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The Absolute Sound

From The Editor...
October 2005
By Jonathan Valin

The Business of Music

  A lot of folks blame the iPod for the accelerating demise of classical music, but it seems to me that music lovers, young and old, Have always been eager to find ways of carrying the music they enjoy outside concert and recital halls and into the world. Even the phonograph, when it was first invented, and certainly the radio were kinds of "short cuts" to formal concert-going and to the venerable practice of performing music in one's home. The phonograph and the radio expanded the reach of musical couture, popular and art, and because both media were also businesses run by savvy and particularly high-brow businessmen, the marketing of music on the basis of celebrity and mass — popularity rapidly became key to what music was most widely promoted and broadcast to the general public. To be frank, this marketing of music is not fundamentally different than the way easy-to-play scores meant for performance by "amateurs" in home parlors were marketed by music publishing houses in the days of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin. My point is that the business of music has always sought to reach out to (and profit from) a broader audience and that part of this effort involved the expansion of the venues in which music could be listened to, shared and enjoyed.

Many books have been written about the way such mass — merchandising has killed "art music." It was, for instance, one of aesthetician Theodore Adorno's complaints. But unless you take his position that such art was meant exclusively for a very small group of cognoscenti, the portability of music — from music boxes and player pianos to Edison cylinders and Victrolas to Met radio broadcasts and Toscanini's Symphony of the Air to the opera luminaries and piano virtuosos that used to regularly pop up on Ed Sullivan TV shows to today's PBS specials and, frankly, to high-end stereo systems where sound quality is so often elevated above musicianship and inherent musical values — is not the chief reason for the "demise tif classical music."

What has changed isn't the centuries-long technological expansion of the means of accessing art music; it is the way that art music is generally valued in our culture. Here Adotno's argument — that the commoditization of an art that was fundamentally never meant to he broadly commoditized — has resonance. The market for art music has never been large. With few exceptions, RCA used to view classical releases as successes when they sold a few thousand copies — and this was in the heyday of Heifetz, Rubinstein, Piatigorsky, Reiner, Monteux, et al. For thinkers like Adorno, turning artists into "movie stars" and marketing them like same blurred the line between pop culture and art culture (and has, among many other sad consequences, led to the current deplorable fashion of picturing a string quartet of young ladies in half-naked poses). Throughout most of the twentieth century, art music has cacti' been competitive with popular music, and it was a grave mistake to appeal to the audiences for each in roughly the same ways. But when the bottom line becomes paramount, this is what you get.

To be fair to the record companies, orchestras in the U.S. have also played a hugely destructive role in the decline of classical art music by literally and stubbornly pricing themselves out of the recording market. Record companies simply can't afford to record anymore when the costs of recording vastly exceed any hopes of profits. (This is the chief reason why we've seen recordings from so many Eastern European orchestras take the places of high-priced American and European ones.) On top of this, a good deal of the music of the twentieth century (and of the cognoscenti who shaped the taste for classical music) stubbornly hewed to the avant-garde, and much as I personally-tonal music, concertgoers and record buyers have, for the most part, been turned off by it.

The iPod is just the latest instance of a technological revolution that has been progressing in the same direction for quite a time, and, much as I personally deplore the iPod, it's simply wrong to blame it for the "death of musical culture." If art music is dying (and I'm not sure it is), the problem has far more complex sources, and frankly no medium— no matter how high or low its resolution — is to blame.



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