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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Putting a different spin on the record business

By Norman Lebrecht / June 18, 2008

America’s best-selling classical CD of 2008 is a curiously old-fashioned pairing of violin concertos. It brings together the popular masterpiece by Jean Sibelius, a proven crowd-puller, with the atonal logarithms of Arnold Schoenberg - a work which, after five hearings, leaves you with no tunes to sing in the shower and a somewhat grim outlook on the future of the human race.

The soloist is Hilary Hahn, a vivacious US artist with a contemporary twist who blogs between gigs and hangs out with the rising folk rocker, Josh Ritter, whom some regard as the next Bob Dylan. The covert aim of Hahn’s record is to win converts for Schoenberg through a Sibelius bait and, after six weeks on top of the Billboard charts, it seems to be working. This is old-fashioned record business at its best - the way classical labels used to operate in the golden age, extending public taste by pairing the well-known with the unknown through the impassioned advocacy of a dazzling star.

One look at this week’s charts and you’d be tempted to think that all is well in the classical dovecote and the doomsayers have got it wrong again. But check the bottom line and the gloom is unconfined. Insiders at Universal, which released Hahn on the Deutsche Grammophon label, tell me she is selling no more than 500 CDs a week in the world’s biggest market. At this rate, it will take her two whole years to earn back the company’s investment – assuming she can stay top until Easter 2010. Ten places below, record sales are dribbling along at a few dozen a week. Classical records is no longer a business. The only way to make money is to pay musicians next to nothing for their work, or nothing at all.

A year ago, Penguin published my combined history and obituary of the classical recording industry. In a swift response, labels covered up with a glut of summer releases and a wealthy German proprietor sued the British publisher for alleged defamation. This week, the book appears in UK paperback with peripheral changes to three pages and its general truth uncontested. Like it or not, music – both classical and pop - is going off the record, and nobody in authority knows where on earth it is going next.

While the headlines are grabbed by a Rolling Stones threat to quit EMI and the breakup of the Sony-BMG alliance, behind glass walls the talk is about transforming the record industry into something else - before it is too late. ‘I don’t want to hear the term “record label” around here,’ declares one senior aide to Guy Hands, whose Terra Firma investment group bought EMI. One of the strategic lines being explored by EMI is to run live music events on the internet. As a token of classical confidence, the company is recording its first opera in four years – Madam Butterfly with Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann, in Rome, conducted by Antonio Pappano. ‘We are not allowed to call ourselves a record label,’ says one EMI veteran, ‘but we will continue to be a music provider.’

At EMI’s rivals, the pace of change is more aggressive. Two months ago, a pair of agents at IMG Artists, Jeffrey Vanderveen and Manfred Seipt, went missing without leave. A fortnight later, they turned up at Universal, hand in hand with their hot artists Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon, Karita Mattila and Thomas Hampson. Universal, it seemed, was turning into a talent management agency. But before Vanderveen and Seipt could try out their swing chairs, Universal was hit by a lawsuit which prevents the defectors from working until the New York Supreme Court rules on a raft of IMG accusations that include criminal conspiracy and theft (and you thought classical music was a genteel sport).

Meanwhile, all is in limbo. A retired IMG man, Tom Graham, was lured off the golf course for a reputed $250,000 to keep the singers calm, while lawyers warn of further conflicts of interest. Universal, as a music producer, tries to hire artists cheaply. As artists’ manager, it is legally bound to demand the highest fee. Someone, soon, is going to feel short-changed, and then we’ll hear high Cs in court.

Villazon, who took the winter off to recover from stress, has underwhelmed Covent Garden on his return. Netrebko, last seen in the March issue of Playboy magazine, has gone off to have a baby with her Uruguayan baritone boyfriend Erwin Schrott, who is being sued for non-appearance at a London recital last week – yet another blustery symptom of classical climate change. Restive, fractious singers are never going to make loyal corporate employees. Universal’s bid looks doomed before it has begun.

The third classical giant, Sony-BMG, is unravelling by the week. Label chief Chris Craker has departed and no new records are being signed. Craker had gone for young Baltic talent like the promising Skrida sisters; they are left dangling in an ill wind.

Which is not to say that classical recording has ceased altogether. One of the best studio engineers in town tells me he has never been busier. His diary is packed with small-label bookings and artists’ self-productions – none of which, he grins, is going to make money, but the activity keeps the professionals at work and the public in an illusion of continuous production. The rush of work amounts, he says, to ‘a bizarre microcosm’ of the present state of classical affairs, where musicians no longer want money for making records – only a little publicity.

So is this, I wonder, the final spin, the last twirl of Edison’s invention before everything goes on-line for evermore? Some are certainly pulling down the shutters, but I am not convinced that the disc is about to disappear, given the fragility of the alternatives.

Over the past two years, i-Pods have proved increasingly fallible. When they crash, they wipe out every piece of music in your pocket. There is a growing tendency for music lovers to keep CDs as back-up for that eventuality. Record companies are responding with huge compendia releases at a giveaway price – the complete Vaughan Williams (EMI) and Handel (Warner) at around £1 a disc.

This is where the disc remains indispensable – as an archival tool, a museum catalogue, a household object that contains the greatest moments of a century of musical civilisation. Old records never die – even scratchy LPs have found an unexpected afterlife in club culture and experimental music. The old-fashioned record business is almost dead, but the compact disc will play on, and on, and on.

# Norman Lebrecht’s book, Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness is published in paperback by Penguin, price £8.99

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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