The future of classical recording – Part 1

In my previous two posts on the state of the classical recording business here and here, I talked about Anne Midgette’s observation that even top-selling classical recordings aren’t notching up impressive sales numbers:

The dirty secret of the Billboard classical charts is that album sales figures are so low, the charts are almost meaningless. Sales of 200 or 300 units are enough to land an album in the top 10. Hahn’s No. 1 recording, after the sales spike resulting from her appearance on Conan, bolstered by blogs and press, sold 1,000 copies.

I also discussed the impact of technological change on recording sales, noted that technological discontinuities (such as the move from LP to CD) historically acted as big one-time steroid injections to the recording business, and pointed out that no such discontinuity appeared anywhere on the horizon.

So is classical recording commercially unviable? That depends on the definition of “viable.” Is it going to diminish? Hardly.

I think it’s clear that classical recordings (in particular, orchestral recordings) produced in recording sessions and released by record companies are an endangered species. The costs are too high and the potential returns too low for virtually all such recordings to be profitable over any reasonable time frame.

But most orchestral recordings are now produced from recordings of concerts, edited together with the occasional use of short “patch sessions” to fix issues unresolved in concert. More and more orchestral recordings are being produced by the orchestras themselves and released as CDs through labels who are basically just distributors and through online download stores. The cost to do this – especially for orchestras already doing radio – is pretty nominal, depending in particular on the interaction between the local labor agreement and whatever national media agreement is in place. And, even for orchestras who can’t amortize the technical expenses by charging most of it against their radio funding, the cost of hiring competent engineers with good equipment is not that high.

In short, making, and distributing, orchestral recordings can be a whole lot cheaper than at any time in the past. The implications for what the orchestral recording business looks like are worth considering.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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