The advent of compact discs in the early 1980s sent classical music lovers hustling to upgrade their vinyl collections of Bach, Brahms and Beethoven.
Since then, no technological innovations have come along to prod them into trading in their CDs for the next great high-tech marvel. That's the bad news for classical music labels.
“I bought my set of Beethoven symphonies in the mid '80s, and I have very little inclination to replace them,” says Philip Koslow, executive director of the Las Vegas Philharmonic. “The fidelity is so good and the CD has a longer life, so wear and tear is not that evident. It doesn't help the [record] industry.”
On the other hand, classical labels haven't suffered as much from piracy as the pop music industry because of their audience's age and the time it takes to download an opera or symphony.
Despite an occasional blockbuster hit such as “The Three Tenors,” classical music represents only about 3 percent of music sales. The standard classical repertory has all been recorded, and recorded again. And many shoppers seeking a new Schubert or Tchaikovsky disc are likely to pass over a more recent recording, which may cost $18, in favor of a $10 reissue from old masters like Herbert von Karajan or Leonard Bernstein.
The downward pressure on pricing has been intensified by Naxos, a label that has issued first-rate recordings by non-union groups such as the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, listing for $7.98. “Clearly, the influence of the ever-expanding Naxos catalog has been profound, and all the major companies have been replacing older, premium-priced recordings with less-expensive reissues,” noted Ivan March, editor of the Penguin Guide to classical recordings.
The net effect has been shrinking classical music sections in stores and a lack of recording contracts for most major orchestras. Some, such as the New York Philharmonic and St. Louis Symphony, have tried issuing discs under their own labels, but without notable success. Solo performers, particularly vocalists, are still making new records, but the labels have all shrunk their annual offerings. “There's just no logic anymore to make another Brahms 2nd when there are already 199 versions in the catalog,” says Robert Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records.
“This is a nightmarish time to be in the business of making new classical recordings,” concluded Tim Page, chief music critic for The Washington Post.
But there is still interest in orchestral music. Live performance has always been the central focus for American orchestras, and annual attendance for professional and volunteer groups has climbed back near its pre-Sept. 11, 2001, peak of 32 million concertgoers, according to Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League.
Still, orchestras are struggling economically, given their largely fixed payroll and rent expenses and cutbacks from government and corporate donors. Major orchestras in Chicago and Cleveland have run million-dollar deficits, while smaller ones in Honolulu, Louisville and Charlotte have suffered labor disputes. Symphonies in San Antonio and Savannah suspended some performances this year.
A few orchestras have shut down operations altogether. The bankruptcies have been reported in hundreds of newspapers — making the problem seem more widespread than it actually is. They amount to just eight failures out of 350 professional orchestras nationwide. Eight orchestras also went out of business during the recession of the 1990s. In all eight of those cities, comparable groups have re-emerged from the ashes.
For example, the Las Vegas Philharmonic was founded four years ago following the failure of the Nevada Symphony, and has nearly filled an 1,800-seat hall for each of its concerts. The secret of its success? It plays at least one familiar warhorse on every program. People may not need a new recording of Beethoven's Fifth, but that's the sort of piece they want to hear in concert, it seems.
“We always program very standard, popular repertory pieces,” Koslow says. “We have built trust through that.”
What they're really building, Page argues, is stagnancy. Ignoring contemporary composers — or even lesser known masters such as Enescu or Messiaen — is going to marginalize orchestras, Page warns. “Orchestras are going to be prestigious and wonderful but kind of museum-like things,” he says. “They become a point of pilgrimage rather than a city's main source of music.”
But McAuliffe and others say orchestras are starting to do a better job of serving their communities by reaching out to audiences who would never visit the stuffy, old concert hall downtown by sending out groups of musicians to non-traditional venues.
“Churches, taverns, clubs — they're bringing music to a generation that would not always know they're welcome in the concert hall,” says Frances Richards of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).