There aren’t many brands like Ferrari or Lamborghini in classical music. For a long time, Deutsche Grammophon was one of the only ones. It was obvious why: the label stood for tradition, good taste, objects of value, cutting edge technology. When you bought something from Deutsche Grammophon, you knew you were getting a reference recording. True, the quality of the product wasn’t always as high as the impeccable reputation of the brand–at times, the brand brought more prestige to the artist than the artist to the brand. But even for people whose main cultural experience of music was through pop culture, the Deutsche Grammophon records on their parents’ shelves had an irreproducible aura. For a long time.
The story of the crisis that came next has been told often. DG wasn’t the only label to suffer. Across the industry, profits from record sales crashed; the supply of recordings and artists on the market came to outstrip demand; standard repertoire was played so often a kind of interpretation fatigue set in; and a new generation of musicians came of age who didn’t achieve, or even strive for, the cult appeal of earlier stars. The window of time in which to find new business models and ways to profit from digitalization was missed. At some point, the core product DG was offering wasn’t enough to cover larger overhead and administration costs, salaries and fees, advances and marketing budgets. The label reacted to this development by distancing itself further from its core classical business and looking for new customers. And so the things that made the Yellow Label special fell increasingly away. Loyal fans began to look elsewhere for their quality records. Browse through forums for classical music obsessives today, and you’ll find few more common targets for invective than Deutsche Grammophon.
Interesting article, but I’m not sure things are as clear as it suggests. DG is simply following the more general decline in classical music, and the rise of smaller labels, which make the concept of a “reference” label anachronistic.
A couple of months ago, I linked to the Avant-Garde Project, which has an archive of avant-garde musical recordings, all out of print, that you can download. I’ve spotted another, similar collection of recordings on UbuWeb: the Wolf Firth Archive. As the site says:
Wolf Fifth was a modernist music blog, featuring out of print and orphaned classics. Like so many great blogs, they fell victim to the cloud locker wars. Fortunately, UbuWeb’s pal Justin Lacko downloaded the entire archive before they went down and donated the collection to UbuWeb. As you can see by the list below, there’s a ton of stuff, and it’s going to take quite some time to get this all sorted and posted on Ubu. So stay tuned. We’re working on it.
You can download or stream these recordings from the site. If you’re interested in this sort of stuff, it’s a gold mine of rare, edgy music.
The growing numbers of women in professional orchestras at every level can be traced to a single innovation that began around 1970: “blind auditions,” where competing candidates for open orchestral jobs play behind a screen. The selection committee does not know if it is hearing a man or a woman. The rapid change in the makeup of orchestras since 1970–casually visible and backed up by the numbers–is compelling evidence of the opposition women orchestral players faced before that innovation.
Fascinating article about the number of women in classical music: in orchestras, as composers, as conductors, and as soloists. Since screened auditions were put in place, the number of female musicians in orchestras has grown immensely, but where blinders aren’t used, they are still a small minority.
The final leg of Murray Perahia’s survey of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos, ending with the ‘Emperor’.
I heard Murray Perahia play this last week in Birmingham; the review here is for the London concert. It was simply brilliant. I agree with most everything in this review. It points out that this was a semi-historically informed performance, with a relatively small orchestra (around 40 musicians), that brought out the orchestral lines very well. I wish I had seen the previous concerts with the other concertos, and I wish these had been recorded. (Perhaps they were…)
I disagree about the 1st Symphony, however. It was stodgy and far too Haydnesque. Only the final movement had vigor.
But I consider myself lucky to have heard Murray Perahia play this, the king of piano concertos.
In 1992, when I moved to New York and began to write about classical music, every major city newspaper had at least one writer covering the field, sometimes several writers. I would see knots of critics at performances, gaggles of them at big premières. In the intervening years, the ranks of the profession have steadily dwindled, to the point where fewer than ten American papers have full-time classical critics on staff.
You could argue that classical critics are an endangered species because the art form has lost its place in mainstream culture.
And classical music is hardly alone in witnessing a dying-off of critics. Colleagues in other disciplines–dance, theatre, visual arts, books, even movies and pop music–report similar struggles.
Alex Ross discusses how the value of critics has changed.
The Avant Garde Project is a series of recordings of 20th-century classical, experimental, and electroacoustic music digitized from LPs whose music has in most cases never been released on CD, and so is effectively inaccessible to the vast majority of music listeners today.
The analog rig used to extract the sound from the grooves is near state-of-the-art, producing almost none of the tracking distortion or surface noise normally associated with LPs.
The AGP archive is a repository for AGP installments, the files of which can be downloaded from this website. Looking for a specific composer? Try our alphabetical index.
NOTE: To the best of my knowledge, all of the recordings on this site are currently out of print. If you know otherwise, please let me know ASAP, as I would not want any artists to be deprived of the royalties they so richly deserve. Please see the AGP copyright policy for further information.
The Avant Garde Project is a huge archive of more than 150 albums of experimental music. It’s all been ripped from LPs, and it seems that most if not all of this music has never been released on CD. There’s a wide range of experimental music here; you may like some and hate some, but if you’re curious about experimental music, you should check out some of these recordings.
BBC Arts and The Space present Richard Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle, in a radically stripped-back, critically acclaimed production by Opera North. Filmed during live performances in Leeds in 2016, this is total immersion in a unique, all-encompassing music drama. Audiences worldwide can watch the complete work below.
I’ve been listening to The Grateful Dead for more than 40 years, and their music never ceases to satisfy me. Most people, when they think of the Grateful Dead, know a few of their later songs, such as Touch of Gray, which was a hit in the MTV era. But when you dig into their music, especially their early years, you can see how diverse the band was. They played rock, blues, roadhouse R&B (especially while Pigpen was alive), jazzy tunes, and crazy improvisations.
It’s this latter part of the band’s repertoire that is the most astounding. From night to night, they’d belt out cowboy songs, psychedelic tunes, and play a Chuck Berry song or two, but they’d also slip into mind-bending improvisations. Right now, I’m listening to their concert of April 2, 1973, which contains are three extended improvisations.
The first is in Playing in the Band, a song the band started playing live in 1968, that was finally recorded on Bob Weir’s first solo album Ace in 1972. It was one of the two major vehicles for extended jams in those years, the other being the band’s signature song Dark Star. The second improvisation in this concert is merely labeled “Jam” on the recently released recording (Dave’s Picks vol. 21). It’s an 11-minute improvisation sandwiched between two songs, Sunshine and Me and Bobby McGee. And the third is part of the extended performance of Eyes of the World, from the record the band would release later that year, Wake of the Flood. This song always featured long improvisations, yet more restrained than some of the others.
The Dead’s jams were unique. Sometimes, they would act as simple bridges between two songs that they often played as a pair: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain, or Not Fade Away > Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. Sometimes they were part of specific songs, such as Dark Star or Playing in the Band. And sometimes they were just in between two random songs, as in this 1973 concert.
They would often start as the band ended the lyrics and slowly morphed from the original tune and chord structure into a free-form exploration of themes and rhythms. They were sometimes loud and rocky, sometimes mellow and psychedelic, but often they drifted far from what rock music generally was. They could be atonal, polyrhythmic, almost random sounding, but, at least in the early years, the band maintained a direction.
So what does this have to do with contemporary classical music? Listen to a jam like the one on April 2, 1973 and you may want to press the Next button, but if you’re curious you’ll hear melodies and structures that might tempt you to seek out more music of the kind. Few other rock bands would venture into this territory, but when I started listening to 20th century classical music in my late teens, I was not turned off by the atonality and strange rhythms I heard, as many people might be. I welcomed the incongruity of this music, and tried to understand it.
(It’s worth noting that Phil Less, the band’s bass player, was interested in avant-garde music, studying with Luciano Berio at Mills College in 1962; one of his classmates was Steve Reich. I don’t think Lesh – who had never played the bass until the day that Jerry Garcia told him he would be their bass player – led the band in that direction, but that all of them, especially Garcia, were open to all forms of music.)
I’m not a fan of aimless contemporary classical music; in fact, much of this type of music, especially the formulaic serialism and random compositions that become dominant in the 1950s and 1960s, annoys me. But I love listening to Charles Ives, Toru Takemitsu, or Einojuhani Rautavaara, all of whom, to some extent, feature atonality in their music. One of my favorite pieces of music is Ives’ Concord Sonata, at times a harshly atonal piece of piano music; I probably would not have appreciated that work without having heard the Dead and their improvisations first.
The Dead had a short window of interesting improvisation. Around 1978, their jams became codified around drum solos, leading to the common track listing seen on concerts from that time until the end of the band’s career: Drums > Space. “Space” was what their musical explorations became, aimless improvisations that followed self-absorbed drum solos. The band would let the two drummers play with their toys for a while, then come back on stage and phone it in, sounding like a ghost of their former selves. There were still jams within songs, but these remained melodic improvisations, more jazz than free-form. But these Drums > Space segments mostly sounded anemic. (To be fair, for a few years, there was still some interesting music in them, at times.)
From the late 1960s to around 1978, the Grateful Dead treated their audience, every night, to a cloud of improvised sound that went beyond the confines of any genre. Some of those listeners used this music as a launching point for exploring other types of music. And we’re forever in debt to the band for opening our minds.
In this special, one-hour, year-end episode, we feature clips from some of our more popular episodes. If you’re just discovering The Next Track, this highlight reel will give you an idea of the topics we cover in the show.
Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.
I received a press release from Universal Music, one of the big record labels that owns many of what were originally independent classical labels, such as DG, Phillips, and Decca. They were touting the sales of their new Mozart 225 box set. The press release’s title was, in all caps:
MOZART 225 BOX SET BECOMES BIGGEST PHYSICAL RELEASE OF 2016, SELLING 1.25 MILLION CDS IN 5 WEEKS
Wow, that’s pretty impressive! Get this:
225 years after his death, Mozart is still top of the pops, as a new box set dedicated to his works becomes the biggest CD release of the year. ‘Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition’ has sold a staggering 1.25 million CDs globally in just 5 weeks since it was released — more than releases from Drake, Rihanna and David Bowie.
More than Drake, Rihanna, and David Bowie. Except it’s, well, fake news.
My first thought was surprise. 1.25 million copies of this set, at around $400, would be a half a billion dollars. Not bad for the beleaguered recording industry. Also, the label claimed that this set was limited to 15,000 copies; mine even has a certificate showing its number, so if they had sold that many, they’d be guilty of fraud.
And there’s the rub. The sold 1.25 million compact discs, not box sets. If you divide that number by 200 (the number of discs in the set), you get 6,250. Out of 15,000. Or just under 42% of the total pressing.
By any account, 1.25 million CDs is a lot. But it’s a fraction of what Brilliant Classics sold of their Complete Mozart set, released more than ten years ago. As of September 2006, the New York Times reported that 300,000 copies of that low-priced set had been sold. I’m going to spitball and say that, by now, they’ve hit half a million copies. At 170 discs, that comes to 85,000,000 compact discs sold. (Of course, they may have sold even more than half a million by now.)
So, Universal Music has only sold around 6,250 of theirs. I would expect that a lot of libraries and conservatoires around the world bought the set, and not many individuals. It’s expensive, and many of the classical record collectors I’ve conversed with about this set said they wouldn’t buy it because they had many of the recordings it contains and weren’t interested in the rest.
I think Universal is trying to spin this to make it sound like a big deal, because they haven’t sold anywhere near as many as they hoped. With Christmas approaching, they need to sell a few thousand more, and even if they do, they’re likely to end the year with more than 5,000 copies on hand. This is expensive inventory, and actually represents a bit of a failure on their part.
They probably expected brisker sales, since this is a limited edition. Most of the individual buyers of this set who are classical music collectors have made their purchases by now, because of that limitation. More will probably spring for it by Christmas. But will Universal sell out of their 15,000 copies? It doesn’t look good.