Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Decca: the obituary?

As I feared...the imminent death of Decca, as reported by Norman Lebrecht. He says:

Still, no point waxing nostalgic. Lots of firms are going to the wall, taking their traditions to oblivion. Decca joins a long queue at the morgue. The regret is that what dies with Decca is more than just a label – it is the very concept of label as a mark of character, a name that united artists and listeners in the search for a particular quality. The idea of label defined the record industry. It is the strategic antithesis of sterile agglomerates like Universal.

Without labels, artists spin off to Starbucks, listeners lose interest and the remnants of the record business go rummaging in dumpbins. Even a number-one classical hit barely shifts 500 copies a week, not enough to support an executive’s pension fund. It’s the end of the line for Decca, the last waltz in a bare-walled studio of dreams."

Far be it from me to 'wax nostalgic' - but this was the label of the glory days, the home of Georg Solti, the label that - largely thanks to the magic ears and brilliant intuition of Christopher Raeburn - helped to build the recorded careers of Cecilia Bartoli and Andras Schiff, among others. This was the label of Benjamin Britten, Kathleen Ferrier, Pavarotti, not to mention his two friends. This was also the label that brought us the Entartete Musik series, spearheaded by producer Michael Haas, encompassing Schreker, Krenek, Braunfels, K/g and many more - a library of great historical value since most of those works are not available to hear elsewhere. This was the label of vision, of class, of...

So, where are the Raeburns and Haases of today? Christopher has retired; Michael divides his time between curating exhibitions in Vienna and producing Opera Rara's discs. If there are any brilliant people left in the recording industry, they are having trouble making their presence felt because the core values are vanishing from the big companies. For instance, in his article Norman complains about the "all-purpose" engineering of Julia Fischer's latest disc on Decca, which he feels does her no favours. Sound quality does matter to the record-downloading public, but what if a company boss does not know that, can't hear the difference and doesn't see the point of spending money on it?

Here in the hackworld, we knew something was going wrong about 20 years ago when a major label (not Decca) held a press conference that included a speech by their new marketing chap, who'd just joined them from a food company and started declaring to a roomful of the most knowledgeable critics in the British capital how amazed he was to learn that Tchaikovsky was gay, so now they were going to develop a 'Tchaikovsky concept' in which... well, if the 'concept' ever took wing, it was quickly buried; but generally speaking the vision began to leave the industry when it chose people whose presumably considerable expertise in accountacy, sales and marketing nevertheless did not extend to a profound empathy with classical music and its market. I am no marketing guru, but it looks like a no-brainer to me: how can you sell anything successfully if you haven't a clue what it's about?

Smaller labels such as Bis, harmonia mundi, Hyperion and some of the artist-led labels like LSO Live, Onyx and Avie, are still more than afloat today largely because they know what they're doing. As Sir Alan Sugar might say, they understand their product. If you don't understand your product, you end up like that Apprentice candidate who was trying to sell expensive day-rents of his red Ferrari in Portobello Road Market - fired. Decca, you're...