March 20, 2011

My crocodile tears for the classical recording industry

Hans Heinsheimer - who was an executive at the music publishing company Universal Edition before WWII - emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1930s and spent the rest of his career working for American music publishing houses (Shirmer and, before that, Boosey & Hawks).  He wrote several wonderful books about the music world/business in America, among which his first - MENAGERIE IN F# - is hilarious, passionate, and, ultimately, rather sad.  In these books Hansheimer has much to say about the plight of the living composer in America, who cannot make a decent living because everyone in the classical music business - from performers to record companies - wants to make money at the composer's expense.  The details would be nightmarish if they weren't bathed in so much good humor, stoic sarcasm, and absolute, unconditional love of music as a living art.  With Heinsheimer's books in mind, here is what I think of the recent and still ongoing hand-wringing in the media about the imminent demise of the classical recording industry:

Rachmaninov could not make a good living as a composer so he remained a concert pianist to the end of his life.  Schoenberg, Sessions, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek and many other truly important composers of the 20th century had to teach for a living.  Why should performers - whose exalted status as "interpreters" is entirely parasitic on the music written by someone else for them to "interpret" - be better off than composers?  Specifically, why should performers expect to make a decent profit on their recordings, when the above mentioned composers could not hack a living from the insultingly paltry royalties (if any) received from performers and from record companies?
       Lang Langs of this world aside, let the talented musician find refuge in universities (as did the composers), give public faculty recitals in college auditoriums or in small halls (local libraries, museums, and such), and make their own recordings to give away as "advertisements" of their creative activities.  Once you hear the astonishing fidelity of inexpensively produced live recordings from the Cleveland International Piano Competition, you will know that with today's technology no-one needs a RECORD LABEL to record a recital or a symphony concert.
       Why should not performers chase grants (as composers have for decades) to make recordings or to give recitals?  Why should they not hope that some hyper-rich corporation (Google?) will fund an audio museum, buying recordings of talented performers and offering them to the public via download/streaming - just as art museums offer the public a chance to experience works by significant and still living artists?

So, let the entire classical recording industry go down the drain. (That's where this industry belongs anyway, given its decades-long addiction to selling technically substandard product at premium prices.)  Let musicians and orchestras make their own recordings, and sell them or give them away online (which many already do).   I would bet that by the time rigor mortis sets in the PR appendage of this business, the stream of pointless new releases of the standard repertoire will finally stop for good.  And then the new (and not so new but neglected) music at last may get a chance to do what it always was meant to do: excite, provoke, enrage, fascinate, puzzle, and generally keep things moving in the music world.

I, for one, would love to see this happen.  And I'm sure Hans Heinsheimer would too...

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