:: Hyperion

Death of the CD?

Sunday, April 29th, 2018


I stopped keeping a tally of the number of recordings I’ve made when the total got to 150 or so. Some of them I’ve never owned or heard, some get re-issued and re-packaged, some even continue to sell; I suppose they represent  the story of a musical life – from fantastic highs that you want to remember for ever and some you’d rather forget. They’re also a history of the technology, from acetate demos of my more or less embarrassing teenage bands to my first LP (Handel, would you believe, but closely followed by David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London),  lots more  vinyl, cassettes and finally CDs. Finally, because in my musical neck of the woods we’ve been around too long to get a grip on streaming and video.

Brigid Delaney’s recent piece on the death of the CD in the Guardian, provocative, simplistic and inaccurate, stimulated a fascinating discussion below the by-line from lovers and loathers of the format.  For consumers there’s no argument – if you’re younger than me you go with whatever the current technology is, if you’re of a certain age you’re probably keeping the CD industry going. It’s a curious thing about the niche world that I inhabit that the performance side tends to be age-blind (I may be flattering myself here) whereas the audiences we mostly perform to tend to be of CD-buying age. Decades ago I used to worry that the demographic we performed to would all be dead in twenty years, but it doesn’t work quite like that: there seems to be a threshold at which people start to go to concerts so the same demographic is still there. I can’t see music-lovers of my son’s generation returning to CDs though – streaming is just too comprehensive and convenient (not to mention somehow magical).

As the various formats have changed, so has the relationship between record companies and their artists. In the classical world it used to be the case that the company would pay you a fee (known as a buy-out, which meant you had no residual rights) or give you a non-repayable royalty advance (which is what being ‘signed’ means in the pop world).  The companies that I have had most to do with over the years have been Hyperion, ORF, EMI and ECM; the first two worked on a fee basis and the second two on royalty advances. The Hilliards left EMI still owing many thousands in non-repayable advances (that were spent on, among other things, extravagant post session dinners that we didn’t know we were paying for). Almost all the ECM recordings repaid their advances within a year or so. As far as I know ECM is the only company that still works in this way, giving its artists a stake in their own music, and it can do this partly because the CDs still sell – either through one of the online distributors or by artists selling them at gigs. The numbers are small compared with even a few years ago, and the company has recently embraced streaming, though everything is available on CD or vinyl, but ECM will always be identified with a physical product – the Gesamtkunstwerk, every aspect of which has the imprint of Manfred Eicher.

If you’re not lucky enough to record for a major label (or if you’re a new jazz or pop band) there are plenty of smaller labels who will consider taking you on. These are often run by audiophile entrepreneurs who produce excellent recording, but they work to a very different economic model. You pay for the recording, and may agree to buy a certain number of CDs. The company may have a distributor or you might decide to create your own label and sell at gigs. Either way, you are very unlikely to get your money back unless you do a lot of gigs. If it costs, say, £5000 to make an album you’ll need to sell 50 albums at 100 gigs to break even. Many of us would be lucky to sell half that at most gigs, so call it 200 gigs. Average 25 gigs a year? 8 years before you break even – probably longer as you won’t still be doing the same repertoire in 8 years’ time, and you might well have more recent recordings to compete with it.

Like most of my fellow performers I’ve never considered recording as an economic activity – it’s primarily a musical thing which may or may not earn something (some of mine have). As Manfred Eicher put it in his Royal Academy talk recently, you go somewhere, meet people, make music then go home. It’s always a wonderfully intense experience but it’s a one-off and you then forget all about it. That’s fine if the production and distribution are in the hands of the record company of course, but if you’re funding your own recordings you can’t avoid engaging with the whole process. I’ve never done that, and I continue to have a wonderfully creative relationship with ECM after some twenty-five years, but there is a musical elephant in the room in connection with the Alternative History project. The quartet is an ECM band, but increasingly various fractals (as Robert Fripp would put it) perform music that taps in to the project agenda but which there is no chance ECM would want to record. It’s the even niche-er end of a very niche market. Do we go down the self-funding route? Will I still be performing in 8 years’ time? Quite possibly, but almost certainly very different repertoire (my plan to sing until I drop involves doing much older music as I get much older). A YouTube channel maybe?  That might be the way forward – no profit but relatively little outlay, and the music will be there for people to enjoy. We’ll see.