Classical Music Recording Industry: Missed Opportunities
While working in academia, I undertook a broad and inclusive analysis of the classical music recording industry in the United Kingdom. Historically the source of great technological innovation and musical excellence, the British classical recording industry no longer thrives in the way it once did. My goals in this research were threefold:
1. To understand how the classical recording industry deteriorated from its tremendous success of the 1960s and 1970s to the niche operation it is today;
2. To investigate how technological advancements change the way records are made and, more fundamentally, how musicians think of the performance and recording processes; and
3. To learn about how those concepts of classical music are revealed and adapted in the ways that musicians, administrators, producers, and engineers talk to each other during recording sessions.
Western classical music (which I’ll call “classical music” for brevity, although it’s worth noting that many global cultures have music they consider “classical”) suffers under the weight of two centuries of ideological baggage. Musicians and listeners today think of classical music within a framework defined by 19th-century Romantics: the lone (almost always male) “genius” composer, the ultimate authority of the musical score as the composer’s authentic expression, and the consequent strictures on how creative musicians can be.
This ideological framework is so ingrained, I was not very surprised to learn in my research that classical record producers and engineers also think in this way. One engineer told me that his job is to provide a “window into a performance”; another flat out rejected the notion that there was anything particularly creative about his work.
And yet, these record producers and engineers are clearly inventive, musical, creative people with a high level of skill and proficiency in classical music. Recording technology is their medium, and records are their art. I set out to learn how technology fits into the ideological framework of classical music, how the recording industry has fractured over the past couple decades—and whether there are possibilities for its continuation today.
My methods in this project were chosen to understand how producers and engineers apply their musical and technical knowledge in context. I used fly-on-the-wall observation to learn what happens in the recording studio, and I conducted semi-structured interviews with producers, engineers, and record label administrators to gain insight into the broader context for record production and distribution.
I attended many recording sessions ranging from solo voice with piano to a complete opera. I typically sat in the control room behind the recording desk so that I could observe the producer and engineers without being in the way—but sometimes I was asked to help with some task or other, such as keeping track of timings, getting tea for the team, or locating passages in the score.
The decline in the classical music recording industry was the product of a lack of strategic thinking coupled with rapid transformations in the global economy. In the heyday of the classical recording industry, not much thought was given to the profitability of record labels. The music was considered inherently valuable, and therefore, records would sell and labels would make money. Major classical labels like Decca and EMI were key players in the development of recording technologies, and they also put out a tremendous volume of classical recordings every year.
This began to change in the 1970s, spurred in part by a trend towards decentralized corporations instead of vertically integrated ones. Heads of labels, who had never had to justify their existence or articulate a long-term strategy in any meaningful way, were at a loss as to how to cope with the new economy. Still, rather than consider their companies as providing a product to particular consumers, they mostly continued to rely on their belief that the obvious value of classical music would sustain them. It didn’t. EMI was broke by the end of the 1970s; Decca sold to Polygram in the 1980s. Producers and engineers who had been in-house employees were fired and made freelance workers, with all the risks that are entailed with working for yourself.
The classical recording industry today is much more of a niche business than in the past, with only minimal strategic direction. The successful classical labels are small and independent, and they cultivate niche appeal by doing something well that none of their competitors do: opera in English, obscure Romantic piano concertos, lesser-known operas. This strategy allows independent labels to maintain a fairly dedicated consumer base, but without much opportunity for growth and the perpetual risk of going under.
Labels are also rightly wary of newer modes of consumption, especially streaming services. They are right to be concerned, because the streaming services do not provide substantial revenue streams. But these cash-strapped labels have also not tried to innovate ways of reaching new listeners without selling out to the streaming services. Their business models remain quite conservative, and thus, the risk remains.
Recording technology is an uncomfortable necessity at most recording sessions. Despite the long history of recording classical music, many musicians and listeners think of recording technology as obtrusive and inauthentic to the business of making classical music. Editing is the recording industry’s open secret: except with the most niche labels, all recordings are edited, and most are edited substantially. The process of recording many takes and choosing how to assemble a full performance is an inherent part of the art of making classical records—but many musicians and listeners (and even some producers and engineers) prefer to pretend that it doesn’t happen. Much of the classical recording industry thus labors under an antiquated notion that there are genuine and “perfect” performances in the world, rather than the skillful creations they hear on records. This idea goes hand-in-hand with the resistance to innovation in audience development and distribution that characterize the independent classical labels.