Are classical recordings disappearing?

Norman Lebrecht recently predicted that the year 2004 would be the last for the classical recording industry. To be sure, the number of new releases is declining and major orchestras are losing their recording contracts, read this New York Times story.

David Hurwitz offers some good points in response. Naxos of course is thriving. Classical music is cheaper than ever before and many of the recordings are excellent. Try my favorite version of the Scriabin piano sonatas, by Bernd Glemser.

Furthermore classical indepedent labels continue to bring innovative new releases to the market:

Over the past decade, and thanks to labels like Naxos, BIS, Hyperion, Ondine, CPO, Harmonia Mundi, Chandos and others, music lovers have learned that the quality of music making today is generally so high that excellence may be found well beyond the cloistered catalogs of the major labels. Their classical divisions are dying because they are no longer necessary: the myth of their uniqueness and monopoly on great performances has been exploded forever. That’s the reality of the classical music recording industry at present. It’s also reason for optimism, not despair, because while the majors may or may not survive depending on their adaptability, excellent music making will continue to thrive and reach the public via the classical recording industry, whatever its actual form.

I’ve found the last year to be wonderful for new releases of Elliott Carter, Helmut Lachenmann, Pierre Boulez, and John Cage. Minority tastes, to be sure, but the slow sellers are usually the first to go if the sector is truly dying.

Here are some off the cuff predictions for the future of the music industry:

1. The lines between classical and other genres, most of all world music, will blur increasingly.

2. The next generation of classical composers will come from Asia, where classical music remains a living art.

3. World music will continue to grow in importance. These artists learned how to live without copyright protection long ago.

4. Given the commercial prominence of the DVD, we can expect soundtrack music to grow in importance and quality.

5. Classical CDs will be custom-made to order, rather than “released,” see the NYT article for more detail.

In sum: The new musical world won’t look much like the old, but I have yet to see convincing reasons for pessimism. I don’t buy so many classical CDs any more, in part because I already have a dozen or more copies of each Beethoven piano sonata, and three copies of Messiaen’s major works for organ. Let’s not confuse “good for the suits” with “good for the consumer.”


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