The Same Old Death, Greatly Exaggerated

Jonathan Bellman

An article by Wes Phillips in the August 20 online issue of *Stereophile* mentions the end of Warner Bros. records as an “active” a classical label, and What It Means.  The other major classical labels that still exist are enumerated—it’s not a long list—and recordings are mentioned (by an employee) that required the resources of a major label, “not an independent.”  Further, Phillips tells us, it’s increasingly difficult to even locate the recordings:

“Go to iTunes or Amazon and try to find a specific recording of a well-known classical work. The meta-data is so sloppily entered in both retail outlets that you're playing Russian roulette half the time. You can find what you're looking for if you know precisely what it is, but casual browsing doesn't pay off.”

So, um, don’t shop on iTunes or Amazon, which are obviously set up to communicate primarily with a different clientele? 

Rumors of the death of classical recording and classical music, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated—so much so that the use of Mark Twain’s famous comment itself in this context is completely hackneyed.  It (classical music, or art music, or concert music, or the cultivated tradition, or whatever you will) continues to be a minority interest, played by quixotic diehards and listened to by same.  Yet enrollments in music schools do not seem to be waning, and the living culture of performance seems to survive, though never on a level to compete with popular musics of various flavors.  How to respond, then?

Consider:  more music of various epochs and repertories is available now than ever before, in my experience (I am less than a year shy of 50).  Medieval and Renaissance music in passionate, historically informed performances (often competing and conflicting, which is a real joy), contemporary and recent compositions, music of minor contemporaries of the familiar roll of Great Composers (which may or may not deserve to be minor)…and these things are not infrequently fabulously performed and recorded.  I do not want to exclude, moreover, the historical recordings (with correspondingly historical sound quality) that come out on labels like Pearl.  Really, from what my music librarian is managing to acquire, you’d think we live in time that fetishizes classical music.

My feeling is that the big corporations simply drop the ball on things like this.  If after three mergers an uniformed boardroom that doesn’t value classical music is uninterested in the small classical market, so?  There seem to be plenty of creative, committed, resourceful people and companies picking up the slack.  If the real problem is that one is a hi-fi guy who simply can’t live without the ready availability of new digitized recording of an Ormandy and the Philadelphia something-or-other originally recorded in the mid-1950s, well…  tough.  Nothing is forever, and there have probably been bunches of recorded interpretations since that should be compared and considered.  Cherish your old vinyl, if you like (I do), but the lack of availability of certain supposedly “classic” recordings (often not regarded as such by actual musicians, as opposed to record collectors) does not mean the end of the world.  In terms of availability, to turn a line of Paul Simon’s on its head, the corporations may suffer, baby, but the music thrives.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to The Same Old Death, Greatly Exaggerated

  1. eba says:

    Without having read the original Stereophile article, I’m curious about your claim of Warner’s death of “activity” being premature. As a person with nearly zero interest in this type of music (and what interest I have driven by attendance at my daughter’s performance participation in said high school group concerts), I’m curious who if not the big corporate record companies in the future will have the resources to gather dozens of high-end musicians (and pay them), give them time to rehearse, then produce and distribute classical recordings?
    It’s easy for anyone or small groups of 3-7 people to write, record and put a song on iTunes or elsewhere — even I have friends who are doing it via GarageBand, ProTools, MySpace and whatnot. However, aside from bootleg recordings of live orchestra concerts, how will we capture the best orchestras of today and the near future?
    Will it fall to the colleges and universities and student groups? Or dedicated Grateful Dead-like fanatic bootleggers? The orchestras and chamber groups themselves? Or is this simply a nonconcern today and will only become a minor regret of those yet unborn 22nd Century Musicologists?

  2. Jonathan Bellman says:

    It is not a matter “falling to colleges and universities and student groups’; if you add conservatories, it already has. Instruction in classical music performance in these institutions will continue purely and simply because of demand. This does not register a blip on the mass marketing music scene, maybe, but there will forever be that variety of musician for whom art music is worth the hours and the discipline. They find each other and play, as they did in previous years. It was never a majority interest, though it is worth noting that the fewer the people who are educated to understand it, the fewer will want to play it.
    The fact is, though, major record companies have never, I don’t believe, supported it; because they are profit-making enterprises they have benefited from it. (Perhaps the word “parasitism” is a bit strong, but you see where I’m going with that.) The smaller outlets and independents release wonderful things, often by people who are attached to universities or other institutions. (And the institutional gig was what you wanted, as far back as there were musicians. Food and living expenses are good things.)
    Worrying about what the major record companies–or the major *anything*; shall we say Fox News?–means that they are dictating to you what you should think or like. That’s a sacrifice I’ve never been willing to make.

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