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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Look who's been dumped

By Norman Lebrecht / December 31, 2003

You may wish to jot this in your diaries and upbraid me with it in twelve months' time but I am about to make the rock-solid prediction that the year 2004 will be the last for the classical record industry.

The unravelling has run faster than prestissimo. Major labels which, a decade ago, pumped out 120 new releases a year are now reduced to a trickle of two dozen. Epochal concerts are no longer recorded for posterity. Classical stars have lost their license to twinkle.

Where labels once fought bidding wars over shimmering talent they now compete in shedding it. The latest on the dump pile is the tenor Roberto Alagna, once trumpeted as the next Placido Domingo, now a victim of poor sales. EMI has declined to renew Alagna's contract which expired earlier this year. His wife, Angela Georghiu, remains under contract but has no further recordings planned.

The words 'record' and 'contract' can no longer be juxtaposed in any meaningful way. EMI recently announced an exclusive seven-year deal with the fine-toned Norwegian, Leif-Ove Andsnes. All it means is that the hottest of current pianists gets to cut one disc a year, just the one, if he's lucky.

The precipitate collapse has decimated a generation of skilled producers, assuredly the final generation. Decca has made its A&R chief redundant. The last surviving suits are fingering their collars. Sony and BMG are being brutally merged. Warner Classics awaits fallout from the group's takeover by Edgar Bronfman's consortium. It has been, said one vice-president, 'a year from hell.' Only in Britain, where the public cannot tell the difference between a bare-chested belter and a genuine opera singer, have sales held steady. In Germany, France and the US, classical racks being replaced in stores by stacks of computer games. 'I don't know what we have to do to sell a record,' lamented a leading executive. 'I have just signed off the last opera we will ever record,' said another.

Life has been no easier for cottage labels. The German firm Haenssler, which employed Sir Roger Norrington and Sir Neville Marriner to conduct symphonic cycles, ran into financial difficulties and had to be restructured by its parent company, a Christian books publisher., a French-financed venture which sold archive recordings and internet access to live performances, stumbled into a protective alliance with another French group, Naive. Hypothermia set in to classical sales. The lone exception is budget label Naxos, which plans 150 new releases in the coming year, plus 60 historical remasters. 'We are no longer in the same industry as Decca and DG,' laughs its founder, Klaus Heymann. Naxos apart, there is almost no activity left that is coherent enough to be described as 'industry'. The day of classical recording is done and the post-mortem has begun.

High in corporate towers, overpaid executives blame a lack of compelling new repertoire, of charismatic artists and of public tolerance for long-winded classics - in short, they blame everthing except their own failure to invest in talent, allowing it to grow a personality as it steadily acquires a following. They also misread the effects of social and technological revolution.

Artists and orchestras, for their part, blame the avarice of label execs and the incessant pressure on them to promote records with anodyne interviews and finger-numbing autograph sessions, precious time that would have been better devoted to developing character in their art. Hurt and confused, these artists refuse to admit their own assault on the classical economy in the years when the money flowed. In the CD gold rush of the early 1990s, the Berlin Philharmonic charged £65,000 for a symphonic disc. Their fee remains the same today, but hardly anyone bothers to make records with the world's best orchestras any more.

Instead, record companies use 'buyout' bands like the BBC Philharmonic which lease their work free of charge. The playing may not be exquisite but it is economically attractive. Naxos pays artists a no-royalties small fee, take it or leave it. These tight measures will sustain a certain level of recording activity after the industry is defunct, much as fountain-pens flicker on in an age of biros.

These are sombre reflections and they are uttered with regret. Classical records brought delight and enlightenment to millions who never dared enter a concert hall. More than that, they fostered a sense of community by allowing listeners to compare and contrast one interpretation of Bruckner's fourth symphony with another, sometimes to a nerdish extreme but inherently, invaluably, as a commonly shared cultural artefact. The existence of Bruckner Fourths conducted by, say, Wilhelm Furtwaengler and Otto Klemperer, presented two philosophically antipodal accounts of a mighty score - and encouraged record buyers to assess these grainy treasures against gleaming modern interpretations by Karajan, Tintner, Harnoncourt and Abbado.

In the industry's heyday every self-respecting label had its own catalogue version of every masterpiece, and every decade brought a technological improvement which prompted a further set of recordings. These were rhythms on which the industry ran happily for half a century: sensible, profitable rhythms that made great music continually relevant to changing times.

Those rhythms were disrupted, distorted and ultimately destroyed by digital recording, which delivered sonic utopia and exposed the flaws in the process. Attentive listeners were able to hear underground trains rumbling beneath Decca's Kingsway Hall, and botched edits in supposedly authentic performances. Digital clarity revealed the artificiality of recording, the fundamental fakery of producing an inhumanly accurate replica of all-too human music. As the digital sheen wore off, so did the sales.

Expectations of exponential growth were shattered and desperate execs polluted their labels with pop-like ephemeralities. Neither DVD nor super-audio CD will rekindle public interest.

I shall miss the industry when it is gone, its grotesquely inflated egos,its lavish Salzburg junkets. I shall mourn the good men (and very few women) who gave their working lives to the pursuit of perfection and were ruined when it arrived. I shall particularly regret the loss of comparability, our future inability to concretize Simon Rattle's never-to-be-recorded Bruckner Fourth in the context of past masters. Such, though, is the price of progress. Every record comes to an end, but the music goes on. It always will.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001