Tuesday, April 10, 2007


There's been some confusion about my post on the Thanatophiles who are pushing the "death of classical music" meme. Let me now be a bit more specific:

The mid-20th century way of doing classical music was built on a strict hierarchy, at the top of which were a handful of name-brand musicians, managed by a smaller handful of name-brand managers, performing in a handful of name-brand houses, recorded by a small handful of recording firms, and reviewed by a handful of critics published by newspapers and magazines which were printed on dead trees. This way of doing business focused, inevitably, on a narrow repertoire of music, performed within an even narrower band of interpretive possibilities.

The "death of classical" meme is being pushed by those who are most immediately threatened by the demise of the old way of doing business. The best example would be a newspaper critic or radio presenter who has focused his (to my knowledge, never a her) career on big artists who play in big halls and record on big labels. When the action moves beyond those small circles, as it has, and the said newsprint critic has to start taking blogging seriously*, or taking download-able recordings seriously, the earth has shook.

This way of doing business has gone the way of the dodo, but in this case, a bit of extinction has made way for greater musical biodiversity: in the newer environment, the hierarchies have been flattened, allowing for greater numbers of artists to perform in a wider variety of venues, to be recorded, to have those recordings available in a wider variety of formats, more flexibly packaged and deliverable through completely new channels, and -- most musically important -- to offer a wider variety of interpretive possibilities. The production and market conditions have so changed that the successful realization of the Naxos business plan -- unlike that of the behemoth Karajan-era Sony -- does not preclude the success of its competitors. Yes, the earth has shook, but we're very much alive, with the potential to thrive, in spite of the death chanting partisans of the old hierarchy.
* If I still haven't been explicit enough, contrast the predominant assent to the death meme among the dead-tree critics who have been assembled at the ArtsJournal corporate blog with the optimism -- and hard statistics -- of Alex Ross, who has managed remarkably to do both his New Yorker paper route and to blog independently.


mberry said...

Thanks for the mention of Naxos. My name is Mark Berry and I'm the publicist for Naxos of America, which distributes Naxos and a number of other labels here in the US.

I think you're right about the point that the Naxos model doesn't necessarily hurt others. Not all labels can provide the breadth of catalogue that Naxos has but, on the other hand, Naxos can't necessarily spend a lot of time focusing on a single artist. Both models can coexist and in fact help each other. At least that's what I see here with the relationship between Naxos-the-label and the other distributed labels.

I will be trying to address some of these issues on The Naxos Blog @ Sequenza21: http://www.sequenza21.com/naxos

Henry Holland said...

Hi, found your blog from Tim-Rutherford Johnson's place.

Gawd, I'm so bored to tears with the protracted "death of classical music" nonsense, can we just kill it off already and move on? :-)

Yes, the record industry as we knew it is imploding, yes the digital future is still up in the air, but so what? The introduction of records, the introduction of stereo, the introduction of CD's were all wrenching changes and it didn't stop a wide swath of people from still enjoying music.

Frankly, in 50-100-150 years, music will be streamed directly in to our cerebral cortex --Robert Moog was working on just that when he died-- and that will be a big change too. But *gasp* music of all stripes will survive. Some contemporary stuff will find audiences, most of it will be like previous epochs, consigned to the dustbin of history. Same as it ever was....

I think what bugs me the most is that classical music is constantly being given last rites because a contemporary work isn't as popular as the Beethoven 5th, but it's almost never put in the context of other art forms.

If you want to talk about dead art forms, look no further than jazz. Sure, the improv nature of it keeps it somewhat fresh, but after the free jazz and jazz rock days of the late 60's/early 70's, the overwhelming majority of jazz sounds today like Miles Davis ca. 1959. Same goes with theatre, painting, ballet and on and on, all mostly "museum" artforms but still with substantial followings.

Maybe, just maybe, art has reached the limit of human imagination, maybe (to use cliched examples) Boulez and Pollack and late Coltrane and Beckett and so forth are the end point, the art forms they were working in can't get any more complex or abstract so the only choice left is mixing-and-matching of subgenres in the form and references to the past. I liken it to a star: it's born in a cloud of gas and dust, it lives and then it collapses in on itself. Maybe we're in the collapse stage right now.