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The New Age of Classical Music

Column debut. Classical recordings in the digital era.

by Drew McManus
February 16, 2004

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The New Age of Classical Music_Drew McManus- So what’s this column all about? Is classical music even important enough to warrant space here in the arts section of The Partial Observer? Will classical music exist in 25 years? Are orchestras nothing more than dinosaurs that don’t know they’re extinct yet? Those are just some of the big questions we’re going to tackle here at Neo Classical: ideas about the future of classical music.

First, why the title Neo Classical - New Classical - for this column? I selected that title because I’m an advocate of creating new ways for enabling people to connect with classical music. As a child growing up in a household that didn’t even play the radio, my exposure to culture was limited to the obligatory piano lessons starting at age six. Fortunately, I had one of the most wonderful private teachers I could have ever hoped to encounter. Not only did this piano teacher spark my interest in playing music, but he was wise enough to simultaneously introduce orchestral classical music in a way that was appealing and exciting. From that point on I was hooked and well on my way becoming a classically trained professional musician.

According to a recent study by the Knight Foundation, 4% of American adults attend live orchestra concerts throughout the country. Couple that statistic with the fact that classical CD sales only account for 3% of the overall industry totals and that means classical music is in big trouble. And I mean trouble with a capital “T” which rhymes with “D” which stands for “dead”. Take the example of Columbia House, one of the big Try-N-Save CD clubs, recently ditched selling classical CD’s altogether. But it isn’t hopeless just yet, there are ways to turn things around and bring in a multitude of new enthusiastic patrons to the world of classical music.

One BIG problem in the classical music business is its annoying habit of shooting itself in the foot on a regular basis. It just won’t learn from its mistakes and tradition, as opposed to innovation, is the guiding light by which most decisions are made. I could walk into an orchestra concert 50 years ago and feel right at home compared to the way orchestra concerts are presented today. The business is so entrenched in the way it functions and so unwilling to adopt new ideas and new technology that it’s actually being circumvented by mainstream society.

For example, let’s look at digital music. I remember back to 1997 when I downloaded MusicMatch Jukebox v1.0. I was so excited “Great, no more big cumbersome WAV files to deal with,” I thought to myself. “This new MP3 format is a god-send”. I ripped a few jazz and chamber music CD’s first and thought, “Oh, this is really cool”. I was already trying to figure out a way to install an old computer under the front seat of my car so I could make this wonderful piece of software mobile – I was, and am, a dedicated geek. Then my world came crashing down around me. I loaded a copy of my favorite recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a 1976 reissue of an LP performed by the Vienna Philharmonic.

Now, there are four movements to this symphony and it has a separate track for each movement on the CD. But when Beethoven wrote the music he wasn’t concerned with putting a nice clean break in between each movement, instead, the music continues without pause right from the third to the fourth movement. On the CD, they let this happen without interruption because classical music recording engineers have known about these things since LP’s were new, and they layout the music on the CD accordingly. But MusicMatch wasn’t talking to classical music engineers, or classical musicians, or anyone who could even spell “Prokofiev” correctly. What I ended up with is a giant crescendo at the end of track #3, then a bone-jarring-karate-chop-two-second gap of silence, followed by a clumsy resolution of the climax which is simultaneously the beginning of movement four: Beethoven Interruptus.

“This is very un-cool,” I though to myself. So I spent the next four and half hours trying to find a way around the problem because there is quite a bit of classical music that works this way. I couldn’t have my new digital listening library sound like an epileptic Jukebox. This problem was never reasonably solved by the software developers at Music Match or any of the other music digitizing companies. Why isn’t this something that can be easily fixed? Because the classical music business has become so far removed from technological advancements that its unique needs aren’t even considered during the research and development stages of software design. The problem continues on through today. Apple’s new iPod and their downloading service is a nightmare to use if you’re a classical music enthusiast. I don’t blame Apple for chopping up Mahler’s symphonies or making it impossible to tell which orchestra I’m listening to. I blame the music industry for becoming so inflexible that they’ve made themselves outsiders.

But things don’t have to be this way. Although I consider myself a pessimist’s pessimist (it’s always darkest right before you die), I see hope on the horizon. Classical music, orchestras in particular, need to dive head first into the digital recording medium. With classical CD sales almost an asterisk on the recording industry static’s page, they have no where else to go. They need to abandon mainstream CD production with its high costs and residual-laden restrictions. They need to utilize advances in recording technology that allow them to offer high fidelity music through their own web sites and have the ability to cut one or one thousand copies at a time. Listeners need to have the ability to download one movement from a symphony just as easily as they can download an entire symphonic collection. (Hayden wrote over 100!). And they need to keep it affordable; a six minute movement from one of Mendelssohn’s string symphonies shouldn’t cost more than a dollar.

If your recording is of such high artistic quality that the orchestra gets a Grammy nomination so sales begin to skyrocket and you make loads of cash, great. But if the only people who buy your recordings are from the local community and those people treasure those recordings, then that’s even better. Orchestras need to focus on building up their business from the ground up again: good old “bootstrapping”. Does this mean that I’m asserting that the classical music business needs to redefine what is considered successful? Yep, I sure am. A colleague recently reminded me that “redefining success is usually a symptom that something's wrong. If the classical music business decides it is content with selling a couple of thousand units in lobbies or on the Internet, isn’t that admitting how limited its prospects really are?” But that’s the type of thinking that has got this business into trouble in the first place. Maybe it’s due to my non-conformist nature, but I say the future of classical music relies on abandoning the shackles of tradition and reinventing itself.

By distributing this great artistic product to a larger number or listeners, you’ll begin to draw more attention to the orchestra. That attention will translate into a live concert experience and then… Well, I’ll save those topics for future articles.

I hope you enjoyed reading this commentary and you’ll take the time to write in and share your opinions or ask questions. There’s much to discuss.

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Frank Manheim from Fairfax VA writes:
February 18, 2004
I am acquainted with Drew McManus's ArtJournal blog site. In it he encourages new, more audience-empowering approaches by symphony managers and other cultural organizations. McManus is a leader in an emerging groundswell of music professionals who see a need for reform in our professional serious music establishment if the decline in classical music is to be reversed. The reform movement offers new opportunities not just to hang onto the status quo, but to revitalize classical music in ways that can affect younger people. The Partial Observer's initiative with McManus's column is a welcome addition to these developments.

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