Is Classical music dying?

A friend of mine, Geoff King, wrote this article and published it on Facebook. It’s worth spreading, so send it to friends, family members, or other classical music fans. Just give it a quick read; you won’t regret it.

Music critic Normal Lebrecht wrote a book a few years ago called The Life and Death of Classical Music, in which he claimed that the classical music industry is dead. Personally, I disagree somewhat, after all it is obviously making a comeback with mp3 downloads and the rise of more “accessable” composers like Jennifer Higdon. (Her Violin Concerto just won the Pulitzer for Music. She writes nice stuff. Check it out.) But Lebrecht has a point. Take, for example, Deutsche Grammophon, possibly the most respected classical music label. Their releases for this month include an album of Baroque arias (mostly by Handel, Vivaldi, and Scarlatti, and therefore likely recorded before), a collection of Chopin and two collections of Schumann ‘masterworks’ (How many times have the Chopin preludes been recorded? On DG alone, 18.) a DVD of Hansel and Gretel (4th time), an Anna Netrebko recital of Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov songs, and in the only touch of originality, an album of Bach played on accordion. No wonder the industry is dying! Do they really expect us to continue to buy recordings of works which we already own?

Lebrecht, despite his gloomy outlook, praises the Naxos label for its attempts to reinvigorate the industry. A quick poke around its website reveals why. Deutsche Gramophone’s catalog contains the work of 195 composers. Naxos: 4,656. It’s not just the price of their CDs (a sweet $6 for most single disks) that attracts people, but also the fact that their catalog is almost 24 times as broad as DG’s.

So why do we, as classical music fans, tolerate this? Everyone acknowledges that the Beatles are one of the best bands of all time, and yet Universal Pop doesn’t put out a new cover of “When I’m 64” every other month. The problem, I believe, comes from all sides: from composers, from audiences, and of course from the labels themselves.

The first source is one close to my heart; as an aspiring composer, it pains me to see people turn away from contemporary music because they just don’t “get it.” Contemporary classical music (even the name is a bit of an oxymoron) has a bad reputation of being incomprehensible, and the burden lies with us as composers to make it accessible to the public. Art is ultimately a populist good, so there is no point to art if there is no public understanding on some level.

Audiences also deserve some of the blame. Year in year out, orchestras perform the same symphonies, concerti, suites, and overtures, not because they are not interested in other music but because audiences demand it. True, there is no experience quite like Beethoven’s 9th, but there are other experiences out there. Naturally, since audiences for classical music are primarily upper class white seniors, they will demand the standards. But as the ones responsible for programming, orchestras also need to show more of an interest in new music. People will generally accept what they are given, especially from a source they trust.

The labels face the same problems as the orchestras, only compounded. Performances are over as soon as the applause starts. Recordings last forever. I have on my shelf the 1965 Karajan recordings of the Beethoven symphonies. Will I ever buy another set? Probably not. But yet for some reason that simple fact has not stopped DG from releasing 31 other recordings.

The solution then will come from all sides. I call on composers to make their music accessible, not simple or arcane. I call on performers and audiences to embrace it. And I call on record labels to promote it. So to my musician friends: this will require participation from all sides. Classical music is one of the highest, most universal forms of expression we have, and to let it fall by the wayside would be doing society a huge disservice. We have the power to change the course of classical music for the better, so let’s prove Mr. Lebrecht wrong.

Naxos Record Label