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CD Industry [or] Bust?

There's a fun game that journalists play about the recording industry. Someone serves, launching the topic The Classical Recording Industry is Dead over the net. Then comes the return: a whole chorus of voices saying No! Not dead! Not even dying! Because just look at how many CDs are being made right now! More than ever!

The latest defense comes from the eminent (and wonderful) Henry Fogel, who writes in his latest blog post that the classical recording industry "most certainly is not dead. It is changed."

This comes from someone who once told me, on the record, that when he took over the Chicago Symphony in 1985, the average Solti recording "would sell between 60 and 100 thousand copies within three years after it was issued." If one only sold 25,000 copies, he said, "it was an absolute failure." Today, sales of a mere 10,000 copies represent a big success for a classical album.

Henry, of course, isn't denying this in his post. All he's saying is that we have today choices that we couldn't even begin to dream of in the 1980s, in terms of the wealth of music that's available to us. I can certainly attest to this, given the degree to which CDs have taken over my living space (to say nothing of my desk at the office). And this is a good thing. More musicians are getting more music out to more people.
(read more after the jump)

But I don't see that "more recordings" equals "revitalization of an industry." Because I always thought that an industry is a field that makes money. And very few of these recordings do. The companies that put them out are, increasingly, non-profit organizations. As Henry also notes, "The purpose of recording is no longer to make gobs of money, but to document their art. That strikes me as a very healthy development."

I'm all for documenting art; I believe in art for art's sake. And I have tremendous respect and admiration for Henry. But to say that this represents a new business model seems to me a little bit like saying the newspaper industry is not in trouble because, just look, more people are following the news, in print and online, than ever before.

And I find it noteworthy, and unfortunate, that observations about the difficulties facing various aspects of the classical music industry are so often taken as somehow representing an attack on classical music itself. The music is definitely going to prevail. The interesting question is how.

By Anne Midgette  |  August 17, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Thanks for revisiting this topic. Fortunately, I haven't yet become tired of it. We at Naxos have certainly heard the choruses of "the CD is dead", and "who would download classical music?" over and over. Our current success - very robust in this economy - is testament to those statements being wrong. As a composer, I'm most certainly for art for art's sake, but I agree that an industry that doesn't make money is not an industry at all.

The business has changed radically since the 80's, at around the time I started in it. CD sales used to account for 100% of a record company's revenue. If we relied solely on CD sales, we'd be in a different state altogether. But revenue from downloads, streaming through the Naxos Music Library, licensing, direct-to-consumer sales, as well as our efforts to more effectively market and sell to public and school libraries, provide us the revenue to release as many recordings as we do. Without these income streams, we could not. You're correct that there's more choice for recorded repertoire than ever, and it's easy to be fooled that this access to so much classical music equals a sort of Rennaissance. I still have a bit of nostalgia for the old days, when it seemed easier to sell things and tens of thousands of units in sales meant a moderate success. But I also remember thinking that another great American or European orchestra recording yet another Pathetique or Eroica, at the expense of works that much more deserved a recorded outing. Those days are behind us now and there are far more new discoveries today. Not surprising, those new discoveries sell better too.

I'm certain there are few companies making a lot of money in the record business, but for those that utilize all of the available technological tools to spread the word of great music and more effectively locate an audience for this music, the future looks a little bit scary, but pretty bright as well.

Posted by: shickey1 | August 17, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

I think what interests music lovers is less the state of an industry as the availability of CDs or as music in general.

I will add somethin that may not have to do with the topic, but it does have to do with Henry Fogel. Boy, I miss him at the CSO. Yes, he could be unpleasant, but never an a... What I miss mostly about him is his interest in the history of the CSO; it was him who initiated the "From the Archives" CD series of the orchestra. This, unfortunately, has been dropped by the new management. Besides few people know more about Furtwängler than Henry.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | August 17, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Henry Fogel sent me this comment to be posted:

It is great to be having a discussion on an issue like this with Anne, whose work I have always admired. And she makes some valid points in her comments. But while I agree that in the normal world a "business" that
doesn't make a profit is not a business, I continue to contend that for the world of classical music that may not be a central issue. After all,those organizations that present and produce classical music are mostly not-for-profit organizations in the U.S., and exist with large government subsidies in Europe. I'm not sure that the fact that some of our recordings (and/or downloads) are being produced by non-profit
companies is a bad thing at all -- it is just different. And, of course, Naxos continues to be a healthy for-profit corporation, demonstrating that both models can exist side-by-side. For me, the value of
recordings of classical music has not been that companies have made money from them; that has been the driver of the recordings, and that's fine. But if a different model works, that too is fine. The value of recordings is to preserve and disseminate the art form in its current state, and I continue to believe that the huge range of recordings available now, of both standard repertoire and unusual works, is a very
good thing. Just recently I listened through the five-CD set on the Doremi label of the old Russian recordings of the Gilels-Kogan-Rostropovich piano trio. These are truly extraordinary chamber music performances -- and they have been collectors' items for years, not easy to find. Their availability now (actually on two labels, as DG has also issued them) is to me an indication of a healthy, if
different, recording world.
--Henry Fogel

Posted by: MidgetteA | August 17, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

I have not bought a CD is a very long time. But, I do buy lots of .mp3's from Amazon.

My last purchase was a Tchaikovsky compilation built around the seven symphonies, with some orchestral suite and concerti, Bernard Haitink, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Face it, .mp3's in high kbits is where the industry will be for the foreseeable future. There had been a paradigm shift. It's the same in Jazz as in Classical Music.

Posted by: mitrich | August 17, 2009 6:25 PM | Report abuse

When I was a youngster and bought my first LP, of Horowitz playing beethoven Sonatas, I knew then what I wanted to do with my life. I was 7 years old. I knew then that it wasn't about making a heap of money--it was creating a legacy of documented recordings for future generations. If I were a pop artist, another story. As a classical musician, I have been enjoying several releases including Complete Mozart Sonatas (E1), Vivaldi solo transcriptions (Naxos), world premieres of Zwilich's works for piano and orchestra (2010) and in 2011, recording Lowell Liebermann's Third Concerto with Keith Emerson's Concerto. When major labels ruled the scene, this kind of repertoire might not have made it to the charts. With independent labels producing the vast collections of recordings, and downloads taking over the industry, our work as performing and recording artists is able to make it to many listeners that might not have been able to do so twenty or thirty years ago. In 100 years from now, the legacy will be overwhelming--after all, isn't that was recordings are all about? True, if we could all make a good deal of money in the process, it would be all the better, but I am a firm believer that the recordings we create help provide visibility as artists, which can increase our number of performing engagements.

Posted by: JBiegel | August 17, 2009 9:24 PM | Report abuse

As a locally notorious music critic (in Charleston, SC) and a prolific classical CD reviewer for American Record Guide, I consider the rumors of the classical CD's imminent demise to be greatly exaggerated. Major brick-and-mortar CD stores are going extinct -- and FAST (I used to run the classical department in one that's since folded). But anything's possible on the internet.

You can find just about any CD you want on many big-vendor sites like Amazon ... you can even buy legal copies of any major label's out-of-print CDs on Even iTunes has a healthy classical catalog. Artists' and composers' websites abound, and there are endless non-profit distributors.

Despite sporadic downloading, I've found that there's no substitute for having the actual product -- and not just the shiny piece of plastic. Compulsive classical geeks like me want not only the music, but the history and analysis that are usually found in the liner notes. Thorough understanding and appreciation of the music is only possible when you know how, when, why, for what purpose, and under what circumstances it was written. Knowing something about the composer's life and times helps, too. No matter what work I'm called upon to review, chances are I have a CD of it in my own massive collection. And such info is especially crucial when I'm assigned a new composer or a premiere recording. My CD collection is my personal research library, and I could not do my job without it.

We who live and breathe and promote great music will never let the CD die.

Posted by: scorpsinger | August 17, 2009 11:55 PM | Report abuse

Your argument is based on a definition of “industry” as something which makes money. That isn’t a dictionary definition, or even a practical one. An industry is a body which produces something, and why you are so concerned with its business model is beyond me. There are many examples of robust industries which produce no profit (surely you at the Washington Post have heard of the U.S. Government?). You assert that most recording companies are now essentially non-profit organizations; even if that were the case, isn’t that a valid business model? Even non-profit organizations must find money to operate; I agree with Mr. Fogel: the business model is certainly changing.

What we have is a climate in which many musical groups less storied than the Chicago Symphony have found ways to make recordings. The result - as you point out - is that the CSO can no longer count on selling 100,000 units of its every release, and that concerns you. But the smaller outfits which have found a way to bring their recordings to market benefit from the exposure, and from the ability to reach a larger audience (so it is worth it to them to adopt a non-profit business model).

Is art for art’s sake really OK with you?

Posted by: reelyreel | August 18, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for your thoughts Anne! I love your column.


Posted by: cjclassicdj | August 18, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I work for a for-profit composer owned label. After the true end of the big recording companies, a company like mine, which serves an individual composer's catalog, would not have been possible in any viable economic sense. Since I joined the company 42 months ago, we have released over forty titles.
Our economic model continues to work and the result is that forty something albums would never have seen the light of day under the old big record label system (they wanted to release one per year.)
That way of life is thankfully over, and there are many who tasted success under it that wish it could have continued.
And for each artist signed to a recording contract, a door was closed to another artist.
For our part, we sell between 2 and 25,000 copies per title, and find it sufficient to continue to finance new records. It makes me wonder how it was possible for the large companies to fail when they were selling 100,000 copies of hundreds of titles? We record symphonies, operas, string quartets, piano music by thinking creatively with each project that comes our way. I firmly believe that our audience is well served, the composer is well served, and that we are fairly compensated for our work. Big company or small, it only becomes a problem when values are out of whack.

Posted by: mephistophele23 | August 18, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

I don't "collect" compact discs. I do have some that I have carefully gathered over the past 20 years and which I listen to and read the notes and sung texts which come with them. I also make loans to screened family, friends, and colleagues from this collection. CDs that I don't need for essential reference and family loaning, I give to public or music conservatory libraries.

The only CD that I have purchased in the past six months is the London Symphony Orchestra "Live" performance, under Sir Colin Davis, of James MacMillan's 90 minute "Saint John Passion," recorded in April, I believe, 2008. I paid $12 for the 2 discs and the small English and Latin texts (and notes) that came with it. (James MacMillan and Thomas Ades conducted their own works - violin concertos - "live" last season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore Hall, Maryland. The Classical WETA blogger was not in attendence.)

I would not have wanted to stream this purchase (as I streamed Cosi fan Tutti from Salzburg last month, without subtitles) or secure it on MP3 or similar technology. As it is, it is highly portable and loanable -- two qualities of CDs that I would miss if they disappear later in this century. (If CDs disappear, I highly suspect classical music education will suffer even further than it has suffered to date.)

I purchased this year's CD when I missed - due to logistics - a local choral concert which featured a choral world premiere and the Verdi Requiem. I would have been perfectly happy to have paid the requested $24 to $32 for that choral concert, but the purchase of the MacMillan "Passion" is a substitute with which I am fairly satisfied. In other words, CD, MP3, et al. "collectors" (whether the CDs are paid for or obtained "for free" on the backs of creative artists) might consider waking up, smelling, and supporting the vibrant musical culture all around them.

Posted by: snaketime | August 18, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Re: prior comment stating a desire for liner notes/documentation that only CD's provide. Why wasn't the MP3/download technology designed to allow such additional text/graphic material, accessible from iPod or similar devices? Can that technology be modified to allow such features?

Posted by: kashe | August 18, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Let's ask the question another way. How does the industry survive? 1) Live recordings. No recording time, where an orchestra might have to play a section of music over and over to get it right. Instead, maybe 3 recordings over the nights the piece was performed and hope one of them goes well enough. 2) Little studio production to remove hisses or mistakes, cost is too much. 3) B-list performers. (There are currently 178 CDs available on arkivmusic for Jeno Jando... 164 for Martha Argerich. Does that make sense?) Put it all together and what does this mean? It means possibly a "substandard" documentation of the art. It's a trade-off... and a complaint many people have of newspapers, e.g., no pull-out Book World section in the Sunday Post. I love the newspaper analogy.

Posted by: prokaryote | August 18, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

An aside, if I may...

If the user "JBiegel" above is indeed pianist Jeffrey Biegel, then I would like to offer a very public "Thank You" and BRAVO for your Naxos recording (with Leonard Slatkin) of the Leroy Anderson piano concerto! Well done, sir.

Posted by: SportzNut21 | August 18, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Well, actually, yes it is. How kind of you. Case in point--and here's the real story, and how it relates to the cd 'business': having been a strong advocate of the music of Leroy Anderson, after spreading the Piano Concerto from here to Turkey in the 1990s, when news came that Naxos wanted to have the music of Anderson in their catalogue to celebrate the Anderson centennial, I was asked by the family if I would be interested to record it. The fee was low, they paid expenses. This was not a situation where I thought about how much money and royalties I would receive. Having played Liszt and Balakirev for Maestro Slatkin in the late 1980s, it took 20 years until I would work with Leonard--and, not a big Romantic concerto. However, the Anderson Concerto is a fully satisfying work, and it was indeed our first professional gig together! The cd is now available, and, although monies don't our in as a result, it provided a new recording of the work, and a delightful relationship with Maestro Slatkin--the first of future collaborations in the making. Yes, it is art for art's sake much of the time, and it's about making music, sharing music and keeping the global flow of music making. Recordings are indeed expensive to make, so when such opportunities come about, at least for me, it is a special opportunity to take on.

Posted by: JBiegel | August 18, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

scorpsinger, I really agree with your point about the liner notes that come with most CDs but are often unavailable for mp3 downloads or streams. Yes, there is a wealth of information about many different pieces of music on the internet, but not necessarily about a specific recording.

Along the same lines, I think that downloading mp3s or streaming music compromises too much of the sound quality that makes classical music so beautiful. There are some sources that provide high enough bitrates so that quality isn't affected, but the most popular suppliers do not offer CD-quality recordings. It is true that people nowadays care more about quantity than quality of music, and the most popular equipment (most earbuds included with mp3 players, especially w/ ipods) are cheap but leave a lot to be desired in terms of sound. The decrease in sound quality affects classical music much more than popular music. If the CD industry dies and high quality downloads don't become the norm, the drop in available quality will be devastating. Going to a live concert is often better sonically than CDs, but not having beautiful recordings would be a travesty. Classical music offers a huge spectrum of different tone colors for the listener's ears and it would be a shame to homogenize the different sounds that come out of all the instruments used in classical music.

Posted by: SlideBye | August 18, 2009 8:45 PM | Report abuse

@SlideBye, I can't say for sure what the bitrate of's popular music mp3s are, but (as an example) the mp3s I downloaded from Amazon of Mr. Biegel's Anderson piano concerto are all 320kbps -- and I can discern no difference between the mp3 and a comparable CD. I rip my CDs at 192kbps, and there's no discernable difference to me at that rate, either. I have heard that said about any track digitized at anything over 192kbps. (There IS a distinct difference, though, between the early 128kbps rips I downloaded, though, and the 192kbps.)

You are right, however, about the poor earbuds that come with portable music devices -- I bought a pair of off-the-rack JVC earbuds that are much better for classical music (significantly wider frequency range) than the OEM buds that came with my iPod.

Posted by: SportzNut21 | August 18, 2009 10:32 PM | Report abuse

I'm pleased to read this post, which shows a more nuanced approach than the traditional "classical music is dead".

I have strong opinions, as does every other listener, about the "big picture". Yet I'd like to focus instead on an important "little picture" issue.

The great advantage of the current situation is a great deal of interesting work which spotlights lesser-heralded composers. Also, new releases can include more early music and more obscure pieces by well-known composers. In particular,
the field of play for, say, a recorder quintet or lutenist or various chamber configurations permits an admirable variety of music to arise. The hegemony of the symphony as a dominant recorded music form seems to me to be cast down.

The problem of curation arises in all media these days, in a media-rich time.
In classical music, the failure of the critical establishment to adjust to the new release modes and the rise of kitchen-table labels and exciting small releases has been palpable.

Once upon a time, only the large corporations held the keys to the combination of production values, distribution muscle, and artist development. The former two are now available to all, and with a few exceptions it may that development of artists is no longer available to any.

My wish list has much less to do with
the crisis in music "per se", as I am not sure that crisis exists.

My wish list is all about a new, 'net-based critical establishment which
locates and spotlights this "obscure' and exciting set of new releases, and helps create the next wave of classical music consumers/consumption.

Posted by: gurdonark | August 20, 2009 12:26 AM | Report abuse

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