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The Crisis of Classical Music 13

img  Tobias

Let’s imagine you’re a classical musician with a will of your own and you want to release an album – what should your action plan look like? As described in the last episode, the traditional way of approaching a record company does not seem very alluring. First of all, they are not exactly hotspots of new ideas. And secondly, they are doing a lousy job at promoting your album. Which is all the more sad, as in many cases you will actually have to pre-finance a large chunk (if not all) of the first pressing. So why not set up your own record label and publish your albums yourself –  like artists in the experimental scene have been succesfuly doing for a long time. Well, the answer to that question is easy: Because you’ll have to find a distributor willing to take on your product and take you to the shops – and such a thing does not exist.

In “The Crisis of Classical Music 12”, I took up the cudgels for the distributors: They were the ones doing the real work, I claimed and it was them who decided the fate of an artist, not the labels. As recent experiences have shown, I will have to drastically revise this claim. In fact, if record companies have been downgraded from the position of kings and queens of the classical world, the distributors, who weilded real power in the golden days of recorded music, are now nothing more but plain merchants – and in some cases, they’re even less than that. And here’s an account of the reasons.

To that end, let’s return to the example of the imaginary musician. This is what he did: He went into the studio and had a professional recording done, spending a considerable sum of money to get everything just right and then to have the result mixed and mastered. His repertoire was none of the typical standard pieces, which had already been recorded a thousand times, but it wasn’t a total niche-choice either – bluntly speaking it was a repertoite which suited his playing perfectly and still had the chance of being interesting for a potentially substantial crowd of listeners. Afterwards, he contacted a graphic designer to do the layout for a beautiful booklet and had CDs made at a local pressing plant. With the help of a friend, he put up an informative website, which included listening samples, pictures and info on the pieces played. With the finished product, which he released under his own imprint (let’s call it “Imaginary Classics”) , he then approached some distributors. This is the reaction he received:

•    The big distributors simply said “no”, before even listening. Purportedly, there was no interest in any new products.
•    Some claimed the repertoire would never sell.
•    Others would only take on a new label, if it had already released at least ten CDs.
•    Or if the artist could verify that he had three more own releases at hand to follow up the first one.
•    Finally, one contact person claimed the entire distribution business was a dying one anyway.

This was not the response the musician had expected. Yes, it had been clear to him that this was not going to be an easy ride and he knew that refusal would be part of the game. But, except for one case, he never even got to talk about the nature of his project – the huge majority of the people he talked to simply appeared to be uninterested, lazy, deadenly conservative and defeatist. Of course, he was disappointed, but he was also confused: If this was an “artist album”, why should he not play the repertoire he felt comfortable with? Why would a distributor not even listen to his proposals? How could he ever release ten CDs, if he wasn’t even allowed to publish a single one? Why should there be any need for a definite amount of future records, if it wasn’t even clear, whether or not his first would sell? Why were these people still in business, if they didn’t believe in it and themselves anyway? All of these questions quickly turned into one big mystery: What was it that these strange companies were doing at all?

It used to be so easy to explain this, but those times have long gone. In the heydays, distributors were the smart guys of the scene, they were the invisible backbone. They consisted of a flexible and far-reaching net of agents, who would get retailers to buy their customers’ albums and place them prominently on the shelves. A label could do a brilliant job, an artist could spill his creative guts, but if their distributor didn’t believe in them, their products were doomed to fail. Today, this situation has changed. The daily job of a classical distributor consists of two tasks: Sending out news and promotional material to the media and doing the financial paperwork. Basically, what it boils down to is that they are effective administrative systems, which make the work of a record company more agreeable by outsouring the labour-intensive and frankly pretty boring monetary questions. Which is nothing dishonourable in itself, if it were not for the fact, that this is being presented with a snobbish attitude and an air of elitism. And: If a distributor is indeed mainly handling financial affairs, then what’s the problem in accepting new and smaller clients? From an economic perspective, this would diversify the portfolio for a minuscule costs and with the potential of the odd spectacular success. But instead, they have chosen to display their prize-labels like a peacock shows off his feathers.

Looking at things from a progressive angle, they are spectacularly missing the point anyway. Schisms and paradigms are changing and it is already no longer the CD shops were albums are mainly being sold. Except for a few hit-discs (which are only produced by 2-3 labels with global marketing power), budgets for productions are small and print runs tiny. Our imaginary musician is starting to think: He has four concerts each month. At each, he can sell about 5 of his albums, totalling 200 for the firs ten months of the year and then another 50 for the Christmas season. If one would use this as an average number, then he and 999 of his colleagues would alresdy be outselling the entire market of smaller and independent labels in most countries. Then he imagines the worldwide numbers and comes to the following conclusion: These proud distributors are big nothings on a global scale. And if there was a way for musicians to stick together somehow and coordinate their actions, then they would hold the power in their own hands. Add to that the fact that physical CDs, even if they were not to disappear entirely, are a product of ever dimishing importance, then it becomes clear that this business is indeed a discontinued model.

By now, our friendly musician feels a bit of anger boiling up inside of him – and he feels the desire to at least go and give things a try, before blindly claiming that noone is going to buy his music. If you were now turn to me for a piece of advice, this is what I would suggest: Be as professional regarding your album as possible and then find a distributor from the field of experimental or even rock music with an open ear. Ask him to perform the most basic job of his profession and to register your album within the national distribution networks (computer systems, which 90% of retailers use to order their CDs). Find ways of marketing yourself. And then see what happens. It may take more time and it may sometimes not be what you like most. But it will give the opportunity to at least prevent a league of run-down wannabies from messing with your music. And it would seem unlikely, that you’ll do worse than the majority of labels.

Shrinking sales figures, a shift from CDs to live events and a move from a clever sales channel to a mere administration – the distribution business has lost allmost all of its appeal. Because many classical musicians are easy to scare off, distributors are also part of the crisis of classical music: By refusing to give slightly unorthodox productions and leftfield artists a chance, they are perpetuating the image of classical music as a drowsy and downwardly bound genre. Regardless of this, however, they continue to pretend they are in charge. Let them. Time will, soon enough, take care of this caricature.

"The Crisis of Classical Music" by Tobias Fischer

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