Sunday, June 05, 2005

Is recorded classical music too cheap?

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 Britteninvisible hit counter

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.....

10 comments:

Richard Friedman said...

However, concert prices, at least here in the US, are moving in the opposite direction. I had to pass on concerts here at the Univeristy of California (Berkeley) this weekend (see Berkeley Edge Festival) because the tickets were $32 each. If I took my wife to both, we're out $128 (£70.43, or 104 euros). I'm afraid two evenings of Terry Riley and John Zorn are just not equal to dinner at Chez Panisse (upstairs) with a good bottle of Bandol.

But I understand why those tickets are so expensive. Everybody has to get paid. We have had to face this problem with the Other Minds Festivals, which are getting harder and harder to produce due to rising costs.

On the other hand, while I'm a strong believer in internet radio, and listen to many stations throughout the week and very rarely listen to FM radio anymore, the sound quality of most stations is pretty poor. Physical CDs are far superior.

SimonT said...

To back-up your point, I've got a programme for The Ring which I saw at English National Opera in 1976. Top price seats were £7.50 and an ad in the brochure has the recording (on vinyl of course) of Rhinegold at £8.95. You can pick up the CDs for as little as £15 now but top price seats are more than £80.

David Toub said...

I don't think it's too cheap, but it depends what you're interested in. There are a lot of good, budget classical recordings out there, with some occasional, even frequent, albums of new music. Some of the performances are also very, very good. Some are not---you get what you pay for. However, many recordings of new music are not so budget-priced. Back when I was a kid, it was not that bad to purchase a slew of records at $5/record or even less. As a result, I could try a lot of things I might not have at a higher price point. There was a great business in SoHo called the New Music Distribution Service (no idea what ever happened to them) where I could get a lot of underground music fairly cheaply---the original recording of Music in Changing Parts, a lot of Ashley, etc. Not everything I tried ended up being something I really liked (the Glass, of course, is incredible however). But the point is that because of the reasonable prices, one could venture into a lot of different music.

That just isn't as likely with higher prices. With rock, one can at least sample some cuts on the radio, etc. helping steer one's purchase. With new classical music, that is less common. i wish there were easier access to new music on the big satellite channels like XM or Sirius. But right now, there just aren't, which is unfortunate in terms of reaching a mass audience. But I digress...

jult52 said...

"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."

One observation about this - that would be more than the annual per subscriber revenue (received from cable affiliates) that a low-rated cable channel with a niche following would receive. That's one way to put it in perspective. The price if anything is fairly high.

MikeZ said...

I don't understand "too cheap", except in relation to what the performers get.

A long time ago, I lived in Germany, and there were concerts almost nightly, with tickets so inexpensive I didn't even have to think about it.

I don't agree entirely with Britten's idea that music (and by extension, Art) has to be a journey to a mountaintop. Obviously, the more you know, the more you can appreciate, but it's a man with a stone soul who can sit in one of Bach's cathedrals of sound and not be moved.

Britten doesn't have quite the right analogy - it's not a "holy triangle" of composer, performer, listener. It's a communication system: the composer is the writer, the music is the message, the performer the sender, and the listener the receiver. Sometimes it does take an effort on the listener's part - especially with modern music (which we may be humming and whistling decades from now).

MikeZ said...

I don't understand "too cheap", except in relation to what the performers get.

A long time ago, I lived in Germany, and there were concerts almost nightly, with tickets so inexpensive I didn't even have to think about it.

I don't agree entirely with Britten's idea that music (and by extension, Art) has to be a journey to a mountaintop. Obviously, the more you know, the more you can appreciate, but it's a man with a stone soul who can sit in one of Bach's cathedrals of sound and not be moved.

Britten doesn't have quite the right analogy - it's not a "holy triangle" of composer, performer, listener. It's a communication system: the composer is the writer, the music is the message, the performer the sender, and the listener the receiver. Sometimes it does take an effort on the listener's part - especially with modern music (which we may be humming and whistling decades from now).

Henry Holland said...

I'm afraid two evenings of Terry Riley and John Zorn are just not equal to dinner at Chez Panisse (upstairs) with a good bottle of Bandol

This is not an attack on Mr. Friedman for his choice, honest, but it points out something that drives me mad in these endless pricing debates.

It doesn't apply now here in Los Angeles because the tickets at Disney Hall tripled what they were at the old Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but I had numerous conversations in the old days about ticket prices to the Philharmonic. I'd say "You pay $12 and sit in the balcony. The sound is great and it doesn't matter that you're in the balcony because there's nothing to look at anyway". It was amazing to me the excuses people made: I don't know where to get the tickets (um, Ticketmaster like everything else?), I don't have a tuxedo (dude, this is L.A., we don't do tuxedos at the symphony) and so on. I'd point out that it was cheaper than going to a movie and buying popcorn and soda. Nothing, still a bunch of excuses.

The point is: in any big city, there are plenty of choices to go hear live classical music. It simply means you give up something you can do any day of the week--eat and drink wine--to do it. It's not the fault of the ticket prices, it's consumer choice and that's fine. I've never paid more than $10 for the numerous times I've been at the opera in San Francisco because I prefer to stand on the rail in the balcony. It's entirely possible to do it on the cheap, people just need to do a little research and the organizations need to point this out at every opportunity.

Galen H. Brown said...

I have a fairly lengthy response to this posting in the Composers Forum at Sequenza21.

tap tap tap said...

"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."

Hmm. UNLESS lower CD prices bring in more listeners, thereby building the audience for classical music, thereby increasing the number of ticket-buyers, thereby keeping the classical concert scene alive.

Guthry Trojan said...

To those who see nothing to worry about in the cheapness of recordings, I'd like to point out that without a sensible stream of revenue the whole process of making recordings will be compromised - if indeed it is not already.
Naxos, for one, pays very, very little to its freelance production staff. I can say from personal experience, that not only does the current economic climate make it almost impossible to earn a living wage as an independent classical music engineer or producer, it also has the inevitable knock-on effect of dumbing-down production standards: it's now almost impossible to invest in new equipment. Quite obviously this impedes qualitative improvements for which classical recording engineers are traditionally renowned.
But who cares about quality anymore? Naxos among others blithely and inaccurately claim that their audio streams offer 'Near CD quality', which at 128k/sec is little more than 10% of CD’s 1141Kb/sec. Anyhow, you won't need those B&W 803's for much longer - a couple of Tandy ear buds will do just as well.