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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 11, No. 10 August 2006

Another Record Crash!

by Norman Lebrecht / August 6, 2006

A large chunk of masonry fell off the music industry last month when Warner shut down its classical operation, throwing 40 artists onto the street.

The execution was conducted in the usual way, without the slightest consideration for cultural consequences. An empty suit in Hollywood rang a tight-run office in London and told them to stop everything and sack the team – all except those who will be needed for recycling the backlist as supermarket labels and download fodder. No argument was permitted, for such elevated decisions are always irrevocable.

The fact that Warner Classics has been profitable in each of the past five years and more progressive than its competitors cut no cake with a parent corporation that is yoked to floundering AOL and contemplating merger with EMI. Grappling with these big deals, chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr. had no patience for the prestos and adagios of an offshore accessory that contributes barely two percent of pop-music revenues.

The tragic fact of the matter is that giant media players are pulling out of minority art, a myopic strategy that gives them no chance of tapping the next quirk in public taste or contributing to cultural evolution. Warner bought its way into classics just ahead of the Three Tenors’s 1990 boom and scored an eight-million follow-up CD at the Los Angeles World Cup. It gobbled up one independent after another – Erato in France, Teldec in Germany, Finlandia, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi – and went into overproduction along with all the others in the 1990s until the roof fell in and the outlet was slimmed down to a single stream of mainstream classics. That, too, has now been deemed surplus to requirements.

Warner’s exit leaves just three major labels in the classical racks - EMI, Sony-BMG and Deutsche Grammophon/Decca – and much of what they produce nowadays cannot be remotely classified as classical.

The brunt of the Warner switch-off is being borne by artists. Senior figures like Daniel Barenboim and William Christie took the news with a fatalistic shrug, having made enough records over the years to live off rolling royalties. But there was no softening the blow for soloists in their 20s and 30s who were just starting to make a name – the quicksilver Canadian violinist Leila Josefowitz 1, the formidable Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky 2, the thoughtful British fiddler Daniel Hope.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new era with its Czech chief Jiri Belohlavek 3 has been taken off the record with just one Dvorˇák disc in the can; the eclectic Sakari Oramo in Birmingham will not be given another chance to exhume obscure British composers such as the intriguing John Foulds. Karita Mattila, Susan Graham and Monica Groop 4 are among the singing casualties. Anu Tali, an enterprising, stunningly attractive young Estonian with her own Nordic Symphony Orchestra, has been thrown on the scrapheap. Even by present-day corporate standards, the shutdown was as brutal as it gets.

The irony is that Warner Classics, under the thoughtful Matthew Cosgrove, was doing almost everything right. Avoiding vapid film tracks, tacky crossover projects and sex-bombs who could pout but not play, Cosgrove, 45, combined aesthetic sensibility with an eye for market opportunity. He had a higher count of living composers than any other label, including a million-selling CD of Henryk Gorecki’s third symphony and the projected complete works of György Ligeti (now discontinued).

When Tony Blair visited the Pope earlier this month, he presented him with a Warner set of Mozart concertos. When the BBC broadcast Barenboim’s set of Wagner’s Ring in a day over Easter, Cosgrove offered free downloads, taking a bigger stride into iPod delivery than any of his plodding rivals. Whatever Bronfman’s reasons for axing Warner Classics, failure was not one of them.

But then performance, financial or artistic, plays little part in the running of the music industry, where the big egos belong to the suits upstairs and the artists get by as best they can in a never-ending round of executive musical chairs. EMI has just announced a successor to its deceptively subtle President of Classics, Richard Lyttelton, who is being shoved into early retirement in his mid-50s despite sustaining high profits and prestige for almost two decades. Lyttelton, fourth son of a British Earl and former Sixties disco owner, got along famously with everyone from Simon Rattle to Angela Georghiu to Vanessa-Mae. His one social failure was Alain Levy, the humourless chairman of EMI Music and his direct boss, who wanted him out.

So Lyttelton has been expensively ousted in favour of Costa Pilavachi, a Greek-Canadian of equal conviviality who was best mates with Valery Gergiev, Andrea Bocelli and Cecilia Bartoli so long as he was President of Decca – that is, until a couple of months ago when he was removed in an ego spat by his New York boss, Chris Roberts. Roberts sent a Serb from Deutsche Grammophon to run Decca, leaving a highly-paid A&R gap at DG which, I understand, is going to be filled by none other than Matthew Cosgrove, newly released by Warner. So, when the music stops, all the executives have good seats (or payoffs) and it’s only the artists that suffer.

Meanwhile, the actual production of classics by major labels has dwindled to about three-dozen a year and the only way most artists can get on record is by paying for it themselves or authorising free downloads. That, whatever the soft talk of corporate press releases, is the state of play in the music industry of 2006, an industry that is looking more and more like the kitchen cabinet of Admiral Doenitz, waiting for a junior Allied officer to come along and arrest the fantasists around the table. It would be a farce if it wasn’t so sad, for the loss is wholly ours.

Classical music used to be the industry’s core resource. The Beatles could never have developed their sophisticated sound world without the symphonic expertise on hand at Abbey Road and most subsequent groups are indebted, wittingly or not, to the stern disciplines and mathematical logic of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. ‘People in the record business understood that classics was where we all came from – the basis of what we do,’ a former head of Sony Europe told me recently. ‘We were happy to carry on making records in that area, even losing a bit of money. But Wall Street didn’t like that. If investors see sentiment, they make heads roll.’ Last month’s Sony-BMG release sheet consists of movie puffs and crossover – not one classical CD. The abolition of Warner Classics is another small step towards cultural oblivion. n

(c) La Scena Musicale