Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Free music - so what's new?
'Music industry finds the solution to its pirate troubles - give everything away' - screams a Guardian headline. Sorry folks, but the classical sector has been giving away music for years. Here from my current Visa bill are the prices I paid for CDs online recently including delivery: Messiaen Des canyons aux étoiles (2CDs) - £4.00, Dallapiccola choral works - £3.41, Stockhausen piano works - £4.22, Elgar Dream of Gerontius (2CDs) - £5.67.
It actually gets worse in the stores. Just last week I bought 10CDs of Thomas Tallis' complete works in recordings made as recently as 2004 for £3 a CD, and that wasn't discounted. In HMV stores you can currently pick up 14CDs of the complete Mahler symphonies by classical music's premium brands, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, for £1.79 a disc. That means a Mahler CD from our industry's most prestigous band now costs less than a cappuccino, and it's not expanding the market for classical music or filling concert halls at all.
So with prices already at rock-bottom what will be the impact of free downloads from Qtrax and others? Classical music will become just another disposable commodity. Download it, give it a quick listen, it doesn't appeal on first hearing? No problem, delete it and try again. Contemporary composers had better start thinking catchy, and record companies (if any survive) had better start thinking instant gratification.
Benjamin Britten had it nailed when he wrote '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 composer, performer and listener'
So what does a dead composer (European to boot) know about today's market with its MP3s and iTunes? The answer is a lot. Britten wasn't just a composer, he was a musical polymath whose vision created one of the few successful, and growing, classical music communities in the world. Last year Aldeburgh Music sold 91,000 tickets. I wonder how many bargain basement Berlin Philharmonic Mahler boxes EMI has sold in the UK - 5000 perhaps? The solution for the music industry isn't to give everything away. It's the opposite. Think added value, think Glossa, think Soli deo Gloria, but above all think Alia Vox.
Now playing is Jordi Savall's newly released Francisco Javier 1506-1553, the Route to the Orient on Alia Vox. Yes, it comes with 2CDs of lovingly researched and performed music, but there is much more in the form of a 273 page colour book (cover above) which is a work of art in itself. In it there are fascinating and scholarly articles ranging from early music performance, to Erasmus of Rotterdam, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas More, and Martin Luther, as well as Francisco Xavier, who was an early Jesuit missionary, himself. And the whole package is worth far more than the sum of the parts. I paid £30 for it in Prelude Records in Norwich, and that is the best £30 I have spent on recorded music for a long time. I didn't get two CDs for my money, I got a unique musical experience. And that is what will rejuvenate the market, not giveaways.
Britten would have approved. The Route to the Orient is about as far from instant gratification as you can go. It demands preparation by reading the book, and it also demands effort to understand the non-Western music that it explores. You must leave your computer and take a journey to a special place called an independent record store to buy it, and you will also need to save up as it is not available online at a discount or as a download. The thoughtfully planned multi-cultural programme needs to be understood, and clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts are definitely needed for close encounters with instruments such as the shinobue, nokan, sarod and shakuhachi.
Are added value projects like Francisco Javier, the Route to the Orient and Christopher Columbus, Lost Paradises (below) the future of classical music? Or are they just small ripples in a big pond? Only time will tell. But I haven't heard Alia Vox talking about mass redundancies, and their 2008 release schedule looks pretty healthy. Which is more than can be said for EMI.
It was Philip Glass who said world music is the new classical.
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