(12/7: some slight editing added)
"Classical music recording died several years ago," asserted the speaker, with a touch of rhetorical hyperbole, at a talk I attended recently. A skeptical college professor in the audience asked for specific data to back up the claim. The speaker, perhaps caught off guard, suggested that this is something "everyone knows" but wasn't able to come up with any statistics or anecdotal evidence, although he made what I believe is the correct assertion that there are many fewer classical recordings being produced, and the undeniable observation that there are fewer stores selling classical recordings. (I have noticed over the past five years the steady shrinking of floor space for classical CDs in the music departments of the Indianapolis-area Borders and Barnes and Noble stores; 10 years ago Best Buy had a huge classical selection, now hardly anything.)
So I believe the speaker was right, at least when it comes to classical recording as we used to know it: big labels recording major masterworks performed by big-name artists. As major record labels have been bought up by big conglomerates not committed to the cause of classical recording, new classical releases have been diminishing to the point that classical recording as it was in the 60's and 70's is for all intents and purposes dead. That's my sense of things anyway. But I have no statistics at my fingertips, either, although I do have some anecdotes.
Having a bit of free time this morning, I thought it would be worthwhile to spend a little time this researching the question online, and I invite my readers to add specific resources in the comments section. Here's what I've come up with in a couple of quick Google searches:
In January 2004, Greg Sandow (to whom I turn first when researching the challenges facing classical music) referred to "the decline (surely too weak a word) of classical recording." A little over a year later, he wrote a blog entry "The Crisis" which gave a more nuanced discussion of the issue:
3. Major classical record labels hardly record classical music any more. Again, this to some extent reflects a changed corporate climate. Major record labels are owned by huge media companies, which expect serious profits from each of their divisions. Plus, looking back a generation, record companies learned in the late '60s and the '70s how much money they could make from pop (when bands started selling millions of albums, instead of just millions of singles). The companies may well have wondered why they should settle for smaller profits from classical. But this is more than corporate greed; again we're talking about a change in cultural weather. Back in the '60s, and of course earlier, it seemed natural that large record companies should support serious classical divisions. They did this not simply for money, but also for prestige, and out of genuine interest. In the '40s, after all (and in earlier decades), classical radio broadcasts had reached millions of listeners, and NBC (one of the big radio networks) had even created an orchestra for Toscanini. Some of that spirit lived on into the age of television, but as the decades marched on, the record companies cared less and less. Not long ago, a spokesman for BMG, commenting on the Sony/BMG merger, turned out to have no idea that BMG had legendary classical artists in its catalogue. Classical music, it seemed, didn't matter to him at all.
4. Going along with a decline in major-label classical recording is a decline in classical record stores. Only a decade ago, there were five serious classical record departments in New York, at the two Tower Records branches, at two HMV stores, and at J&R Music World. J&R has decimated its classical department, the two HMV stores have closed, and Tower teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. The classical department at its downtown store is smaller than it used to be. More to the point, though, is the complete disappearance of stores selling any large number of classical records in smaller cities, and even some large ones. There simply isn't a market. And when I go to the Tower Records classical departments in New York, and see how comparatively empty they are, I wonder how Tower can sustain them. How can any store -- especially in a city where real estate costs as much as it does in New York -- afford to maintain so much space that generates so comparatively few sales?
5. Classical records are now largely subsidized. This is the dirty little secret of the classical record industry. Look at a serious classical recording -- especially something large-scale, like an orchestral performance, or an opera -- and you'll usually find private sponsors. Even the Metropolitan Opera's commercial recording of Wagner's Ring was at least to some extent privately funded. (Or so the Met's press department once confirmed to me, while remaining cagy about exactly how much of the cost the private donors paid.) What this means is that very few classical recordings are actually commercial, as, back in the 1950s and 1960s, almost all classical records (even on small labels) once were. It's important to remember this when you look at the vast array of small classical labels, many of them putting out notable, even compelling releases. How many of these labels are actually paying for those recordings? Or, maybe more to the point, how many of these recordings earn what they cost to make? Most, from everything I've heard, aren't even expected to earn much money. Instead, they're financed by the musicians who make them. Or else the record companies themselves are non-profit entities, supported by private funds.Greg doesn't reference any specific sources--which one wouldn't necessarily expect in a blog entry--to document his statement that, "Major classical record labels hardly record classical music any more."
And, sad to note, Greg was wondering then how Tower records could survive, and now it's gone.
Norman Lebrecht wrote a 2003 blog entry, "Look Who's Been Dumped" in which he discusses artists being dropped by major labels. Along these lines, I know of anecdotal evidence, through a friend whose ex-wife was a classical producer for Phillips, that even Jessye Norman was dropped by that company for having sales too low.
Terry Teachout, in "What to Learn from Howard Stern: Can Old and New Media Coexist?" writes, "Mind you, I’ve never predicted the End of Classical Music, but I did see the end of the classical recording industry coming down the track many years ago, and wasn’t even slightly surprised when it finally came to pass." Terry goes on to muse about the possibilities of new delivery systems, and how many artists are successfully bypassing the whole crumbling structure of major labels with outlets like CD Baby and digital delivery systems.
What I haven't found yet, Googling around (I haven't gone to some of our academic online databases) are actual statistics along the lines of: "In 1980, there were X new classical releases; in 1990, Y; in 2000 Z; etc."
If anyone has those figures, please send 'em to me.