It's Sounding Mournful In Classical Music Circles
By John Von Rhein
KRT News Service
(My thanks to Russ Coleman for transcribing this article)
Recently, after phoning Universal Classics in New York in hopes of securing some information from one of its classical labels, I was bounced to the extension of a secretary. A youngish-sounding voice answered as hip-hop music blared in the background. I asked to speak to "someone from Deutsche Grammophon." "What label are they on?" was her bland reply, unaware she was mistaking the venerable German record label for an imaginary German rock band.
The level of cultural ignorance seems to be rife from top to bottom of the classical recording industry these days, as, one by one, the major companies sell their artistic souls and legacies to the great god Mammon.
Last month it was reported that BMG Classics - known under its imprints RCA Victor Red Seal and RCA Victor - was being gutted in a drastic downsizing that will reduce what was once the third largest classical operation in the world to an appendage of BMG's pop division. All overseas recording activity is to be temporarily halted, reissue projects are being put in limbo and scores of employees laid off.
Executive lips remain sealed until in-house reports are tendered to Stauss-Zelnick, chief executive of the Munich-based BMG Entertainment, a wing of the German multimedia giant Bertelsmann. BMG classic reportedly lost $6 million last year, and the company has issued only the following statement: "BMG is going through a review towards creating a more efficient corporate structure." But insiders say that by July 1 BMG will fold its 200 classical, jazz, New Age, and world music labels into the pop division.
RCA Records Classical releases, it is said, will be slashed from 200 to 10 albums a year, new as well as reissues.
Already such RCA stalwarts as Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie and the King's Singers have lost their contracts, and the fate of flutist James Galway is in the hands of his attorney. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony may be spared the ax because of their blue-chip value to the label. Not so fortunate, apparently, are conductors Lorin Maazel and Daniele Gatti.
RCA has been scaling back its classical operation, dropping its 'Catalyst' label and deleting a large number of older recordings while allowing contracts with such artists as pianist Peter Serkin to lapse.
And RCA is not alone in gutting its classical division. Universal (which owns Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and Phillips) has cut its artist roster to the bone. Sony is devoting more attention to crossover and soundtracks. In January, EMI merged with Warner-AOL in a move that is expected to lay waist to several Warner labels. Where once the worldwide classical market was ruled by six multinationals, now there are three: Universal, Sony and EMI/Warner.
If there is no longer any room for serious musical artists at the cynical level of corporate recording, classical recording continues to hold its own among the smaller independent labels. With no shareholders to satisfy, no expensive contracts with big-name artists to drive their projects, such labels as ECM, Harmonia Mundi, Chandos, BIS, Naxos, Hyperion, CPO and Bridge can afford to take risks.
Meanwhile, light a candle for BMG/RCA. It is sad to see the company that sits atop one of the greatest troves of historic recordings - matchless performances by Enrico Caruso, Arturo Toscanini and Van Cliburn - brought low by corporate greed and philistinism.
The sound you hear from Nipper, RCA's canine mascot, is no longer a bark, it's a pathetic whimper.