Whatever happened to classical music’s long tail?

If you read On An Overgrown Path you will be affected by news in the French press that Harmonia Mundi are to close half of their thirty stores in France. Their boutiques specialise in classical, world and jazz CDs, and have provided many of the serendipitous finds that have given this blog its distinctive personality over the years. My header photo shows the Harmonia Mundi store in Nantes, where my many discoveries have included Abed Azrié’s The Gospel of John that featured in Klinghoffer’s Syrian Connection and also Ali Reza Ghorbani's settings of Rumi, while only yesterday I featured a CD by lutenist José Miguel Moreno, a musician whose recordings I first discovered in the Harmonia Mundi boutique in Avignon many years ago. Last year I started a post by saying “Harmonia Mundi's retail stores in France are veritable Aladdin's Caves for hardcore CD collectors” and I went on to enthuse about Joel Frederiksen’s Requiem for a Pink Moon. I discovered that new release in Harmonia Mundi’s Perpignan store and have never seen it displayed or mentioned anywhere else; it is music that has delighted me and I know has also delighted many readers, and these store closures will mean fewer such diverse delights in the future.

Many will defend the rise of internet retailers and the demise of bricks and mortar record stores as inevitable progress. But the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam taught that the tyranny of an idea amounts to a declaration of war against freedom of thought, and, in the same way, the tyranny of internet retailing amounts to a declaration of war against freedom of choice. Erasmus also advocated universal access to culture and education, and the arrival of cosmetically “independent” but record company owned and controlled websites such as Sinifini - which is “fully iTunes and Amazon-integrated” - is fast eroding that precious universal access. Progress it may be, but the closure of fifteen Harmonia Mundi boutiques means part of On An Overgrown Path has died.

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Pliable said…
Norman Perryman comments via Facebook - 'Will the younger generation notice? Your sad comment "part of On An Overgrown Path has died" (with the decline of Harmonia Mundi), strikes home with the older generation that for years, discovered so many unusual recordings under this label. We're getting old, Bob. Times they are a-changin''
Philip Amos said…
It may be progress -- advancement toward a goal -- for the internet retailers, all of whom are monopolistic by their very nature, but it is manifestly not progress -- steady advance toward a better or higher state -- for anyone with a serious interest in the exploration of music. Indeed, it is regressive, not just for CD or book collectors, but for society as a whole. The lack of freedom of choice takes us back to the days of the Lord Chamberlain, it smacks of the imprimatur, it has echoes of the banning of music and books in Nazi Germany, in Stalinist Russia, in China today. No, there is no exaggeration here, for lack of intellectual freedom of choice means the curtailing of freedom of thought, and this is per se an evil, so whence comes the impulse or dynamic toward this makes no difference.
Dave MacD said…
Maybe I'm not reading something right. If so, correct me. However, it seems that the internet features an abundance of choice that could never be matched in a brick-and-mortar retailer. Is the choice you're talking about losing simply the choice between brick-and-mortar and digital?
Pliable said…
Dave, in theory the internet can offer an abundance, but in reality access to that abundance is being constrained by the agendas of those controlling internet retailing, with the connivance of the record companies.

I think it is fair to say I would not have discovered and shared any of the recordings mentioned in this post if I had been forced to rely on the internet. Yes, they are on databases, but how do you know they are there?

There is a whole mess of interactions here. Internet retailers promote best sellers - so the big become bigger and the small become smaller. The Sinfini website is an insidious example of advertorial, which, again, promotes best sellers at the expense of the long tail. Any articles and reviews by critics are of little value as virtually every music journalist has monetised links with at least one media owner.

There is also the overlooked but vitally important problem of the poor quality of classical metadata that makes online searching so difficult - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2013/01/is-classical-music-asking-right.html

So yes, there is an abundance. But in reality there is limited choice because the gateway to that abundance is in the wrong hands. Why is why I ask the question Whatever happened to classical music's long tail?
Jordan said…
I am wary of linking the closing of these stores too tightly to the rise of Internet retailers. The article itself cites a big drop in record sales over the last 11 years (not clear if the actual number provided is for the industry as a whole, or just HM). Presumably Internet retailers are experiencing the same thing.

I agree that there is something magical about boutique classical record shops and the serendipitous discoveries that may lay within, and that the pop orientation of much of the online world makes it hard to search for classical records. That said, the two boutique classical record shops in my city of 6M people each have giant posters of Andrea Bocelli and Lang Lang in the windows, and charge a ~40% premium over online dealers. The staff are knowledgeable, but I learn more by reading sites such as this anyway. One begins to wonder where the "value add" is.
Pliable said…
Jody Walker comments via Facebook - Another irreplaceable aspect of brick-and-mortars stores: I can't imagine how many of my favorite records I'd be without if a record store clerk hadn't said, "If you like X and Y, give Z a chance." Amazon's little recommendation bar at checkout doesn't quite carry the same weight as an enthusiastic, knowledgable record store worker.
Pliable said…
Simon Scott comments via email:

I don’t get to France nearly as often since relocating from London to the English/Welsh Border five and a half years ago. However, when I was visiting France, I always made a beeline for the nearest HM Boutique, and was almost always guaranteed to come away with interesting discs and, more often than not, items that I had not registered from reading the music press, web etc. I have fond memories of browsing in Lyon and Bourg en Bresse, in particular. So, it is indeed sad news.

I must be honest, and admit that I DO purchase on line, but also support local retailers, such as The Outback in Hereford, and specialists in Abergavenny, Cardiff and Malvern – you certainly have to make an effort living here! There is still nothing quite like browsing in a real shop, that shopping online cannot match.
Anonymous said…
The main problem of record stores is the lack of preview. In the age of Spotify and other streaming services, paying 20€ for a CD simply based on the cover or the recommendation of the clerk doesn't make much sense to me.
Pliable said…
'The main problem of record stores is the lack of preview' - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2013/01/do-try-this-cage-inspired-listening.html
Pliable said…
Simon Scott comments via email:

In response to “lack of preview”. After a lovely 10 mile walk along the Brecon & Monmouth Canal, I popped into Abergavenny Music in case the new Charles Lloyd CD was in stock. Sadly not. But I did pick up the new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album, on vinyl, at a very reasonable price. No need to “preview”, no “recommendation of the clerk” as I had read at least 4 very positive reviews before making the purchase! How did “we” preview before purchasing back in the day!?
Mike said…
Although I've lived in France for 3 years, I don't get to HM stores very often as the southwest (Bordeaux/Toulouse and south) has none handy. That said not much French-produced music is advertised or reported on outside of France. There are entire labels of excellent music here that barely make a blip elsewhere.

The Pink Moon album was an exception in that it was well-covered in US music press, and ironically when I did want to preview it in a HM store, they hadn't received any copies!

In respect of previews I still miss having a good store where I can get a stack of CDs and retire to a corner with a CD and headphones. Spotify rarely cuts it for most classical releases because of the Geo-IP issue, and online stores that have 30 second snippets often just have an unremarkable lead-in to a track which omits any distinctive aural component.
Mike said…
I also meant to add that French publishers show little interest at distributing their content around the world. I've exchanged emails with some distributors for music and DVDs who pour out their hearts in long epistles about the frustrations of sourcing content or rights to fulfil international orders.

I have a long list of French movies from the last 30 years which are not available outside France. I often hear that lack of subtitles is the reason, but these are all films I've seen on TV or at film festivals with subtitles. Try for example to get a copy of Borsalino (not its sequel) on DVD. The copies sometimes listed on Amazon as having subtitled are incorrectly labelled as they're French only.

When I was in Australia I tried ordering a number of French CDs but my CD store contacts couldn't find anyone to order from. Even London retailers have expressed exasperation at getting stock.

I think the French are kind of happy with having only a domestic market. It's much like Japan in that respect.

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