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The Crisis of Classical Music 12

img  Tobias

After I’ve finished a new review, I usually send a short mail to the respective distributor, the artist and the record label, just to let them know about it. This is, for one, a question of correctness, as it is only fair that if I receive a CD for free, my part of the bargain is to show all parties involved what happened with it and in which way I am presenting their music on our site. Secondly, though, it is also a means of communication, a way of getting in touch with the people behind the music and of establishing a collaborative relationship that will benefit everyone. Sadly enough, though, it is right here that the process stops. For even though I almost always receive a mail back from the musicians and regularly from the distributors as well, the labels are mostly remaining silent. This, to me, is a significant sign in a world where most instrumentalists still seem to believe it is the pinacle of their career to be signed by a record company.

Let’s start with some examples. About two months ago, I ordered a wonderful album by a Belgium vocal ensemble directly from the artist. I not only enjoyed listening to it, but also thought it to be an amazing project, which brillantly crossed the divide between the past and the present. I published the “CD feature” and sent a mail to the label, but never got anything back. Now if this had happened two years ago, I might have left it at that. But I was a bit surprised and curious – after all, it had been this very label that had been (rightly!) praised for its excusite and genuinely “modern” designs and their apparent will to do things in a different way. Surely, they must simply have forgotten to reply! So I penned two more mails, including the fact that I was doing an interview with the leader of the ensemble, in which I intended to include their name as well. Nothing happened.

The second example is of a German record label specialising in Organ music. Their catalogue is extensive considering their niche approach and they have a fascinating mix between the typical Baroque and Classical pieces and new music with a meditative touch. I felt our readers might be interested in that and wrote them a mail, offering them to do an interview, which I would use for an extensive article on them. I never heard from them.

Or how about the story of a big Dutch publisher , supposedly with an excellent distribution network and a simple, but deadly effective marketing strategy – selling great recodings from the past at the cheapest possible rate. On their website, they have a refined system of guiding you to the right contact person. For about a year now, I am regularly forwarding them mails, asking them for promos of their releases, so I can present them both in the mag section and in our podcast. And I intend to continue this process, until my contact person gets back to me.

And then there’s a French competitor, which has quickly risen from a no-name to one of the most respected and succesful brands. In fact, they are one of the few true success stories the genre has to offer at the moment and they have managed this despite them specialising in unknown mediaevil repertoire.I was intrigued by their dedication and devoted a lengthy feature to them. I contacted them by sending them the link and by asking them, if they wouldn’t like to co-operate more intensively. After re-sending the mail a couple of times, I finally gave up.

Now I know what you will be saying. These, after all, are almost without exception small companies. No, I take that back – they are very small companies, sometimes run by one or a maximum of two people. Quite often, making money is not their prime intent. But, contrary to what I had written in a previous “Crisis on Classical Music” blog, I am beginning to wonder whether it is really only the love for the music that is driving them. Or rather, I am wondering if it really makes sense for them to be releasing anything at all. Record companies were originally a combination of a bank and a marketing agency, financing projects because the artists couldn’t afford it – and selling the music, because the artist didin’t know how to do it. In Classical music, nothing of this original equation holds true any more. In all too many cases, it is the artists who are financing the recording sessions and thereby the largest part of the costs involved (which may still be okay). Sadly, they have also surpassed their label bosses when it comes to presenting themselves publicly. Have a look at the web page of an average instrumentalist and then compare it to the one of their record company. There may still be a lot lacking when it comes to visual presentation and content, but most performers now own excellently programmed sites with expensive pictures. Their record companies, meanwhile, have pages which, when it comes to navigation and presentation, seem to derive from the earliest days of the computer.

This is because the real work nowadays is being handled by the distributors. It is them who are sending out album copies to the press and they are often also in charge of placing ads and printing some kind of promotional magazine. With a few exceptions, most Classical record labels today have a single purpose only: To allow slightly less popular artists to find their CDs in a record shop, because distributors don’t buy directly from musicians. From the proud days of the 70s and 80s, this is a spectacular downfall for sure. And it gets worse if you think about the question, whether it makes sense to be placing your albums on the shelves at all. As almost everyone will tell you, it is the concert hall where most albums are being sold. And, contrary to the retail market, you might actually make some money while doing so.

Furthermore, I strongly oppose the view that labels have better things to do than answer repeated mails by an obnoxious online editor like myself. For one, from my esperience in the experimental sector, I know that there is always time for this (and most of these labels sell considerably less than most of their classical counterparts). Secondly, I have very strong doubts that record companies are really receiving that many mails at all. Thirdly, if there is no intent of replying, there should be no email address on the site, but merely a phone number (and I know of some artists representations who do this). And finally – if they believe they have better things to do, then these things better be a lot better, or else these folks are simply not doing their job. Even in a world, where management and distributors have taken over the main duties in the supply chain, a record company is still the “home of the artist” and it is their decided task to represent them with regards to specific projects and to try and make as many people know about them as possible. I wonder, how some of the artists would react, if I told them how poorly their label was in fact scoring in this respect.

Unfortunately, it is not even a question of size. I have made the same experience with the majors as well. Here, it is mostly a question of deliberate ignoring. These companies seem to believe that there is no need to find new partners. They send out their promos to the biggest news papers and specialised print mags and maybe one or two WebZines. That’s it and there is no room for newcomers. Which may be fine, but then I’d at least like to be informed about it.

There are notable exceptions from what I’ve said and they deserve to be mentioned here: ARTS, BIS, Aulia, DTS Media, Magnatune and, of the big ones, Naxos all take things seriously and are doing an excellent job. There may be more and if I come across one, it will be mentioned. But apart from that, there is a lot to be said for the idea that the labels have no right whatever to be complaining – their misery is house-made. Either they start improving or artists will take their music elsewhere or sell straight to the customer. And then I won’t even be able to send them a mail anymore.

By Tobias Fischer

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