for a hundred years or so, asmall, steady business devoted to classical music has been tucked inside the recording industry. Its history is driven by replacement through technological development.As technology evolves, companies replace old recordings with new ones by the latest artists, to be superseded themselves further down the road.
New versions of the old masters are created just to take advantage of the new techno possibilities. Some complain because German conductor Herbert von Karajan made four complete recordings of Beethoven's nine symphonies, but he felt he needed to record in mono, early stereo, late stereo and digital.
Electrical recording replaced acoustic recording in the 20s, tape replaced disc in the late 40s, the LP replaced the 78 in the 50s, and mono gave way to stereo at about the same time.
Digital recording came along in the mid-70s. (This is not a typographical error -- I have digital recordings in my collection from 1976.) Then, in 1983, came the Holy Grail of sound, the compact disc, which the industry assured us would give perfect sound forever.
Mmm, not exactly. Perfect sound requires golden-eared engineers, for one thing. And while CDs are certainly more durable than LPs or cassettes, one is not advised to use them as Frisbees.
The development of the CD led both to the revival of the classical record industry and the dreadful state in which it now finds itself.
From the late 80s to the mid-90s, the majors experienced a gold rush as classical record collectors emptied their wallets to replace their collections with the shiny silver discs. Being short-sighted corporate drones, record company executives assumed that this new success would be permanent, augmented by crossover blockbusters like the first Three Tenors recording.
Then things ebbed to normal, and classical records shrank back to their old share of the market, currently between 2.5 and 3.5 per cent of all recordings. And that 3 per cent is a soft number because of things like James Horner's Titanic soundtrack, which Sony lists in its classical catalogue, and classical-seeming recordings by people like Andrea Bocelli and Charlotte Church. Shudder.
At Universal Music Group Canada, one of the country's largest distributors of classical discs, Rick Dunlop denied a sales sag, citing a 50-per-cent increase over the last five years. But the titles he mentions -- Andrea Bocelli Sings Verdi, for example -- tend to refer to these dreaded compilations.
The classical market doesn't generate a lot of new repertoire. And even the most serious collectors get very tired of picking up second and third reissues of recordings. Never underestimate the serious collector, by the way. I thought I had a lot of recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto -- nine or 10 of them -- until I ran into someone who owns 47 different recordings of the Berlioz Requiem.
But the non-serious collector, who just wants to own a reliable set of Beethoven symphonies, for example -- why is he going to buy a brand new, full-price major-label recording when von Karajan's 1962 set is in stores for about a third the price?
If digital recording is essential, there are new recordings on bargain labels like Naxos or Arte Nova that have access to the same digital technology as the majors, unlike in the old days. They can also hire musicians from the best eastern European orchestras, who are scrambling for cash in the post-communist era and work a lot cheaper than the Philharmonics of London, Vienna and Berlin.
The new Grammy nomination list is the perfect reflection of the current crisis -- major-label white-elephant issues like Daniel Barenboim's traversal of the Beethoven symphonies sitting next to Marc-André Hamelin's recordings of Busoni and Godowsky for Hyperion, a small classical label that has carved out its niche by going places the major labels wouldn't dream of.
The classical recording industry has always had a fondness for monumental projects. Back in the 30s, EMI raised the funds for the first complete recordings of Beethoven's piano sonatas by selling subscriptions. LPs led to epic adventures like the first complete recordings of Wagner's Ring Cycle.
Recently, it's been reissues, like Philips' standard Mozart edition from 1991 -- every note Mozart composed, almost entirely dug from Philips' back catalogue -- a very popular issue with a great market in the Mozart bicentennial. Philips decided to celebrate the millennium with a gigantic special issue, The Great Pianists Of The 20th Century.
It's indicative of what's gone wrong with the classical record business. Philips created a huge and hugely expensive project for which no discernible market exists.
Aside from the considerable controversy over who were The Great Pianists Of The 20th Century -- André Previn is in, but Egon Petri is out? -- there were also questions about the material being reissued. The two-CD Glenn Gould section, for example, includes no Bach. However, this is a 200-CD box set.
If you're going to put out something of this size, put out the big box first, as BMG did with their Heifetz and Toscanini collections, and give it a chance to sell to whoever can afford it, then issue the items singly.
Philips issued the individual two-CD units from the set first, meaning that anyone interested in the project could pick and choose the things they wanted. I'll take those rare early Claudio Arrau recordings, but not that later issue of the Beethoven concertos -- I already have them, thank you very much.
This is what happens when the contents of the box are available, in some cases, for a year and a half before the big box is issued with a frightful price tag, $3,000 list Canadian. I've seen it at HMV with a hefty price tag, $2500 or so. Although I have a serious collecting bug, I'd never considered buying it -- aside from the price, it doesn't have enough rarities to outweigh the duplications of recordings I already own.
About two months ago, a year after release, it turned up at the Berkshire Record Outlet, a specialist in cut-out records, recordings dumped from the catalogues and sold off cheap. It listed there at $400 U.S.
Two weeks ago, it was selling at a German dealer online for $255 U.S., shipping included. That's a little less than $400 Canadian, $2 a disc, for a set that on its release less than 18 months ago listed at $15 a disc. When it arrives, I plan to break it up and sell about half of it -- by my estimate, I'll be able to pay for the set and make a small profit. Which, we might note, is more than Philips has managed. firstname.lastname@example.org