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What price CDs?

I’ve been trying to walk the walk, or at least limp it, investigating post-CD recording. I haven’t made much progress so far, but I did come across this blog on Classical Music After the CD by venture capitalist, philanthropist and arts entrepreneur Bill Stensrud. It sets out the current state of the recording industry, a little over the top perhaps (giving the remaining majors 2 years) but basically delivering hard-headed realism about the post-CD world. It was only when I got to the end that I noticed the date: 2008. I suppose in venture capitalism you can’t afford to get it wrong. One of the great things about it is that he’s very positive about what many musicians still see as a disaster, and his final sentence should be heeded by everyone who aspires to a career in music:

Don’t fight the future. Embrace it. Adapt to it. Make the future your friend!

The central problem Stensrud identifies is that it’s no longer possible to generate a revenue stream from CD sales, so although the medium may not vanish altogether it can’t be sustained in the mass market. Classical music is just too expensive, and Stensrud predicts its total disappearance from the record industry. The future is web-based, and valorised in a completely different way, re-invigorating live music, with recording (video, that is) as a supplementary promotional tool rather than an end in itself.  Classical performers must be entrepreneurs: there is not enough value in the system for them to afford someone else to take care of the economic side of things. It hasn’t quite come to pass yet – the majors are certainly fading (the demise of  HMV , and the offical mainstreaming of downloading, for example) and innovative small labels continue to flourish, but we’re well on the way to a complete change of musical landscape.

A couple of posts ago I quoted Clay Shirky on the probability of the education sector ignoring the future until it’s too late.  Shirky and Stensrud are both heavy-weight thinkers who have seen the future, are hugely excited by it, and understand that a lot of us will still be wringing our hands when it overtakes us. The problem for musicians who don’t bury their heads in the sand is how to valorise their talent in an age where there is no record industry, and too many world class musicians are being churned out by the shed load from conservatories and universities. People were already talking about portfolio careers (sometimes a bit desperately – no one ever defined what one was) when I became a lecturer, but the brutal fact is that only the very best are going to make it as performers, and even they are likely to find the next generation snapping at their music stands before very long. If music education does eventually reinvent itself it will have to admit that it can’t be justified in economic terms as the basis for a full-time career for all but a tiny number. It will have to decide that no amount of business models and mission statements can substitute for music being worth doing for its own sake. And those who do succeed in making money out of music will have to work very hard and very creatively compared to musicians of my generation.

The tremendous victory for arts education implied by the abandoning of the ebacc is a start, but let’s hope the reprieve for music won’t lead to unreasonable expectations of employment. It’s not just the record industry that can’t generate revenue: most classical concerts have run at a loss for years, and if the financial crisis persists Newcastle won’t be the only city to cut its arts budget to zero. So, all you aspiring professionals out there – don’t expect to make a living out of dead composers unless you can invent a new way of resurrecting them: the future’s in the present, not in endless recycling of stuff we’ve already heard.

Incidentally, if you read to the bottom of the comments on Bill Stensrud’s blog, you’ll come across THE TEN CONDEMNANTS: A Puritanical Code of Musical Ethics. It was posted by someone who couldn’t remember who first sent it to them, so I have no hesitation in reproducing it here. It sums up all the reasons for abandoning the current recording and performing aesthetic and starting again:


A Puritanical Code of Musical Ethics

1. Thou shalt love the score, thy God, that thou mayest worship and serve it with every note thou performest.
2. Thou shalt perform every note exactly as it appears on the printed page, and in no other way shalt thou perform it, for to do otherwise is an abomination of desolation unto the score, thy God.
3. Thou shalt not take artistic liberties with the printed page, neither thee nor thy students nor thy student’s students, even unto the seventh generation of them that love the score.
4. Thou shalt not err, for to err is human and humans must stay out of the way of the score at all times, to err is unclean.
5. Thou shalt not commit any act which is not explicitly indicated in the score, lest ye defile it and make an abomination of it.
6. Thou shalt perform all notes of equal value in exactly the same manner, accurately and with metrical precision, for the printed score thy God is God, and its perfection must remain inviolate.
7. Thou shalt not be concerned about boring listeners, for thou art right and thou knowest this beyond all doubt, for the score, thy God, hath revealed it unto you.
8. Thou shalt only use for expression: continuous vibrato, evenly graded dynamics, evenly graded accelerations and decelerations, and articulations, that thou disturbest not the purity of the tone which thou makest.
9. Thou shalt not improvise, for all that is worthy is written already, besides which thine own thoughts are inferior.
10. Thou shalt punish, ridicule, and demean all who do not comply with this code, to forbid them from performing; for the score, thy God, requires total and unquestioning obedience.



2 Responses to “What price CDs?”

  1. Anon says:

    Of course classical musicians must be entrepreneurial, but what may be the crucial factors are perhaps not the degree of musical talent but the marketability of the artist (as in pop music), and those with some kind of quirkiness or particular knack for publicity may well become the most significant to emerge – the future’s in individuality, not conformity. In a future time without a record industry, perhaps what will become most significant will be the musician’s abilities to relate to their audience in new ways – some of those with the most successful performing careers at the moment are those whose experiences connect across media and across the stage to their audience. Classical musicians can increasingly look to popular, folk and world musicians for inspiration, but becoming proactive in developing the delivery of live music and ways of engaging with music via new media could be part of the curriculum of every music education institution.

  2. John Potter says:

    Yes, I’m sure that’s absolutely right. Pop music in particular is full of very creative people who use their talents in unique ways (in fact, whose most useful talent may be in knowing how best to deploy the skills they regardless of how skilled they actually are – you don’t need to be Segovia to play rhythm guitar). The real test is persuading audiences that you can offer them something that they can only get from you – so that’s unlikely to be just another ‘excellent’ performance of a Mozart sonata. It’s very difficult for institutional teaching to factor this in – it’s much easier to produce a set of hoops for students to jump through on the way to excellence. You can measure it too, and institutions always like that. It’s also hard for teachers to grasp the fact that they don’t actually have a reservoir of knowledge that can be just syphoned into the student – in a world where individuality is all, the basic skill set (that can be taught) is going to be very small, with a much larger (and more exciting ) quotient of elements that student and teacher need to explore between them.

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