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It's not dead or even ailing, Part 3
May 29, 2008, 5:34 PM
by Scott Foglesong, S.F. Classical Music Examiner


The one situation in the classical music scene that elicits the most doomsday predictions from Henny-Pennys is commercial recording. At first glance, the evidence pointing towards endgame is compelling. Brick-and-mortar record stores have mostly crumbled, the so-called big labels have been shutting down their 'classical' divisions, the major ensembles are distributing via their own in-house labels. One could easily be bamboozled into thinking that the whole thing has come a-cropper. If you're any kind of devotée of classical recording, just try reading this little puppy without feeling cold fingers of dread creeping up your spine.

But don't believe everything you read. It isn't classical music recording that's dying out, but rather outmoded sources for production and distribution, while newer technologies and infrastructures replace the old. We're witnessing change, not dissolution.

Before the digital age, recorded sound was strongly tied to a physical medium; you needed vinyl or shellac to hold those etched analog grooves. Replace wavy lines on a platter with binary digits, however, and you can store all those itty-bitty 1s and 0s any old way you want. They just sit there in a file, and no matter where that file resides — hard disk, optical compact disc, digital magnetic tape, thumb drive, in the flash memory of an iPod, or whatnot — those 1s and 0s will make precisely the same music when they're decoded.

Those binary digits are just fine and dandy about being squirted across the Internet, whether via actual wired connections or wireless transmission; it doesn't hurt 'em a bit. Result: I can flick on my iPhone or sit down at the computer, pick out an album from the iTunes Music Store, and pfffffft there it is, ready to be enjoyed. This would have been beyond my wildest fantasies as an access-starved teenager clinging desperately to his only musical lifeline, the Columbia Record Club. We are all the recipients of a miraculous gift, no less awe-inspiring for having become downright ubiquitous.

No warehouses, distribution centers, stamping plants, trucks or trains or airplanes hauling boxes of content. Just those digits: pfffffft.

Thus has the playing field been leveled; no longer are the big labels, with their vast manufacturing and distribution capabilities, our only source for recorded music. Increasingly performers are putting their wares up on their own websites, either for free or for a modest purchase price. The old gramophone star system, in which the big studios funded the big recordings by the big performers for (they hoped) big sales, is becoming a thing of the past. Nowadays performers needn't pine for that elusive contract with EMI or RCA; technology enables them to create high-quality recordings at a modest cash outlay, and the Internet makes it possible to get those recordings to a broader audience than ever before.

But if you want those big stars, and those big recordings — well, they're all available too. The big labels have made the move online (some more gracefully than others) so one click of the mouse and pfffffft: Fritz Reiner (left) and the Chicago Symphony emerge from time warp, sounding as though they were recorded just yesterday instead of fifty years ago. One can access much of the staggering accumulation of recordings from the past century without stirring from one's easy chair, as well as the dizzying array of contemporary offerings. The big American labels, Columbia and RCA, live on mainly via re-releases while Deutsche Grammophon and EMI continue adding new offerings to their vast catalogs. Even more compelling, though, are the adventuresome, lesser-known labels — Harmonia Mundi, Chandos, Naxos, CPO, BIS, Lyrita, Arts Music, and many others.

There is more recorded classical music available right now, cheaper and easier to access, than at any time in the history of recorded sound.

You can still pick up physical CDs, and there's a lot to be said for them. Here in San Francisco we have the edgy-but-fascinating Amoeba Music on Haight near Stanyan, a great place for new and used CDs, DVDs, vinyl, and even cassettes. Downtown the Virgin Megastore sports quite a respectable classical section. Smaller local record stores, such as Streetlight Records on Market, can surprise you with the taste applied to a necessarily limited stock.

Online, the pickings are incredibly rich. For physical CDs, ArkivMusic and Amazon can provide just about anything you can imagine. For downloads, iTunes Music Store, Amazon, ClassicsOnline, Deutsche Grammophon, and HDTracks are great resources.

So if there ever was a 'Golden Age' of classical music recording, we're living in it right now.

 

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