Monday, September 14, 2009

Requiem for the Classical music store

Once upon a time, namely, the mid-1980s, a classical music fan in Cleveland could hop the bus to Shaker Square and visit a record store dedicated to Classical music. This store, The Music Box, had a nearly comprehensive selection of Classical music on Lp, cassette tape, and a new format called Compact Disc. There was also a smattering a jazz, but this was stocked for appearances and seldom visited. Classical music, riding the coattails of the hit movie Amadeus, was in vogue. The emergence of the CD contributed to the renaissance, allowing novice and seasoned classical fans the opportunity the hear great music in pristine sound.

By the early 1990s, the entire active Classical repertoire was on CD, in multiple renditions, with reissues of historic recordings with refurbished sonics, performed by the greats of the past, alongside newer renditions by the well known, the moderately known, and the unknown. Even as hitherto forgotten repertoire was being rediscovered, the experts were talking of a CD glut – as titles sat on the shelves, some unsold for years. To the listener, this embarrassment of riches didn’t matter. We may have shed a crocodile tear when chain stores like Borders pushed aside independents like The Music Box and Music of Note. We may have even pontificated over the fate of the “little guy”, but that didn’t stop us from hightailing it to Borders on Tuesdays to browse the bins for the latest releases and enjoy an overpriced coffee. As for the clerks who didn’t know squat about Classical music: a small price to pay – and we didn’t have to hear a lot of opinionated talk from insolent music students.

Things became even easier for the consumer in the late-1990s, with the advent of online retailers like Amazon. Now, a selection dwarfing that of any brick & mortar retailer was just a click away, and often at deep discounts. Looking for a rare release from Europe or Japan? Not only could it be found online, we could read the reviews of listeners (the new version of the opinionated clerk), and we could listen to tantalizing sound-bytes from the recording in question. Eventually, we could skip the CD shipment and simply download the album, cover and all, to our computer. Instant gratification!

We could visit Borders one weekend in 2009, and see the Classical selection had been reduced to mere shadow of its former self – a victim of the Great Recession and the petrifaction of the recorded repertoire. We could head to Joseph-Beth, and find the entire selection of CDs, across all genres of music, had been eliminated – all that remained was a lonely box of closeout items. This time, we did not shed a tear, crocodile or otherwise. It was too late for tears.


daniel Ferrer said...

With software like Limewire, Morpheus, Real Player or I Tunes... I'm telling u CD's are going to be extinguished.

Hank Drake said...

Yes, but the challenges the classical recording industry faces pre-date those types of software.
Indeed, classical sales were struggling in the 1970s, and the birth of the CD may have only delayed the inevitable.

An example: Arthur Rubinstein recorded Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto in 1956 - the record sold 250,000 copies. He recorded it again in 1971, and that recording sold less than 20,000 copies. By the 1990s, a classical recording was expected to sell 12,000 copies at best. The only exceptions were crossover items like The Three Tenors.

The chief culprit is the petrifaction of the repertoire. How many versions of Beethoven's 5th Symphony does one need?