Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sound Familiar?

Happy Hallowmas!

Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, has a half-hearted lament for the demise of Tower Records.

Anyone here in Toronto remember Tower Records, which, along with Sam's and HMV, made Toronto one of the best places in the world to buy classical music? Toronto's Tower Records disappeared without fanfare a number of years ago, and although Sam's old flagship store is still around, it appears that HMV won the giant record store wars here in Toronto.

They celebrated this fact a number of years ago by cancelling their annual Boxing Day buy three get one free CD sale. They handed out coupons instead. But that's business.

We're still doing pretty well here in Toronto when it comes to purchasing classical music. Not so much in Calgary. Although there's a great independent classical CD store in Calgary, I'm sure there are many who remember that 15 years ago, Canada's country music mecca managed to support two of them, one of which had more than one location!

Then A&B Sound came along. Their downtown flagship store had the largest classical music section around, and they fairly quickly killed those independent stores. Then, as per their calculus of profitability, once they'd killed off their barely profitable competitors, they gutted their classical CD department.

Now it's A&B Sound that's suffering, the flagship store long gone, their stores in Calgary a pale shadow of their glory days, their business sucked away by the like of Future Shop and Best Buy. Dog eats dog.

Should we be worried about this trend? For many years, I gave the party line about the decline of classical music, etc. Truth be told, this is a big pile of a book written by Harry Frankfurt. Now, more than ever, classical music, in addition to all the other wonderful fruits of the great minds of humanity, be they books, art, cinema, or scientific results, are available to people in more ways than I could have dreamed when my eyes were opened to the vastness of the intellectual world in my teens.

For the cost of one CD a month, you have access to a lifetime of music on the Naxos Music Library. The Canadian Opera Company has affordable rush seating - I couldn't believe how many children there were at the opera, kids who took the subway downtown with a bunch of their friends to see the opera.

So then why does the myth of the demise of classical music persist? It keeps fundraisers on their toes - it's always easier to get money for a desperate cause than an organization filled to the brim with cash.

This myth has also served the recording industry well, pitting listeners against each other, and creating a sense of solidarity amongst the listeners of a particular genre who believe that by buying these records they're somehow keeping the sacred flame alive.

It's sad that Tower Records went out of business here in Toronto and New York, but perhaps all this means is that someone who cares about classical music will decide to open a CD store that pays the bills so that the rest of us can buy an Hans Werner Henze CD on a whim.

Those kinds of stores always seem to get by, and in doing so, say more about the kind of capitalism we should be encouraging, despite their relative inefficiency at creating capital when compared to, for example, Tower Records.


Chris Miller said...

I'm not sure that the growth of Naxos Records is any indication of the health of the Classical music industry. It's low-price success is based on paying practically nothing to the performers - in a music world that has an over abundance of talented unknowns.

Meanwhile -- it does look like the major labels are continuing their retreat from Classical music -- as fewer conductors/orchestras are offered contracts -- and we see people like Tilson Thomas and Gardiner recording on very small, independant labels. Opera has been especially hard hit -- and Classical radio went from 3 stations to one in my market (Chicago) over the past 30 years.

As the owner of a small record store - I don't think I'll be shedding any tears for the demise of Tower Records and the kind of business philosophy that prioritizes size (including size of debt !) over all other qualities.

If all recorded music eventually is delivered by the internet -- I suppose that all record shops, from large to small, are headed for oblivion.

In the meantime, though, I think there is some room for ambitious, energetic people to build some large music shops in the larger cities -- as long as they don't have to borrow money to do it. (it's just anyone smart enough to make it work -- is smart enough to make a lot more money doing something else)

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Chris, you're right about Naxos, although part of the reason major labels are reducing the production of classical music is also because they survive on a very narrow repetoire, and the star system borrowed from the pop music industry can only take you so far.

It's a hard thing - I too want to see people make a good living out of performing music, but one also has to keep in mind just how much of the pie goes towards keeping the star system alive and the fund raising departments well-staffed.

There are other institutional issues here that I didn't really get into, so thanks pointing out my conflation of opporunities to experience music with the sustainability of the arts.

And I hope it was clear that I am entirely on your side when it comes to the idea of the small owner-run business model of capitalism, as opposed to the giant factory model of capitalism, to but it as bluntly and as open to knee-jerk objection as possible!

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, Naxos claims that the flat fee they pay their artists is comparable to the amount most artists on major labels would make in royalties on a typical-selling classical CD. They may be saving money more on the bookkeeping than on the artists' fees themselves.