Quadrant Music

Wrestling with the Recording Angel

Every lover of classical music with a taste for sound recordings’ historiography should peruse two valuable books above all, both from the early 2000s. One is Performing Music in the Age of Recording (2004), by Robert Philip of Britain’s Open University; the other, from four years earlier, is A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History, by Timothy Day of Royal Holloway University in London. It is neither Philip’s fault nor Day’s that since their respective volumes’ publication, two factors have so dislocated the classical recording sector as to make some of both men’s observations retrospectively outmoded. Of these factors, one has been dramatic but for the most part morally neutral; the other has been spectacularly disruptive.

The morally neutral factor is the recording industry’s shift away from the single CD towards gigantic boxed sets, often devoted to one particular performing artist or label, and often containing up to 100 discs. Heaven knows who has sufficient leisure to give 100 individual discs proper attention. I am reminded of that old campaign by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins whereby American households in their tens of thousands were saddled with a $250, fifty-four-volume set, Great Books of the Western World—great books which more often than not ended up acquiring dust the way dogs acquire fleas.

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Yet, in fairness to Adler, Hutchins and the hypertrophic CD boxes’ creators, a variant of the Hollywood disclaimer about animal cruelty applies to such products: no one was actually harmed in, or by, their manufacture. Some of the last ten years’ better boxes, particularly from European labels, do include recordings now difficult (and, at times, impossible) to obtain as single issues, even from surviving specialist dealers, in their original LP or CD guises. Usually, the relevant labels have been scrupulous about paying residuals to the artists, or the artists’ estates. Besides, twenty-first-century remastering techniques discernible in such boxes can add aural lustre to productions that, as LPs or indeed in early CD formats, lacked warmth. The remastering for RCA’s Toscanini intégrale exemplifies this betterment: whilst it cannot work miracles on the original releases’ notoriously harsh acoustics, it surpasses any of those releases’ earlier incarnations.

As for the spectacularly disruptive factor, we can all identify that. I refer to the rise, ubiquity and apparent inexorability of streaming platforms, with everything that they entail in terms of shattering an industry which deserved a far kindlier fate, and which gave decent salaries to a fair number of intelligent, conscientious people now forced into other fields. Given the resultant wreckage, we need to understand how the destruction happened and how it could have been reduced.

How Music Got Free: A Story of Obsession and Invention (2015), by the Los-Angeles-based journalist Stephen Witt, furnishes an instructive sermon on the text which might well be the simplest and most fundamental truth of the political modernity project: the truth that lawbreaking always pays. Nothing inevitable characterised the streaming revolution. At no stage had popular demands for destroying commercial sound-recording’s infrastructure—which had managed to survive bootleg cassette-copying, after all—revealed themselves. Wholesale MP3 file-sharing came to wreak havoc on that infrastructure not because the multitude wanted it to do so, but because a bunch of pirates—none conspicuous for musical gifts—decided that it should.

Subsequent rationalisations of the process, via geek-speak about “creative destruction”, about the evil (apparently self-evident) of “cultural gate­keepers”, and about the ostensible need to “move fast and break things”, played no roles in the original process. The pirates had a simple objective, championed by every shoplifter who ever lived: to get something for nothing and to get it in secret. The pirates, as averse as any Bavarian Illuminati or Grand Orient Masonic clique to public recognition, filched recording companies’ releases at the manufacturing stage. They deliberately treated copyright legislation as if it did not and should not apply to them. Though they lost the initial battle over Napster legal suits, they won the wider war.

One of Witt’s protagonists, Bennie Lydell “Dell” Glover, worked at a North Carolina factory which pressed the Universal corporation’s discs. Aided by various allies, as the Guardian commented on June 18, 2015:

Glover smuggled out copies of new albums, and uploaded them to a secretive group on the Internet that was part of the “Scene”: a network of people trading music, commercial software, video games and movies. Members of the Scene went by pseudonyms and used encrypted communications; they cultivated sources inside CD plants, radio stations and anywhere else that pre-release material could be found … Glover’s own group leaked an amazing 20,000 albums over a decade. As Witt relates in fascinating detail, their tradecraft would have done justice to a network of terrorist operatives.

The moral of the pirates’ tale is nothing if not straightforward: make anarcho-capitalist excuses for thieving if you wish. But, please, spare me the humbug about how these particular delinquents allegedly did the musical world a favour. They did nothing of the kind. The whole process’s outcome formed as conspicuous an example of Gresham’s Law as can be imagined. Even on basic technical criteria, the losses outweigh the gains: MP3 music files must have their dynamic ranges compressed so much that they cannot match CDs in hi-fi terms. Rather than the decidedly mild despotism once exercised by the likes of Universal, we now have the not remotely mild despotism exercised by the likes of Amazon and Google, with most independent retailers in America, Britain and Australia crushed like ants. Royalties under the present streaming regimen are minuscule compared with what they had been during the CD’s zenith—and they would be smaller still if Taylor Swift’s threats of boycotts had not shamed the industry into improvement.

Since streaming’s very essence is to ensure that as far as possible no one owns copies of a recording, the clearest result of streaming was predictable by anyone conversant with the “tragedy of the commons”. Under the new classical recording dispensation, almost no one owns anything, almost no one need make sacrifices for anything, and so almost no one will value anything. Delayed gratification? The thrill of saving up, over weeks or months, for a lengthily craved boxed set? Perish such “elitist” notions.

After perusing the catalogues of major libraries, no expert has done for streaming consumption what Ohio-born author Nicholas G. Carr did with his exposé The Shallows (2010) for internet consumption in general. Carr showed the scientifically measurable deficits in concentration and comprehension which abundant online reading—as distinct from equally abundant hard-copy reading—produces. Nevertheless, one measure of streaming’s cognitive impact is already recognised within academia, although, for prudential reasons, seldom conceded outside it.

Over the last decade, the first cohort of undergraduates too young to know any recorded sound, save via streaming conduits, has graced music departments with its presence. Many of these undergraduates, as anyone realises who has endeavoured to propitiate their egos—“teaching” would be altogether too violent a description of the relevant psychotherapeutic massage—exhibit a level of historical illiteracy inconceivable in 1990 or 2000. Back then, and much earlier, musicians (whether professional or not) obtained copious knowledge of music’s past from old-fashioned methods: we read the sleeve-notes of LPs, and the booklets of CDs. By these empirical, unsystematic procedures, we built up considerable reserves of musicological competence. Numerous subscribers to Spotify, Apple, Google Play and suchlike streaming platforms hear everything in an absolute historical vacuum. Little wonder they seldom show the faintest awareness that, for instance, Handel lived a century and a half before Brahms, a circumstance which itself explains how different the two men’s oeuvres sound (not least in Brahms’s Handel Variations).

To this complaint, it could be objected, with reason, that the internet has made available much useful data on musical history which forty years ago either did not exist or existed only on the library shelves of the academy. This is true enough—even if we discount the frequently poisoned well that is Wikipedia. The Naxos website, literate and clearly formatted, justifies special plaudits in this connection. In short, the information is there for those who want it and can find it. Alas, one needs to be competent enough to find it and curious enough to want it; without necessary want, all the open-access scholarship in the world will avail nothing.

Unfortunately, we appear at present to be lumbered with streaming as, for almost eighty years, we have been lumbered with nuclear weapons: neither invention can be easily discarded. But that is no excuse for pretending that Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 underwent public-spirited beautification projects. Nor is it an excuse for denying the extent of the musical damage which streaming has inflicted.

None of this is to say that art music’s recording ecosystem before streaming’s advent should be romanticised as a golden age. It harboured occasional shysters and fantasists. Some of its ablest figures, like producer Walter Legge, were half-educated boors. Legge’s passionate musical aversions, unencumbered by detailed knowledge, included Schoenberg, Parry, Stanford, Vaughan Williams—who he accused of “market-day modalism”—and Haydn. “You can interchange at will,” Legge implausibly insisted, “any movements of the last twenty Haydn symphonies and it will make no difference.” This ecosystem just happened to be better, and a more successful fillip to sustained artistic effort, than what took its place. Prior to streaming’s triumph, classical recording permitted serious money for a few world-ranking performers—themselves, regularly enough, cross-subsidised by earnings from pop stars—and at least tolerable money, along with unquantifiable benefits regarding prestige, for almost all performers, similarly cross-subsidised. Now, thanks to streaming, this ecosystem, inasmuch as it survives, no longer means a gulf in classical recording between well-paid performers and tolerably paid performers. Instead, it increasingly means no money or prestige for any performers.

Samuel Johnson strove to warn us about levelling’s wider consequences when he counselled: “It is better that some should be unhappy than that none should be happy, which would be the case in a general state of equality.” That general state of equality, one beyond the most orgasmic dreams of the Khmer Rouge itself, now afflicts classical music with a vengeance. Has it rendered us one whit the more contented or better educated?

The techno-utopian defending our present pass habitually lavishes particular scorn upon “cultural gatekeepers” of any type, and rejoices that streaming has killed them off. Wherefore such scorn, such rejoicing? If the presence of “cultural gatekeepers” meant that an internationally celebrated pianist like Alfred Brendel obtained a contract with Philips for recording the complete Beethoven sonatas, while the nearest kindergarten’s two-fingered tyro failed to obtain a contract for recording “Chopsticks”, does anyone seriously suppose that the tyro was oppressed by the rewards bestowed on Brendel? Might it not be wiser to admit that the big classical labels, through experience accumulated over generations, represented a certain guarantee (however limited, partial and reliant upon fallible corporate memory) of executant merit? And that nothing on Spotify, YouTube and Apple can match this guarantee? Most people customarily view quality control as desirable, whether it involves Beethoven pianists or brain surgeons.

Those seeking to deny this fact continue, perhaps, to be unaware of how many untalented exhibitionists every streaming platform now hosts: especially YouTube, where two-fingered kindergarten tyros and still grosser bunglers are as uncountable as Banquo’s descendants, their pretensions being fortified by popularity statistics that any bot or troll-farm can artificially inflate. Absent well-established, well-resourced recording labels, where will quality control in the art music sector henceforth come? From—pity help us—Australian universities? John McEnroe uttered the perfect riposte to that particular delusion: “You cannot be serious.”

There is, of course, a case to be made, in devil’s-advocate fashion, against classical recording per se, whether streaming-derived, CD-derived, LP-derived or, for that matter, wax-cylinder-derived. Anyone with a modicum of musicological awareness can recite the charge-sheet, certain items on which had already, and independently, occurred to Constant Lambert and Walter Benjamin during the 1930s.

Some mourn the resultant desacralisation of aesthetic experience. Many a non-Christian has shared Britten’s misgivings at the way in which a recording of the St Matthew Passion can be used to accompany eating, drinking and cocktail chatter. Others chiefly bemoan the element of chicanery ensured by the ease with which magnetic tape—and, nowadays, digital files—can be manipulated to make individual performers sound much more skilled than they ever are live. Most recordings advertised as live or unplugged are, no less than studio recordings, patchworks of several different sessions, with wrong notes and extraneous noises removed afterwards. The Joyce Hatto scandal confirmed the industry’s vulnerability to cynical doctoring of aural evidence, and the inadequacy of evaluating a performer by his or her recorded output alone.

Still other persons regret CDs’ general tendency to enforce stylistic homogenisation. Cold War-era Russian orchestras, with their shrieking trumpets, saxophone-like horns, and keening woodwinds, sounded like no Western ensemble; today, few if any listeners could distinguish on purely aural yardsticks a Moscow orchestra from its Munich, Minneapolis or Melbourne counterparts. This standardisation has brought losses in regional colour as well as gains in precision. A strong element of safety-first invariably occupies all honest performers’ and engineers’ minds: the digital microphone, most sadistic of adjudicators, perceives everything and flatters nothing.

And so the indictments could go on. They are better examined elsewhere. At any rate, the present essay takes for granted that Herbert von Karajan’s Bruckner recordings, Carlos Kleiber’s Beethoven recordings, Sir Georg Solti’s Wagner recordings, the Hyperion Schubert edition for the bicentenary of the composer’s birth, Pablo Casals’s and Yo-Yo Ma’s accounts of Bach’s cello suites, Marc-André Hamelin’s revivals of staggeringly complex late-Romantic piano works, and dozens of other classical releases—compile your own preferred list—have enriched, and not impoverished, civilisation. That being accepted, quo vadis?

American critic Ted Gioia, in, of all things, “An Open Letter to Taylor Swift” (Substack, September 15, 2023), spells out the nature of streaming’s innate threats—by no means exclusively to classical music—and expounds a method of dealing with them. He pulls no punches:

For the first time [author’s claim] in 500 years, an increasing number of people listen to music, and don’t even know the name of the artist or the song. This is not by chance, but is an intentional move driven by powerful interests—with the goal of shifting control from artists who create to technocrats who merely aggregate … Musicians only make pennies on new albums—or fractions of a penny—where previously they made dollars.

Live music is in even worse shape—venues have never fully recovered from the pandemic. I know so many outstanding musicians who are making less for gigs, unadjusted for inflation, than they were decades ago … The streamers are natural enemies of labels. Their partnership will have an unhappy ending. But, in the meantime, musicians and fans pay the price for this unholy alliance.

Gioia’s point about technocrats is especially well taken. Scratch a techno-utopian, and you will nearly always find an inveterate antagonist to the whole idea of paid musicians. Those of us who actually are paid musicians can be forgiven our reluctance to sign up for enforced amateurism. (Or has Rerum Novarum been abolished?) In almost all epochs, a professional musician’s life has been hard; it took streaming to obliterate, repeatedly, the difference between a hard professional life and no professional life.

Having asked, “Who can help us?”, Gioia concludes that Taylor Swift can. Invoking the cine­matic precursor to his proposal—to wit, the 1919 establishment of the United Artists syndicate by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford—Gioia addresses Miss Swift directly:

Musicians have to help themselves. And they can do it—if they have the right leader. At this moment of crisis, you are that person.

I don’t say this flippantly. And it’s not just because you’re the most popular musician on the planet.

You have also shown your willingness to take on the system. Even better, you have gone to battle against powerbrokers in the music business—and have won!

And that’s just a start. You’re also proving that live music not only can survive, but actually flourish in the digital age … Your total tour revenues are more than the GDP of most nations. In Singapore alone, more people tried to buy concert tickets than the entire population of the country. In the US, 2.4 million people purchased tickets the first day they went on sale …

You also revitalised physical music media by convincing a million or so fans to buy their first vinyl album—boosting demand for LPs to levels not seen since the last century. You’ve actually done more to help record stores than the record business.

Nobody else is doing these kinds of things with such impact. It’s not even close.

On even the least enthusiastic possible assessments, Gioia’s manifesto possesses the good Hippocratic virtue of doing no harm. We whose own classical recording careers are now over can avoid the perils of undue emotional investment in the future of classical recording careers for others.

Comfort can be gained, too, from the predominantly Anglophone-Sinophone nature of the streaming revolution’s worst ravages. Visit Paris, Brussels or Lisbon—visit even a smallish regional European city, a Toulouse or a Coimbra—and you can find pleasantly old-fashioned CD stores with large art music sections, stores doing reasonable business, however much their total numbers have shrunk since 2000 and especially since Covid. Aficionados who journey to Prague and Budapest report similar phenomena. It is always consoling when the fabric of Europe remains somewhere untorn.

Whether classical recording can make profitable a version of the Gioia program, who can say? Yogi Berra memorably lamented how hard it is “to make predictions, especially about the future”. Indisputable is the fact that no alternative program to Gioia’s has been offered.

R.J. Stove is an organist and writer living in Melbourne. His CDs are available from www.arsorgani.com


3 thoughts on “Wrestling with the Recording Angel

  • john mac says:

    Yes ,this is one of the lesser known nails in the coffin of the West and the lack of value for anything given free is palpable. Give someone a Rolls Royce for nothing and car will not be looked after.

  • Paul W says:

    I agree with the premise that in buying something we make it more valuable to ourselves, but I disagree with the analysis.
    Music piracy was popular because there was often no other way to get a digital copy. The same for video games before Steam became universal. Not because of anarcho-capitalists.
    The fact is that digital copies provide enormous advantages over physical ones. Streaming is the logical endpoint of those advantages.

  • sonofscott says:

    Much food for thought. It has to be conceded that the breakdown of systems is too widespread and complex to hope for any kind of short-term revival in the arts or the recording industry, and that their cultural peak is behind us.
    Digital audio is a scam. We have been hoodwinked into believing it offers a superior listening experience. There’s a consolation in this: amazing-sounding vintage vinyl abounds that its unsuspecting custodians can barely give away. Find a copy of Kleiber’s Op.67 and let it blow your hair back – the dynamic range is breathtaking.
    Also, I am the proud owner of a set of Adler’s Great Books (how dare you!). Its main crime is not that it exists but that its physical presentation is so dull. The collection acts as a placeholder until I can (afford to) replace the individual titles with an attractive hardback edition of each. It would surprise me if anyone contested that at least the first 30 or so are books that deserve to be read.

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