alan little’s weblog

record shops

4th June 2004 permanent link

Having been so much impressed by Zoltán Székely’s playing of the Bartok violin concerto the other day, I went googling for a performance with violin playing similar to his but listenable modern sound. No conclusive results yet; recommendations welcome. Meanwhile though, I stumbled across this excellent posting on the state of the music industry, from a guy who actually runs a classical section in a big record shop:

Naxos on the other hand actually does great music. They have a catalog of composers, compositions and performers that dwarfs any of the major labels’ releases. They are also $6.99 a disc. The combination of unduplicated repertoire (which no one else bothers to record at all), excellent craft and affordable price has given them roughly 23% of the entire classical CD market, and this percentage is even higher in England.

Furthermore, the major labels haven’t any real interest in music as such. Decca, Deutsche Grammafon, RCA, EMI/Virgin, Teldec and Sony couldn’t care less about repertory. The major labels’ strategy in classics relies upon the promotion of classical touring "stars," like Hilary Hahn, Anne-Sofie Mutter, Yo-Yo Ma, and Renee Fleming. The entire budgets of these companies goes quite often to promoting a package, centered around a single performer, who invariably will play something incredibly well-trod and not terribly innovative, like the Brahms Violin Concerto or opera arias from Puccini. BFD. Because they put so much money into promoting stars, they are kept from releasing anything on a "rising star," or an unknown. Although it would be far less expensive to release material from their vaults (as DG does now with its "Originals" series, or Decca with their "Legends"), in truth these companies are not run by people who have the faintest idea what they actually have in their catalogs. The worst offenders by far are Sony and RCA [RCA, for example, are sitting on a set of late Beethoven recordings by the Juilliard Quartet that is reputed to be one of the best performances ever recorded. It’s long since out of print on vinyl and has never been issued on CD – Alan], but the rest are equally culpable.

Brian Micklethwait thinks Hilary Hahn is actually very good, but even if true that doesn’t in any way invalidate the general point the guy is making. The rest of the post is interesting and well worth reading. Yes, there’s good stuff on usenet as well as in weblogs. Although the signal-to-noise ratio is even lower.

It seems, too, that all the good classical record shops these days are departments run by enthusiasts in bigger shops. At least that’s true of two of my regular record-buying haunts: HMV in Manchester and Müller in Munich. Perhaps once upon a time these guys might have been running independent shops - but then they might not have been as good at other aspects of running a business as they are at selecting classical records; they might not have had the capital or the buying power to negotiate good deals with labels and distributors or to carry a wide enough stock to be interesting, either. Big chain stores not necessarily all bad, as long as they employ the right eccentrics to head up specialist sections and give them a certain amount of discretion.

While we’re on the subject of record shop proprietors, as we suddenly & fortuitously seem to be: anybody who hasn’t already done so really should read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, the best British novel of the 1990s. (Forget the dull, mediocre and set-in-Chicago-for-no-apparent-reason film).

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