Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Demise of Warner Classics

A big shock story in the music world recently has been the closure of Warner Classics, once a very big player amid those that remain(ed) of the long-lost glory days of classical recording. Warners were one of the few labels that would still go to great lengths to present their new releases to the press (I remember sloping out of one press conference after an unbroken 2 hours), send journalists on trips to Estonia or Berlin to interview their artists and hear them perform, and also throw their weight not only behind sure-fire sellers such as Barenboim playing Bach, but also surprise discoveries such as the works of John Foulds as championed by Sakari Oramo and the CBSO. Matthew Cosgrove, head of Warners, has apparently been snapped up by DG in Germany, but among the musicians left label-less are Daniel Barenboim, Dan Hope, the Beaux Arts Trio, Susan Graham and, as well as these established names, some like the Estonian conductor Anu Tali who basically depended on the label to help make their international reputation. It's all very sad but, in today's climate, probably inevitable.

Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra were bound to sell well - and are probably the biggest sensation in orchestral performance anywhere at the present time. But besides wonderful things like their live recordings, Warners used to take risks. Don't get me wrong: risks are good. Someone has to take them. But were Warners' risks sensible ones, I wonder? Alessio Bax, a recentish winner of the Leeds Competition - yes, but then again, maybe no? British pianist Mark Latimer playing Reger? Of course it's excellent to support young artists playing unusual pieces, but was this going to work financially? Nikolai Lugansky? Plenty of people would like him to be an international sensation and some have tried to build him up into one, but frankly he don't float this girl's boat, not remotely, and if he hasn't sold, it doesn't surprise me (maybe he has. maybe I'm being unfair. But he bores me to tears.) There were more - I could go on, but I won't; in short, among a few big winners, they had too many virtual non-starters.

The classical record industry has become skewed in such a way that:

The big labels produce 'crossover' pulp that isn't classical, isn't pop and often isn't good.

The small labels do some good stuff, but do so on a shoestring.

Plenty of artists pay to make and release their own CDs on their own labels. Some are superb. Some are dreadful.

There is too much stuff out there and not remotely enough quality control.

With music lessons reduced, music critics reduced and standards generally being shot to pieces, the public could be forgiven for not knowing what's good and what ain't.

But if performances & recordings are not good enough - not inspiring, not illuminatory, etc - then nobody is going to be turned on to music by them.

And if the remaining labels don't get on with dragging their distribution methods into the 21st century, they'll be left on the desert island with their discs.

Too often, the wrong musicians are making the wrong CDs and they are being sold in the wrong way.

No wonder labels are closing and the industry is going to pieces.