AHRC Online Conference

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice As Research

The Structure of the Industry (Some Hopefully Not-Too-Pessimistic Thoughts)

​The question in the header for this panel asks about how the sound of classical record production affects commercial prospects. I wonder, though, if it might also be fruitful to think about the opposite approach—how the organization of the recording industry affects production. This occurs to me in general because of how frequently, in interviews with recordists, I've been told about how producers and engineers (although this comes primarily from the engineers) are being pinched by the current market for their services. Sessions take fewer days than they used to—what may have been done in three days before is now crammed into two. More strikingly, though, are the stories I heard about clients trying to negotiate with recordists—for instance, by arguing that they can achieve a certain quality themselves using their laptops, so why should they pay the printed rate for recordists' services for what they seem to perceive is a real but relatively small gain in quality? 

One engineer put it to me like this: "I think the problem is, a lot of clients, they want that, but they want to pay the same rate as Joe Blow in his bedroom, so they will beat you down by saying, Joe Blow will do it for this. And there's a constant downwards pressure on costs. But at the same time...there's always a pressure on the technical costs. Actually, normally in a major recording, the technical costs are the smallest part of the costs. The artistic costs and the marketing and everything else are much larger. But the technical costs are always the one that get picked on because it's easier to beat them down, I think, and it seems that a record company would rather save 100 pounds on the technical costs. They go to extraordinary lengths to save 100 pounds on the technical costs, yet they'll let 10,000 on the marketing budget go through with no trouble at all. And it just seems a totally disproportionate state of affairs, really." 

What strikes me as most depressing in that engineer's account is that the financial pressure, in his view, is coming largely from record companies, not from musicians. Of course, there are bound to be financial pressures when musicians are paying for their own sessions; recordists' time and equipment are expensive. I certainly saw more than a few recording sessions that were funded by musicians where they tried to cram way too much material into a relatively short amount of time. Surely, many others here have had similar experiences. But when record companies try to squeeze recordists on their fees, that has the potential to ripple through the whole recording business. This engineer's point—one that I've heard echoed by others, and is supported by my own observations—is that the record companies are ultimately being quite short-sighted. They'll drive recordists out of business before assessing other elements of their business model. 

In one sense, I think that this is a very pessimistic response to the tremendous artistic potential of the hyperproduction experiments that Simon, Amy, et al. (I'm very sorry I can't remember everyone's names) have been working on. The recordings they played for us in Philadelphia in November were stunning, There certainly seems to be great potential in working with student musicians in this way, enabling them to think of the recording studio as one of their musical skills and a complement to the more traditional things that they are taught in music school. And maybe that's the way to go about this, to empower musicians to take charge of their recording careers aesthetically and financially (and also to recognize that aesthetics and finances can't easily be disentangled). But there has to be some way for musicians to become more than just content providers for the record companies. 

(Incidentally, I don't mean to be totally hard on the record companies. I do think that my previous paragraph was something of a caricature of how they conduct their businesses—perhaps with the exception of the so-called "artist-led" companies, which is surely one of the industry's great euphemisms. Certainly I've seen, and I'm sure others have, many record labels that truly do value the artistic work of the recordists they employ. Although that may not really change the overall picture of the industry.) 

So to provide a brief final response to the question Simon posed in his first post on this panel: personally, I do think that there is an audience and a market for the kinds of experimental (by classical standards) production techniques and artist-recordist collaborations that Simon mentions. My worry is that the structure of the recording industry might make it difficult for those sorts of recordings to ever get made, let alone find a niche in the marketplace, because I have a hard time envisioning how they would be funded. Of course I'd love to know what others think about this topic!

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