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How do you now sell classical music?

The classical end of the music recording business has been enduring a slow crisis caused by the fact that the classical repertoire is (a) stagnant and (b) now all recorded. Classical freaks like me now have all we need. We have multiple versions of everything good, and although the newly composed stuff is occasionally worth hearing, most of it is a load of old Boulez. The only serious unfinished task is the recording of the entire operatic repertoire on DVD instead of just on CD.

The usual answer to the plight of high culture is that low culture should subsidise it, but these are also bad times for the economically serious end of the recorded music business. The free internet downloading of pop music is playing havoc with record company profits.

Which means that classical music, just when it is least able to, must now pay its own way. Big classical names are now having their hitherto automatically renewed contracts terminated by the dozen. And as these former titans slide into penury, their cultural centrality disappears. Big star classical performers in 1960 were really something, because the very first stereo recording of a major item of the repertoire was a big event. No matter how good it may be, a recording now (the thirtieth) of the same piece cannot possibly matter so much. Herbert von Karajan was a more central figure in European culture than Karajan’s newly appointed successor at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, can ever be, no matter how much “better” the critics may tell us Rattle is.

The politicians are not helping nearly as much as the likes of Rattle think they should. Suddenly the cabinets of the western world consist not of old-time culture-lovers but of ageing Beatles fans. They still dole out arts subsidies but they are cutting back on supporting “elitists”. Instead they are “democratising” arts spending. Instead of giving huge gobs of money to high-culture high-talent parasites, they now prefer to give lots of little gobs of money to lots of no-hoper parasites. Such trends take time to work their way through (hence the continuing significance of who gets to boss the BPO), but you can feel the oil tanker turning, slowly but surely.

Classical music itself will last for ever. This is the great historic achievement of the classical music recording business. But historic achievements don’t pay wages now. What is to be done?

One answer is to cut prices and to cut costs. Wrench the price of new classical CDs (not just of regurgitated old recordings) from the best part of twenty quid down to a fiver, slash the fees paid to the performers and generally cut out the crap. This is what Naxos has done, with great success.

There’s much talk of new “business models” for the recording and “delivery” of classical music, with the copyright and long-term royalty streams remaining with the artists but with any first time round income going to the recording companies. In other words the recording companies no longer place bets on artists. The artists place their own bets, and the recording companies are now bookies. To me this sounds like a thinly disguised pay cut. Or, even more cruelly: vanity recording. (Bloggers won’t need to have this trend explained to them.)

So, when all else fails, go with babe appeal. I give you Hilary Hahn. Now I do not yet get all the subtleties of Samizdata‘s editorial policy, but when it comes to babe photography it is my clear understanding that we are all for it. So here are some Hahn likenesses, taken from her website.

   

   

Hilary Hahn is not just a pretty face. She can definitely play. Her recording of three of the six Bach unaccompanied violin pieces is one of my all time favourite CDs, and all her four recordings so far are decently done. But from a business point of view it is clear what is happening here. In the sleevenotes accompanying her latest recording, of the Brahms and Stravinsky violin concertos, released just before Christmas, I counted no less than fifty six photographs of her, together with three of her conductor Sir Neville Marriner, and three of the two of them together. Total number of photos of Johannes Brahms: zero. Total number of photos of Igor Stravinsky: zero.

This is not a long-term answer, either for the classical music recording business in general or for the likes of Hilary Hahn in particular. (That Brahms/Stravinsky disc is already being heavily discounted in London’s HMV stores.) But while it lasts it’s fun to look at.

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