Wednesday, April 22, 2009

State of the art

The local Borders looks to be getting out of the CD business. The Barnes and Noble has already downsized, replacing a good portion of its once large (and bizarre, frankly) CD racks with a selection of Blu-Ray discs (bizarre, too). None of my preferred independent local stores stock much, if any, classical that I can tell.

That's probably for the best, since none of the major-label releases are all that attractive to me at the moment. It's expensive and burnout-inducing to follow some of the boutique labels. I mean, really, who has the money to collect another stereo Keilberth cycle from 1955 (to take an example at random)? I really could have skipped the Kempe cycle from 1957, but it has its moments (and it gives us a chance to hear Kempe in the full Ring). I understand that we're not collecting Morrissey singles for the B-sides or anything, but it's still a lot of hassle to follow some of these smaller labels.

I will probably buy the forthcoming Testament releases of Giulini in Bruckner's 7th and 8th from mid-1980s Berlin, though, so how burned out can I really be?

In some ways, Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus is a fine analogy for the United States (and world) economy. We've had our financial geniale Zeit, and it's now over. We made our deal and we've settled our account. I won't go into the analogies for Schwerdtfeger and Echo now, but I think they're there. It is natural, then, that we find ourselves in a collective state not unlike that of Dr. Leverkühn after his collapse at the "premiere" of the Lamentation of Doctor Faustus. Such a state – even in economic analogue – does not necessarily make the consumer entertainment market all that much fun.

Indeed, this seems like precisely the excuse the major labels need to start sloughing off reissues to Arkiv for the ArkivCD program or Testament or to internet-only releases, leaving the lucrative crossover and central-repertoire markets ripe for the picking. I guess. I assume that it's safe to assume that the RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence SACD rerelease series are most definitely dead as doornails (and have been for years). Too bad about the RCA series winding down, since it was nice to have a ready source of Charles Munch recordings in good sound. UMG seems to have launched a new Decca bargain rerelease label, however, but I don't call another version of Solti's Das Rheingold a reissue.

Already, I'm seeing fewer and fewer really inspired titles. For example, the Goldberg Variations on harp sounds like a record designed for undergraduates in search of "study music" and young married couples planning their dinner parties. I'm not demanding that every release be cummings ist der Dichter or Mahler's 9th, but let's not kid ourselves either – you can have intelligent, mainstream releases.

I don't know what will happen to the boutique labels, whose business model seems somewhat more precarious, particularly if the majors decide to use licensing fees as a quick revenue stream. The recording sessions are long amortized and the tapes aren't going anywhere, though that won't always be the case. The broadcaster tapes, too, seem like a fast revenue source for public media. The Medici and BBC releases, though, don't seem to be slowing down too greatly.

Maybe this is what the business needs, though. Maybe now every flashy, reasonably attractive kid with some talent won't be rushed to stardom before they've had a chance to mature. Maybe now we can finally break the habit of putting every conductor's wish to tape. In other words, maybe we'll start getting well considered releases done well by people who know what they're doing. It's clear that something will come of this economic meltdown, and it's easy to assume it will all be deleterious to serious music and serious musicians. It probably will be, but sometimes you just need to take it on the chops to get your head about you.