Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Where is my mind?

I haven't been updating TPW as often as I should, since life at the Maurer School of Law has my attention all day most days. I promise I'll try to do better. I'll start now.

Testament is issuing Götterdämmerung from the second cycle of the 1955 Ring. Conducted, once again, by Joseph Keilberth and packing some cast differences (Mödl for Varnay seems to be a big one), this probably portends a second 1955 stereo Bayreuth Ring. At nearly $100 at Amazon, though discounts might crop up eventually, I don't think I'll follow this one as closely as I did the first-run Keilberth Ring. Indeed, if a whole Ring is forthcoming, though Testament doesn't make it clear, they did stick The Second Cycle on the box, I might wait until Testament drops the "bargain" complete box set. I would have saved some serious scratch had I done that the first time 'round the pole.

I applaud Testament for taking such an aggressive approach to releasing historical Wagner recordings, particularly Golden Age Ring cycles. Good luck convincing a major label to do that. In the past five years or so (I think), I've seen one Keilberth 1955 stereo cycle from Bayreuth, Kempe's 1957 Covent Garden set, and now another Keilberth 1955 stereo set (at least Götterdämmerung as of now). The problem is, particularly with the first Keilberth set, following three music-dramas at nearly $100 a pop and the Vorabend at $50 or something gets expensive. Following another cycle at that price gets, well, really expensive. I don't mind supporting independent labels with good ideas and good products, largely because one should reward creativity wherever it's found, particularly in an alarmingly dull environment, but there comes a point when a student can't drop the cash without making other sacrifices. Like food.

This, though, is where another good idea would be great. Why not go digital? Tahra, which is, despite being a darling of critics and collectors, not a mainstream label is on iTunes and Amazon's MP3 service. The bitrates could be higher, though that wouldn't help many of the source recordings, but it is a way to get scarce recordings easily and cheaply. I'm also the kind of guy who will buy a record on CD that he's already downloaded legally simply because he likes the record and wants the CD. If Testament started putting out these releases in digital format, I would bet that, assuming they were priced reasonably, sales would skyrocket, relatively speaking, without requiring manpower or infrastructure expansion.

Now, the response that anyone familiar with such enterprises would throw out would be (1) the licensing agreements probably don't allow for it, and (2) why would anyone license their historical recordings to Testament if they could drop them on iTunes themselves? Well, I don't know the terms of the licensing agreements, but it would be the dominant strategy to let Testament put the stuff out online. Depending on the royalty percentages, Universal could get a reasonable cut by just boxing up the tapes and shipping them. Since UMG doesn't seem obsessed with historical recordings, it would tap into a new market using someone else's labor and expertise. Everyone would profit. That bit about labor and expertise is the answer to the second part of the objection: why train engineers and producers to do historical work when someone else already has? Historical-recording aficionados know crappy transfers when we hear them.

There are probably more and better objections to my little scheme, though if I were betting, copyright issues might be the biggest hangup. Regardless, I've talked a lot about Testament, but that's just because the "new" Götterdämmerung has me thinking about the situation. Too many historical-recordings and archival-recordings labels seem to have missed the digital boat. When giants like UMG, which seems to be stuck in a rut of crossover packages, revenue-streaming reissues/repackages, and rare insightful or intelligent releases, can figure out how to play the digital market, it seems unfortunate to see a lot of really innovative and imaginative labels get left behind.


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