Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The original master tapes have been sadly lost


In the New Yorker Alex Ross eloquently sings the praises of old-fashioned CDs while discussing The Classical Cloud, and touches on important topics such as the problems of meta data in the digital domain, and the stickiness added by erudite documentation. But there is an even more fundamental problem with the classical cloud: what happens when the online rainmakers fall by the wayside? Spotify, Pandora and Beats Music are mentioned by Alex, but Napster is not; for the simple reason that the online music pioneer has been through Chapter 11, lawsuits and much else, and is today a pale shadow of it former self. Even the mighty Amazon is in danger of financially overstretching itself as it moves away from a core business of content distribution into smartphones and other highly volatile markets. The serial instability of music distribution is emphasised by recent press reports that the financially challenged HMV retail chain is soon likely to overtake Amazon as the UK's biggest music and DVD retailer.

There is no stability and no longevity in either online or high street music retailing, and the record companies that are eagerly supplying Spotify in return for a quick buck are no less stable or enduring. Warner Classic's admirable attempt to issue a complete Scott Ross Rameau edition has been thwarted as it has proved impossible to license some of the required recordings from non-Warner labels; because, among other reasons, some of these labels are no longer in business. The invaluable recording of Henri Dutilleux's First Symphony on Virgin Classics' 2012 overview of the composer's music carried the following salutary note:

The original master tapes of this recording originally issued by Calliope have been sadly lost. However, in collaboration with the Orchestre National de Lille, we have made the decision to reissue this multi-award performance. Despite the great care given to the remastering, some imperfections may still occur that do not affect the musical interest of this performance.
Henri Dutilleux is hardly a minor composer, and the recording of his First Symphony by Jean-Claude Casadesus and the Orchestra National de Lille was highly acclaimed. Yet the original master tapes are lost following the 2010 closure of the Calliope label by its founder Jacques Le Calvé, who cited the collapse of retail distribution the main reason for the label's demise.

The record industry is entering the equivalent of what in the West is known as the Dark Ages, and in the East as Kali Yuga, the age of the apocalyptic demon Kali. Alex Ross' CD collection is not an anachronistic hoarding of space-devouring, planet-harming plastic objects. It is - particularly in view of his eclectic musical tastes - the latter-day equivalent of the medieval monastic libraries that protected our great knowledge tradition from the ravages of marauding tribes. Although you would not think so from current media coverage,CDs outsell downloads in the US market by a healthy margin, and sales of downloads fell 6% in 2013. When Kali Yuga is passed and Spotify, Pandora and Beats Music have joined Napster as a footnote in record industry history, great music will emerge from the cloisters of CD collections to reclaim its rightful place in the civilised world.

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1 comment:

Halldor said...

A personal view: the fixation to "digital" solutions in the world of (performing)classical music continues to be a damaging distraction - partly because the economic realities are so little understood or examined. Digital streaming has been shown to destroy, rather than create, financial value in recorded music: and when I read comments from "music lovers" describing how they'd rather spend money on the Berlin Phil DCH than on tickets to hear their own local live performances, I start to wonder if it isn't damaging the financial value of live performance as well.

And yet it's received opinion in the sector that "digital" is the miracle technology that will save the finances of flagging promoters and ensembles - though no-one can say precisely how. It stems from incomprehension: I'm reminded of the adage about "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". In parts of the classical music sector, digital technology is still perceived as a magical pot of gold. Just one that no-one has yet worked out how to open.

To be fair, plenty of concert and venue managers are very aware that this is not the case. Yet major state funders such as the ACE continue to insist, over and over, on the vital importance of "digital" (digital what, exactly, is rarely specified; the magic word is itself sufficient) and expect client organisations to continue making costly sacrifices to that particular golden calf. Public money (and all the real creative opportunities that it might make possible) is being squandered on "digital strategies" that are at best almost wholly ineffective; at worst actually damaging the long-term value of the art form that they're supposed to promote. As I need hardly tell you...