Recorded classical music is a barely alive dinosaur

I used to read Gramophone and subscribed to it for quite some time. I cancelled my subscription 15 years ago and have not missed it. The main reason for the Gramophone's demise is simply that what represents the core of their interests, recorded classical music, is a barely alive dinosaur.

Classical music is better represented these days by live events. What makes the news is not a new recording of Beethoven’s 9 symphonies by Chailly and the Gewandhaus but the fact that these artists are touring in many capitals around the world to perform them. TV with specialized channels like Europe’s mezzo, Radio and Web-based radio, Web concert from concert hall acting as producers have replaced recorded music as the mean by which we discover and hear music. (I hate to quote myself but have a look here and here among many others …). Similarly, every Opera house is following the steps of the Met with their live relays in movie theaters.

Live Music is where things happen and technology has made It accessible and pervasive. Gramophone has not and cannot stay current with these media and is outdated. If you had to publish a magazine on computing, would it be on punched cards computing or on Ipad ?

Live events are much better served by specialized classical music reviews sites. The one where I contribute,, regularly covers events in Paris, New York, Toronto, Geneva, Zurich, … Our readership is of 25 000 individual visitors every month. Musical coverage can also be found at other sites like this one. Comprehensive reviews are available there and include not only the major most visible events but also modern music, youth ensemble and newcomers and chamber music. What sites like Concertonet provide are reviews which provide in one month a quantity which would match what a major newspaper would publish on classical music for a full year.

Gramophone has attempted to extend its coverage to worldwide live events but in essence, it remains a UK centric reviewer of CDs and is thus destined to follow the path of punched cards computing magazine at the cemetery of dinosaurs.

That provocative response to yesterday's post came from fellow blogger and sometime guest contributor Antoine Leboyer. He may well be right that recorded classical music is a barely alive dinosaur. But if that is the case, despite sharing Antoine's preference for live music I have two concerns. Classical music must beware of becoming metro-centric, particularly as financially marginal touring becomes threatened by funding cuts. For those living outside urban areas recorded and broadcast music is a lifeline. As an example Dale added this pertinent comment to my recent post about independent record stores "For some of us, including myself here in rural North Dakota USA, the Amazon click has led to many musical experiences we'd otherwise not have had".

My second concern revolves around Dale's assertion that recorded music leads to many musical experiences we'd otherwise not have had. He is right and thinking back over the years my first experience of a number of artists who have changed my life, including Jordi Savall and Titi Robin, came via recordings, not live performances. Web streaming of live concerts may be a force to be reckoned with, but as yet it does not stray too far from mainstream classical repertoire.

But Antoine Leboyer is always worth listening to because his involvement with classical music comes through passion rather than profession. Which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the case for everyone of the many readers who have responded to yesterday's post. Putting both the Gramophone and BBC Radio 3 in the firing line in one article is clearly too much for those in the profession to handle. And talking of professionals, I generously described those attending Classical NEXT as the "great and good" of classical music. However Philip Amos, via a comment, provides a far more eloquent description:
It seems to me nothing more than a gathering of foxes who want to tell the chickens how to repair the henhouse the foxes wrecked in the first place. Well, the chickens have left and become free-range birds who know the problems that have been foisted on them (including by a certain rogue roosters of their own) and are showing great ingenuity in coming up with their own solutions, as you have recently and eloquently discussed in posts.
* The photo of Conlon Nancarrow in his studio complete with technology dinosaur comes from my 2007 post Best music of any late-20th century composer? When did you last hear Nancarrow's music in the concert hall?

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Pliable said…
Email received:

small point, but there's a weekend coming up at the South Bank...

Also, if there's one composer who lends himself to recordings, I would have thought it would be him since much of it is literally mechanical.

Susan Scheid said…
Well, I am a member of the trousers rolled set, so probably my view here doesn't count for much, but I like my CDs, keep ordering more, and actually re-upped a long lapsed subscription to BBC Music Magazine, which I've found quite useful in selecting among recordings (its online archive, I will confess, as well as the hard copy magazine). It is true that there is nothing like live performance, and it's also true that I make increasing use of online/streaming services (Q2 Radio is terrific), but I do hope CDs will be around for a while, too. (I'm of course among the set who also loves real books . . .)
Joe Shelby said…
I agree that web streaming doesn't quite get away from the common rep (the Minnesota Orchestra's available streams are a prime case), but that is only a surface symptom.

The issue is that I'm not sure what you're asking for here. Yes, live music, in the hands of the right musicians in the right environment, is always superior. As Robert Fripp describes King Crimson works, the recording is "the love letter", the live event is "the hot date".

but in an age where there are a million other things to do besides go to a concert (most of them far cheaper), then concert attendance becomes a select event. As a select event it will get harder and harder to convince people to go out to hear something they've never heard before.

So the drive to make concert attendance the bigger thing over the recording actually goes against the progress of orchestral music: to keep them filling the halls, they will necessarily have to stick to the core repertoire, the stuff people know, so that people are willing to pay in time and money and get what they expect.

To insist that live performance dominates over all else is to call for the death of new music.

The only way around that is to give a sense of expectation to the potential concert goer a sense of what they will experience when coming to a concert that features new music, and the ONLY way to do that is to get them a recording of the music first.

Just like EVERY other aspect of the music industry has known for decades. Classical's insistence upon its structure where the recording is a maybe, and the likelihood of ANY repeat performance after a premiere is somewhere less than nil, will never go away so long as the notes on the page and the one premiere are all that matter. To get people interested in making the concert of new music an attractive thing, they have to get used to the new music, and the only, ONLY way to do that is to give them the ability to listen to the work at home, in the car, in the office, whatever. You have to make the modern music a part of their daily lives just as Beethoven and Mozart and Mahler have been, and then they can accept (just as they do with Mozart or Metallica) the idea of getting the better experience in the concert hall.

Unless they're specifically going to a concert for improvisation work (jazz and some forms of rock), nobody really goes to a concert to both hear something they've never heard before with the *expectation* of never hearing it again. It just doesn't sell.

I love new music (I have more recordings of music composed after 1890 than before it), but the idea of going to a concert where I can not hear the music again later just doesn't attract me at all. I want to know a piece, not just see it flash before me once, never to be seen or heard again.
LeoJCarey said…
I second your critique of Antoine's argument, as sincere and well-taken as his points clearly are. It's one thing to chide the major labels for their missteps, or to deplore the structure of the industry, but to write off the whole enterprise of recording? I don't think so. Four thoughts:

1) I'm a little suspicious when people involved in an enterprise tout its historical inevitability and its superiority to what it competes with/replaces. I believe that in finance this is known as "talking your book" -- offering a view that supports your own activities as it were disinterested appraisal.

2) As you say, not everywhere has sufficient density of music lovers to support even chamber concerts, let alone more expensive spectacles, like orchestral concerts or opera. Recordings offer performers a way to reach people they will never play for live. (And offer music lovers the chance to live in the hermetic solitude for which many of them are so eminently suited!)

3) Another perhaps related point is that the recorded repertoire is far more extensive than the performed repertoire any given year, so even a really thriving smulcast scene can't give you the richness of the back-catalogue of a thriving (or even barely thriving) record industry. The nature of the back-catalogue -- so many great performances of core repertoire -- has pushed performers to explore neglected work or to present repertory in unexpected juxtapositions. I think we all relish the results. By contrast, the exigencies of live performance tend to relate to trying to fill a hall with busy professional-class people at dinnertime. Creativity is possible, sure, but there's likely to be a preponderance of programmes that offer, say, Finlandia, Mendelssohn violin concerto, Dvorak 8. Even if you live in a cultural centre, there are fascinating pieces that you can wait a decade or more to hear live. (Things are even worse for opera fans: whole categories of the repertoire are essentially mothballed, with even concert performances a rarity.) But a decently distributed recording can create a viable -- albeit geographically dispersed -- listenership for a neglected work.

4) People love recordings; they love listening to a performance over and over that's exactly the same every time. They love playing it to their friends or discovering that their friends like the same recording. There are so many recordings I will always want to listen to, and I don't think I'm unusual: others, who have no interest in the music I listen to, feel the same about the music they listen to. Of course, recording is little more than century old, so this love is learned, and it can presumably be unlearned. But I question how quickly it could be unlearned, and note that even genres based on a reverence for live performance (bebop, say) have tended to preserve these performances, creating revered recordings, moments of immortality.

Strange times. Remember when every instrument case in the UK seemed to have one of those "Keep Music Live" stickers on? I say, Keep Music Recorded!

Leo Carey
Pliable said…
What an informed response.

This blog struggles to do its readers justice.
Unknown said…
Why lots of John Cage and any of Conlon Nancarrow if both were born 100 years ago?
Wurmbrand said…
A couple of further thoughts.

1.I would imagine that even if one lives in a large city, my chances of hearing the works of Edmund Rubbra live are very small, and yet he's one of the most important composers for me.

2.I'm not disagreeing with anyone about live performances, but one of the ways that music might matter to someone is as a very private experience for which headphones may actually be better suited. It's some years since I wrote a certain novella, but as I recall I felt that it owed something to music of Sibelius... probably in no obvious way... something that I likely wouldn't have become attuned to if I hadn't heard the music many times by myself.
You better watch out, that dying dinosaur may turn around and bite you.

The classical music recording business is far from being on the critical list. In fact, most of the better labels have never been so active. Mind you, if you are talking about the have-been majors, they lost track of what they were doing many years ago, and shot themselves in the foot by banking all their efforts on Andrea Bocelli or the Medieval Baebes.

I may be slightly biased here because I run my own website of classical music recording reviews, but I always have a treasure trove of new CDs to work on.

With streaming music, digital downloads, and live webcasts of operas and recitals, the industry is again hurting itself and doing a disservice to its followers by making everything too easy to access and turning it into a disposable commodity. They are stripping away the value of classical music. The anticipation of locating a great recording you've been looking for as vanished with the over-abundance.

And another thing. I've never seen the point of a live concert review.
The people attending that concert know if it was good or not, and the news is too late for those who were not there, because that performance has come and gone. A recording review on the other hand, serves a useful purpose. Another blogger used a Robert Fripp quote (the recording is "the love letter", the live event is "the hot date"). Fine, but the hot date lasts only a few hours and eventually fades from memory, while the love letter can be re-visited over and over again and in the process reinforces its message.

Jean-Yves Duperron

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