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The future of classical music recordings

It is unlikely that the latest recording of Mozart’s last three Symphonies under Lorin Maazel and the NYPO will be of interest beyond the hard-core fans of the American conductor. Strings lack colour, brass and timpani are far too loud and phrasing is ery heavy (there is a terrible ugly Rallentendo at bars 90 - 95 of the Andante con Moto of the 39th). Concertonet’s readers who are searching for a non baroque version of these works will be better advised to go back to Herbert von Karajan for sheer elegance, Bruno Walter for charm, Carlo-Maria Giulini for soul and Karl Böhm for overall balance.

This being said, this is a very important recording: it is the first of an announced series of live concert takes available exclusively on Itunes.

The implications for classical music are huge. Formerly, music labels had to spend money upfront to make and promote recordings before some cash could be generated by records’ sales (this is known in finance as requirement for “working capital financing”). Classical music and in particular of orchestral music has been very hit since costs increases have became steep whereas the market had became saturated by numerous recordings of all kind, historical or modern, valuable or pure rubbish. Go to Amazon and you can find no less than 44 CDs of Mozart’s 40th Symphony and 108 of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

The real losers have not been consumers or records labels but artists who have not been able to secure recording contracts. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is such an example. Their last studio recording was done only because of the strong relation between Daniel Barenboim and Lang Lang, Deutsche Grammophon’s big hope to woo the Chinese market, allegedly the next big market for classical music. Given this Orchestra’s huge talent, this is a great loss. Some artists such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and ensembles like the LSO have decided to create their private labels. Gardiner has left Deutsche Grammophon after some of this label’s biggest recent successes when the editor cancelled Gardiner’s planned and agreed complete Bach Cantatas cycle (his magnificent recordings are available on his label «Soli Deo Gloria»).

These however are rare cases made possible only because musicians have agreed to be paid on royalties and not for recording sessions. A download of a concert goes further to radically modify the cost structure of recordings because it enables disintermediation between consumers and records companies. If you buy a LSO Live CD, it will include the margin of the local shop. If you download music from Itunes, Apple will get a small royalty for running the service and what remains will go to the record company. There is also no need to create physical CDs, expensive box covers and related distribution costs. The only remaining variable costs would be the modest amount needed to make available on a server the 92 Meg that represents Mozart’s works.

In summary, we have:
· drastic reduction of distribution costs
· zero packaging and physical production costs
· far lower recording costs since this is a concert take
· and also because artists are paid 100% on variable.

As a consequence, such a recording will be profitable even it sell a smaller number of units than what would have been expected during the studio system. Music can be recorded but only via a complete rethinking of its operating business model.

There will be one loser and many winners in this revolution. The obvious loser is the local department store. Honestly, I do not feel sorry for them because I have been well treated as a valuable customer. The section devoted to classical music has shrunk every day in spite of the fact that the classical music market is supposed to be benefiting from small but regular growth where piracy is minimal. On top, when I have to go to my record store, I have to stand so much noise from the neighbour Rap and Rock departments that I just loathe going to these.

There is however so much to gain for audience and musicians alike. Artists will finally be able to record again. The end to the recorded classical music crisis may be in sight. Because of the saturation, few artists have been able to leave their deserved legacy. We may never have Renee Fleeming in complete recordings of Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro or Strauss Rosenkavalier and Pierre Boulez’s revelatory Mahler cycle may never be completed because of the costs of recording the Symphony of a thousands.

This model will enable many new artists to record and reach out to their local audiences. DG has certainly done its homework and market research before launching their first title from New York where the Orchestra has locally a strong name. The program is quite classical and should appeal to a majority. It is however very likely that the same program would be equally successful in every city where there is a first class orchestra and a regular set of followers: Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Amsterdam, Zurich, Rome, Munich, Paris, Oslo, London, Birmingham … Let le repeat it, with a concert download system, the breakeven point, i.e., the number of units that have to be sold before any venture becomes profitable, becomes far lower. Music companies should no longer be to promote the myth that only Berlin and Vienna made records are references but focus on local audiences who want to hear their local ensembles and artists.

There is also an artistic advantage. Studios recordings are not as good as concert performances. Karajan who championed recordings as a medium is a prime example: although his studio recordings were done with scrupulous care, they do not do justice to the sheer magic of his concerts, his live videos, and some pirate recordings deliver much more faithfully the intensity and emotion of his concerts. Glen Gould apart, all musicians are better when performing live than in studio. The formal quest for nice sound has always been done at the loss of dramatic and artistic risk. Doing a studio recoding was understandable at a time when securing good sound was not so simple. This is however not the case today and artists approved concert performances should bring us the best of both world: more emotion, more continuity and good sound. If the studio dies, I will not mourn it.

One question remains: who should take the lead to produce these concert recordings ? DG can sign prestigious artists like Maazel, or as we hear it Salonen in Los Angeles and some major Orchestras in the US, Germany and France. However, I have to admit being disappointed by the sloppiness of their first release and cannot be concerned by the prospect of having record labels avoiding artistic risks by sticking to safe choices.

How therefore to allow the access of this medium and allow this localisation I mentioned above ? My proposal is that the initiative to produce concert downloads be taken by artistic directors of major concert halls. There could be practical reasons since all major halls are fully equipped for radio broadcasts and therefore for recordings. There are however artistic reasons. In the last years, various halls or festivals have been able to create and develop a genuine cultural identity. This is the case in Paris of the Chatelet under Stéphane Lissner or Jean-Pierre Brossman or Paris Opera with Hugues Gall and Gérard Mortier. Their programs are varied, adventurous originals and artists have strong working conditions at these places. I am sure that their foreign counterparts exist. Performances are there of a very high level and deserve to be made available on line. These halls have also created buzz for their performances, there should be a natural demand for the complementary product which would be a performance of the concert. In the case of the Paris Opera, why not extend the offerings by making available the conferences organised by Gérard Mortier and the artists for every production as podcasts, why not offer rehearsals footage ? Bonuses are key to the success of movies on DVD, let us do the same thing for classical music. I am convinced that there is out there a lot of music lovers of all ages who are just waiting for this kind of offerings.

Like Opera, the death of classical music recording had been announced many times. It certainly has been very sick but I have full confidence that strong days are ahead of us.

Antoine Leboyer



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