How streaming failed to create a classical music long tail
The current Munich production of Die tote Stadt is quite rightly drawing attention to the prodigious musical talent of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. But recent self-serving narratives suggesting that the 'discovery' of Korngold is a recent phenomena need to be put into perspective. Illustrating this article are three LPs released on the prestigious RCA Red Seal label which were added to my library in the early 1970s. Many of us were introduced to Korngold by Rudolf Kempe's 1972 world premiere recording with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra of the composer's Symphony in F sharp. The orchestra had performed the symphony once before in 1955 and Kempe was impressed when he came across the score in the orchestra's library. When Kempe recorded the symphony he was major figure in the classical world: he was artistic director of the Beecham's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, worked extensively with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and went on to become chief conductor of the BBC Symphony. For me Kempe's interpretation is the best on disc; it was transferred to CD in 2010 but seems now to be deleted.
In the era of the long playing record Korngold's music had other high profile advocates. In his day Jascha Heifetz's media profile equated to that of Sheku Kanneh-Mason in 2019. Heifetz made what is still considered to be the definitive recording of the Violin Concerto in 1953 with the Los Angles Philharmonic conducted by Alfred Wallenstein. While in the same year that Kempe recorded the Symphony in F sharp, Charles Gerhardt conducted a session orchestra comprising free-lancing musicians from the top London orchestras to record 'The Sea Hawk: The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold'. This remains one of the most endearing discs of the composer's music; again the CD transfer is deleted, and second-hand copies command a significant premium.
In the early days of the digital economy we were promised that new technologies would make available overlooked content in a digitally-enabled 'long tail'. But this has never happened: as is instanced by the non-availability of two important pioneering Korngold recordings. Despite vigorous puffery, streaming has not created a viable 'long tail' offering unlimited choice. Given the appalling state of classical meta data, making great recordings of the past available on streaming services is like throwing all the world's great painting into a huge heap and telling people to dig through the mound to find the one they like.
The Long Tail was the brainchild of Chris Anderson, published first in Wired magazine and then in 2006 as a best-selling book sub-titled 'How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand'. His Long Tail proposition was persuasively countered in 2008 by Anita Elberse in the Harvard Business Review. This counter-proposed the blockbuster approach, whereby investment is concentrated in a few blockbuster hits. The blockbuster strategy had ruled in content production in the past, and continues to rule despite predictions of a Long Tail nirvana.
Since Anita Elberse's article was published in 2008 social media has emerged as a powerful force in generating consumer demand. This means the classical music industry has seen the rise of 'clickbuster' releases, which has totally changed the dynamics of concert and recording programming. Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla's recent recording of Weinberg Symphonies provides a useful example of the clickbuster. Her interpretations are undoubtedly of the highest calibre; but the contribution of the Universal Classics and CBSO marketing team and their embedded supporters via social networks cannot be ignored. The widespread acclaim for the DG release overlooked Chandos' pioneering recordings of Weinberg's symphonies, and also overlooked that a Discogs search for 'Mieczysław Weinberg symphony' returns 86 results. In very simple terms Chandos' laudable recordings and the rest of the back-catalogue Long Tail lacked the essential clickbuster quotient of Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla's disc. (And let's be perfectly honest, having a female conductor doesn't do the clickbuster quotient any harm at all.)
But it is a mistake to think that clickbait, as perfected by Norman Lebrecht, and clickbuster are one and the same thing. Clickbait is unsubtle and all too often crass. Clickbusters are far more nuanced, and as Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla's Weinberg Symphonies show, need not compromise integrity. Social media and streaming are here to stay, but the name of the game is changing. Crude clickbait measures of 'friends', 'followers' and 'likes' are very 2019. Korngold and Weinberg's music has been known for decades. But by a complex process of the transfer of ideas and behaviours, their music is now reaching a wider audience. Meme theory* explores this little-understood process of the transfer of ideas, and it should be an essential study in 2020 for anyone wanting to succeed in classical music.
* In this article 'meme' is used in its original context as formulated by Richard Dawkins, and not in its later manifestation of internet meme. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).