet be invented but, by the time it arrives, the ostrich-like multinational music industry will have gone out of business.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001