One of the smartest studies of the classical record industry, though depressing in its conclusions, is The Life and Death of Classical Music (Anchor Books, 2007) by the British critic Norman Lebrecht. In this well-documented book that claims to be the industry’s epitaph, we discover how The Beatles surpassed sales of all classical record labels combined, and how the executives of those labels adopted a sumptuous lifestyle that the classical music market, increasingly depressed, could not sustain. We read the detailed chronology of unjustified spending, absurd contracts, and unsellable projects, ending with the diminished coffers of the record companies, whose final blow came with the advent of the digital era and its three consequences: the massive re-issuing of historical catalogs, piracy, and uncontrolled internet distribution.
The figure most insistently incriminated by Lebrecht is the maestro, whose hypertrophy, propitiated by executive greed, is the first cause of the classical record industry’s decline. The figure that had been its most efficient propellant, the image and sustenance of dozens of collections of symphonies and opera cycles, creator of an entire market of post-war long-playing classical records, is converted into executioner after a couple of decades of market saturation – the erosion of a generation that had nourished its clientele. Lebrecht constructs his case very well, from the archetypal von Karajan – pioneer of integral collections, of sound conducted from the console, of stratospheric salaries – to his competitors in all categories: Solti, Giulini, Marriner, Maazel, Bernstein, and Abbado, whom executives tried to box into a business model that could not work the same way a thousand times with the same profit levels. With drained projects, melomaniacs drowning in dozens of versions of the same collections of symphonies and operas, the executive machinery lost sight of reality, continuing to generate productions whose breakeven point was ten or twenty times that of real sales. The maestros, and above all the executives, according to Lebrecht, wanted to retain the incomes they had enjoyed in the 1950s, but nobody knew how to sell product on the street. The industry resorted to pure commerce. Sony Classical, for example, under the direction of Peter Gelb, was oriented to anything it could sell: film soundtracks such as Titanic or pop hybrids that perhaps deserved the pejorative term “classical crossover music.” The vision of these enterprises turned everything into merchandise, but in the end the record would no longer exist, and nor would the record store. With the storefronts shut down, the book leaves a bitter taste.
Fortunately, Lebrecht’s analysis has a central flaw and its thesis a rival Venezuelan who challenges it magnificently. If the facts in the book are indeed exact, no study of concert music can resolve its equations without factoring in the pleasure of playing or listening to live music, without taking into account the social, educational, and cultural factor of this complex and layered ritual. The lucrative era of recording covers perhaps a tenth of the history of classical concerts. And the rest of that history? Perhaps classical music is dying because the big record labels are dying? From Venezuela, facts dispute Lebrecht’s thesis. The great transformation that Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphonic Orchestra operate on a world level is no more than the rescue of a healthy, ancestral, profoundly genuine form of living music, detached from mere commercial management, reconnecting with a public that returns en masse to the world’s concert halls to rediscover emotions that had been frozen in tariffed recording sessions, trapped in speakers. Ironically, one of the victories of this era of piracy and infinite cloning is the re-appreciation of something that cannot be cloned: a live concert, a beating heart, music that will never die.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland