There has been a gratifyingly big response to my post Discovered - the online Arnold Schoenberg jukebox with its listing of more than sixty worldwide classical music stations broadcasting on the web (see right hand side bar). The eclectic mix of readers for that post surprised me. The visitor logs show this particular overgrown path has been trodden by the BBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (the UK body that enforces copyright protection on recorded music), Minnesota Public Radio, the Czech Academy of Science, the City of Berlin Arts Adminstrator's Office, a number of major US orchestras, and many, many more.
In a recent post I mentioned buying the inspirational Philippe Herreweghe recording of the Missa Solemnis for just £5 (US$9.10). And elsewhere I've written about Brilliant Classics (complete Haydn Piano Sonatas in excellent performances and recordings with 10 CD's for £23.99 - US$43.70), and the deep, deep discounts (and first-class service) available from Amazon.com Marketplace partners such as Caiman USA. All this set me thinking, is recorded music too cheap today?
Let me explain. The major record companies had a hissing fit about the impact of file sharing on pop music sales. In the classical music world it is not recorded music sales that are at threat, it is concert audiences. The ticket prices at the recent Norwich Festival were very reasonable by London standards, and certainly offered wonderful value for money. But the value of two average priced £15 (US$27.30) tickets for the Tallis Scholars doesn't look so good when compared with a discounted CD. After the concert I bought the wonderful Tallis Scholars CD of the Sheppard sacred choral works, including Media vita which was performed at the concert, for just £9.52 (US$17.30) including delivery from Caiman USA. (US readers will have spotted that CD prices are considerably higher in the UK. Which is why I buy Gimmel CD's of the Tallis Scholars recorded in Salle Church, just 25 miles from my home in Norfolk UK, from Florida. Great for my bank balance, but the 3500 mile air freight round trip for the CD can't do much to help global warming).
The Deutsche Grammophon LP of Karajan conducting Tchaikosky's Pathetique Symphony which was my first classical record cost me one pound ten shillings ($2.20) as a student in 1969. By my calculation graduate starting salaries in the UK have increased by a factor of around twenty since then. That would price the LP at £30 (US$54.60) in today's terms. A full price CD in the UK today is £15 (US$27.30), so real prices have halved before deep discounts and budget priced labels such as LSO Live are factored in. In orders of magnitude I reckon recorded music costs about one quarter of what it did thirty five years ago. Concert tickets have shown little or no price deflation in the same period. So the balance of pricing has swung massively in favour of recorded and internet streamed media, and against attending live performances.
On An Overgrown Path has commented before that performers like the Kamus and Sacconi Quartets seem to be getting younger, and their audiences seem to be getting older. Is it surprising when the absurdly low cost of great recorded music is giving the quite wrong impression that concert tickets are expensive? Naxos have done more than any other company to reduce the price that consumers expect to pay for recorded classical music. Recently I bought their highly recommendable CD of the Vivaldi Gloria and Bach Magnificat for £3.99 (US$7.30) in a Virgin Megastore - that is just stupidly cheap. And ironically the very people that stand to lose most, the orchestras, are fuelling the trend by pricing their own label recordings so low. Ask anyone in the retail trade what they think of the LSO Live CD's and they will say two things. Great performances, and too cheap at £4.99 (US$9.10). Ask any of the LSO players what they think of LSO Live after they have received their measly £400 (US$728) annual profit share from the label, and they will say one thing, too cheap.
One development that must surely further cheapen the perceived value of recorded classical music seems to have slipped under everyone's radar - Naxos Web Radio. This subscription service offers sixty channels of classical music plus jazz, blues, world, folk, and New Age. There is up to one hundred hours of unduplicated commercial-free music available per channel. The channels are pretty well targeted. Contemporary Classical offers Adams, Brusa, Balada, Glass and Norgard among others, while the Early Sacred Music programme includes Palestrina, Tallis, Lassus and Obrecht.The service uses Naxos and other label recordings, and offers the opportunity to buy the CD's via amazon.com. And my question is recorded classical music too cheap must surely be answered by the token annual subscription charge of just US$9.95 (£5.50) for Naxos Web Radio. With this pricing it is difficult to see what their business model is, other than world domination. Naxos, and others offering give away pricing on the internet, should ponder the first law of the cyber-economy. This says that the price of information will tend towards zero. Unless we stop treating recorded music as an information commodity the price, and perceived value, will continue to plummet, with an attendant disastrous knock-on effect on the size of audiences for live performances. Another factor to take into account is that web radio is the medium of choice for tecno-savvy youngsters (plus a few older early adopters). Most older folk don't have the technical confidence to use a computer for much else than email and e-Bay. So the vicious spiral of ageing concert audiences is accerlerated. If you want to find out what Naxos Web Radio is almost giving away to the internet literate just open this link for 15 minutes no-obligation listening.
Thankfully some people are trying to boost concert attendances, rather than undermine them. One particularly noteworthy example is fellow blogger Drew McManus' "Take a Friend to Orchestra" project. Recorded music, even via my wonderful B&W Nautilus 803 speakers, can never replace live performers. We are in danger of bringing up a generation who will never have heard the earthy texture of a baroque cello, the lightning fast attack of a harpsichord, or the true bass from a 32' organ pipe. But, I wonder, could the solution to declining concert audiences be economic rather than educational? I am certainly not suggesting lowering the price of concert admissions. But I am querying our wisdom in allowing the cost of recorded music to decline so sharply.
Live music making is sacred, and we must do everything possible to ensure not only its survival, but also its growth. In 1964 Benjamin Britten was awarded the first Aspen Award at Aspen, Colorado. Britten's acceptance speech was so thought provoking that Faber published it as a very slim volume. Here is part of Britten's speech which was made decades before the arrival of the CD and internet, but which with uncanny prescience identified the real danger of treating music as a commodity......
Anyone, anywhere, at any time can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only - that they possess a machine. No qualification is required of any sort - faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Music is now free for all. If I say the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study, or as an evoker of memories. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.
If you enjoyed this post follow the overgrown path to A direct line to Britten
Note to regular readers of On An Overgrown Path. The next post will be uploaded on Saturday 11th June. Sorry about the pause; the overgrown path hasn't come to a dead end, but travel arrangements dictate the interruption. The posts will continue, including an interesting contribution about violinist Elmar Oliveira from a guest blogger in the US.....