Why CDs make sound sense for classical music post-COVID
Life under COVID is a bitch for classical musicians and for everyone else. But, as the Buddha told us, life's a bitch then you reincarnate. He also told us that your reincarnation depends on past deeds - karma. This period of enforced inactivity offers a valuable opportunity for the classical industry to reflect on its post-COVID reincarnation; but that opportunity is being spectacularly missed. Even allowing for the artform's passionate love affair with self-promotion, classical music's lockdown obsession with Zoom selfies coupled with a total lack of introspection is puzzling and disappointing. So this post is an attempt to in some small way to redress that imbalance.
When Benjamin Britten accepted the first Aspen Award in 1964 he set out his vision of the holy triangle of composer, performer and listener. The 1960s through to the advent of the digital age was the age of dominant musicians such as Karajan, Klemperer, Rostropovich, Menuhin, and Britten himself. Britten's holy triangle is portrayed in the sketch below: the triangle is relatively flat, with the musician at the apex determining the direction of the artform.
In 1982 the launch of the CD ushered in the digital age; but the real tipping point was the launch of Napster in 1999, initially as a file-sharing application. Ten years later Spotify and other legal streaming services were introduced, fundamentally and fatally disrupting the long-standing holy triangle. Streaming platforms were part of a diverse group of technology developments exerting a major influence on the direction of classical and non-classical music. In parallel with the rise of digital distribution platforms came the remorseless upwards march of social media social media, which has become a major tool in classical music promotion.
These new technology shape-changers can all be categorised as intermediaries, and through personalisation and selective filtering they have made the classical audience king in the last decade. This digital transformation of Britten's holy triangle is shown in the sketch below. Now we have a parallelogram, with the audience and intermediaries calling the shots, with the musician and composer relegated to bottom feeders, both in terms of influence and financial reward.
But what will the post-COVID shape of classical music be? Technology is clearly a necessary tool for managing the new reality. But it is also a dangerous tool, and those dangers are being ignored. Technology platforms such as Google and Facebook must be salivating as governments rush to harvest personal data to control the spread of COVID - the very personal data that Facebook were called out over in the Cambridge Analytica scandal just two years ago. And Big Data must also be salivating as the classical music industry rushes to move from the concert hall to YouTube - owned by Google of course - Facebook, and other data harvesting technology platforms. Which means that if classical music continues on its present post-COVID course Britten's holy triangle will look like the sketch below. Now technology giants control the direction of the artform and musicians and composers are mere passengers.
It is conveniently forgotten that Facebook, YouTube et al are insidious intermediaries. Their mission is not to provide a neutral distribution platform. It is to influence taste and content to maximise user traffic, thereby maximising their obscene profits through data harvesting and advertising revenues, and by covertly manipulating their audiences using algorithms. If Simon Rattle thinks the Barbican and Festival Hall are unsatisfactory venues for his London Symphony Orchestra, just wait until YouTube and Facebook are the only two platforms in town.
Of course classical music must stay alive while we are socially distanced. But we must avoid Zoom performances with their all too apparent compromises crossing the dividing line between novelty and the new normal. Surely a Zoom performance of Mahler's Second Symphony versus Bruno Walter's recording seen above is no contest? Research shows reading has increased in lockdown, and the publishing industry has done a stalwart job in capitalising on this opportunity with physical book sales actually increasing. Books are high quality creative records, just like CDs. But with the exception of a laudable attempt by Tasmin Little there has been no move to rejuvenate CD sales. Despite the obvious and very important fact CDs provide a better deal for the very classical musicians who are stampeding onto YouTube to protect their future income. Tasmin reports she received £12.34 from Spotify for more than 5 million streams. Would any of the pro-streaming zealots among the classical great and good care to defend that level of remuneration?
Of course suggesting CDs make sound sense for post-COVID classical music is just plain stupid. In fact just as stupid as suggesting six months ago we should all be wearing face masks, or as idiotic as predicting a resurgence in vinyl sales. And yes, record companies such as Universal Music - owned by French media conglomerate Vivendi - and Warner are simply lesser media evils. But they do lack the dystopian ambitions of the social media giants.
Classical music is an intimate experience which is devalued by any intermediation. Post-COVID, live classical music in concert halls without any intervening technology must remain the ultimate goal. But we must accept intervening technology during the long and doubtless painful recovery period. However surrendering for the long-term to intermediaries which offer no tangible income stream and only want free mass market content that maximises their own revenues is suicidal. YouTube, Facebook and other technology platforms may offer a short term if perilous life raft while COVID runs its course. But that life raft must be discarded just as soon as we return to calmer waters if classical music wants to retain its integrity and, most importantly, its independence.
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