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On the record
Classical Music

On the record

Posted Monday, September 5, 2016   |   748 views   |   Music   |   Comments (0) Phillip Sommerich assesses some of the changes the record industry has seen since Classical Music first hit the shelves

On Saturday mornings in the 1970s, a ritual took place at my local record store in north-west London that was repeated across the country. As a customer entered, the sales assistant would produce a stack of LPs from under the counter and say: ‘Ah, Mr --------, I have some items to interest you.’

The size and content of the proffered new releases was tailored to the customer’s wallet and tastes.

The nearest equivalent today might be logging on to a streaming service and sampling a playlist. Technology instead of the human touch, globalised marketing instead of local selling, borrowed digital files replacing 12-inch vinyl discs whose cover artwork was as carefully crafted as the audio content – these are the changes in the record industry the consumer has seen over 40 years.

From inside the industry, too, it seems the changes and similarities have been shaped by the digital revolution. The first issue of CM reported on the 21-album launch of RCA’s Gold Seal, with marketing manager Bob Walker boasting: ‘My aim is to make this the most important mid-price series in England.’

Today reincarnated as Robert Matthew-Walker, editor of Musical Opinion, he says: ‘Forty years has meant a considerable change in technology and I’m not entirely convinced that the record industry has adapted well. It has not adapted in terms of marketing, which has taken very much a back seat. Promotion of any type of record or event has to be seen entirely in visual terms. In the 1970s, you did not have to have a video to launch a pop record. Now you cannot launch a single song without an accompanying video, and the costs of making the video far, far outweigh the costs of a making a record. Not all music is visual and it has suffered because of that.’

Alongside that visualisation, a decline in music education and media interest has seen classical music increasingly squeezed into a niche, Matthew-Walker argues.

‘When was the last time you saw a string quartet on British television? The answer is 1994 and that was when Channel 4 – not the BBC – broadcast the entire genre of Schoenberg. That was considered part of Channel 4’s remit then.’

The camera may count now, but it was experience that attracted recording contracts in 1976. Back then, van-loads of recording equipment, a staff producer and sound engineer plus back-up crew were required to make a record. They did not come cheap and the record label was expected to pick up the bill. It is unsurprising, then, that the market was dominated by five majors: Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips (later to be united under the PolyGram umbrella), EMI and RCA, all with thriving pop divisions – a world away from today’s plethora of labels, most of which expect artists to pay to record.

So labels played safe, seeking artists with established followings and good reviews. The ensuing partnerships tended to span decades, often with repeated recordings of a narrow range of core repertoire.

Those partnerships could end suddenly if sales fell. Leonard Bernstein’s 15-year alliance with CBS ended when his exit as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1973 meant US collectors lost interest. CM in October 1976 reported he had signed with Deutsche Grammophon and a month later noted ‘yet another’ contract, with EMI.

Not all the action was with the majors. In October 1976, CM announced the reappearance in the UK of Westminster Gold, with repertoire including ‘the premiere recording of Handel’s Xerxes’. A week later, the magazine announced that former LSO managing director John Boyden was launching the Enigma label to counter an alleged neglect of British repertoire and artists such as John Lill and John Shirley-Quirk. The label was short-lived as Boyden switched focus to his period-instrument New Queen’s Hall Orchestra

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The must-read magazine of the classical music profession, with news, analysis, features and latest jobs. Meet the people who make it happen and get backstage – with Classical Music.

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