April 26, 2007 / 8:15 AM / 11 years ago

Day the music died -- Lebrecht names the killers

LONDON, April 26 (Reuters Life!) - Blind tenor Andrea Bocelli and the Three Tenors sell millions of discs but make no mistake, the classical record industry is dead, says critic Norman Lebrecht.

Il Divo, Operababes, even the much hyped Bocelli (“listen to him straining for a note and failing to get there”) cut no ice with this master of the pithy epithet.

“They’ve dumbed it down and sold it out,” Lebrecht says of the big labels like EMI, Deutsche Grammophone and Sony CBS which have controlled classical recording for decades.

Lebrecht ought to know. A longtime reporter on the music scene, he’s written a murder mystery-style guide to the whole ugly business, “Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry”. It’s been published by Penguin.

Is it truly dead?

“Look the statistics are all there. Twelve years ago 700 new classical recordings from six major labels. Today fewer than a hundred from two labels and more than half are crossover and movie tracks and things like that,” he said in an interview.

“So yeah, it’s gone.”

Ditto Tower Records at Lincoln Center in New York, that mecca of musicians on the prowl for a Messiaen CD anytime up till midnight. In London, HMV is planning to trim and snip.

So whodunit? Lebrecht, who reviews music for London’s Evening Standard and other outlets, names the names and tells you who did it to whom where and what the weapon was.

The chief culprits, in case you had to ask, are accountants.

“It was the imposition of corporate discipline” that killed the goose that laid the golden egg, Lebrecht said over a half pint of lager at his local pub.

It’s conveniently located around the corner from EMI’s legendary Abbey Road studios (Beatles, yes, but also Kathleen Ferrier, Joshua Bell, Sir Malcolm Sargent and on and on and on).

Lebrecht, who got into the music criticism game after a stint in news television, used to slip into recording sessions there, and got a tingle from what was going on.

Now he finds it all more than a little sad.

Who is going to record the next Caruso, whose ground-breaking sessions at a hotel in Milan in 1902 became the gold standard against which all tenors, even unto Luciano Pavarotti, have been judged ever since?

How will the managers of underfunded and underattended orchestras around the world discover the talented but as yet mostly unknown new Leonard Bernstein or Simon Rattle who can keep the local arts council happy and the funds flowing?

Record companies fulfilled that function for decades -- for the bulk of the 20th century, as Lebrecht sees it. They’ve left a great legacy, a treasure trove of recorded music, but one which will not be replenished any way like it was in the past.

“It’s basically gone,” Lebrecht says ruefully.

”Without the majors at the centre, there’s a host of essentially vanity labels, people putting out recordings for no editorial reason except that they’re free to do so, and one or two mavericks in the mix.

”It’s analogous in a way to the death of a newspaper. If newspapers died, we’re left to rely on blogs, we’re a much poorer society.

“And that’s what’s happened to classical recordings.”

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