Saturday, January 29, 2011

Down With Downloads!

What happened to sitting down in your favorite chair, production notes in hand, and listening, and I mean really LISTENING, to a great recording of a superlative performance of a classical music masterpiece. When it comes to demanding convenience, I'm the first one to raise my hand. I am not a patient person, so when it comes to filling my gas tank, the checkout line at the grocery store, renewing a license, paying bills at the bank, driving home from work, etc ... I expect the least resistance as possible, and everything to be instantly available and at a low price. I don't see or demand different value standards from services, utilities, commodities and everyday odds and ends. But when it comes to music, it's a different story.

Download. Detachment from the end product. What and where is what you've just purchased. You are now the proud owner of digital computer code. You can now transfer that code to any of a multitude of devices and listen to music anywhere. You can go jogging to a Mahler Symphony. You can listen to a Palestrina Mass on your headphones at work. You can deal with traffic jams while listening to a Beethoven Concerto in your car. The possibilities are endless. But what's the point? Are you getting anything out of it? How can you justify partially listening, in your car or on your ipod, to a symphony or opera that was months or years in the making. To a recording that required weeks of practice and rehearsals from the orchestral musicians. Focused hard work, and artistic and emotional devotion from the conductor. Hours of painstaking and detailed work from the recording engineers. Informative and interesting booklet notes and cover art work, not to mention weeks of post-production to insure that what you get is of the highest standards.

Nothing can or should replace the importance, value and benefits of a 'live' concert. The simple act of you being in the hall adds to the dynamics of the event. Your personal involvement and participation creates the synergy that makes the reality of a live concert even possible. Technology made it possible for us to enjoy the experience in the comfort of our home. First came radio, with the effect of almost 'being there', but without the interaction and/or hassles of dealing with a crowd. Then came vinyl, in the form of 78s and Long-Playing records. At least with vinyl, there was a large degree of personal involvement and interaction with the product. You had to pull it out of its
protective sleeve, place it on the turntable, wipe it clean, drop the tonearm with precision, watch it spin around as it played, and sit down and read the liner notes on the back of the jacket whilst listening to the music with undivided attention. The cassette tape, although practical, portable, duplicatable and one more step down the road to convenience, sounded terrible, didn't last very long, and had absolutely no charm. Therefore its quick demise. Then came the CDs. The perfect balance between quality, durability and convenience. Great value for the money. Although compared to vinyl, a step up in detachment from the product. They are smaller, don't require as much physical tactile manipulation, and disappear out of sight while playing. But, like vinyl, once inside the player, they require your critical listening attention, and make collecting a fun hobby again. If it's a great recording, you will listen to it many, many times over its lifespan, therefore its one of the best products in regards to value for money.

Record label executives, especially the ones at the top of large, international and multi-layered conglomerates, are all trying to figure out why sales are dropping and why doomsayers keep saying that the classical music industry is dead. The answer is very simple. If you make it too easy to obtain something, it loses its value. There is no satisfaction in getting something for nothing. I used to really enjoy walking (not driving) to my favorite record shop and spend an hour or two browsing the bins, looking for something specific or hoping to stumble upon something obscure that would turn out to be a wonderful revelation. Sometimes just the anticipation of a special order coming in was enough to add value to my purchase. How can you get that same feeling out of downloads? You can't. The internet is riddled with download sites, most likely managed by people who know absolutely nothing about good music, and who probably don't even care about music at all. Their purpose in life is to sell you digital code.

If all the great composers of the past knew how their life's work and revolutionary achievements were being traded today, they would all turn in their graves. In fact, I don't know why living composers and musicians can accept this, and not see where it's leading. It's the same story with books. Humans are very tactile beings. Take away an actual physical product from our hands, and we feel a loss. I know, I know. You're going to say that music is abstract and intangible, and I couldn't agree more. And that is one of the aspects of music that make it so fascinating. How can something so intangible convey so many different emotions? But if you remove a physical, manufactured product from the equation, it seems that all the value and hard work that went into producing a recording disappears. I know that environmentalists are jumping for joy at the notion of less and less packaging floating around out there, but CD manufacturers are working on solutions to that issue every day. And even though it's getting more and more difficult to find classical music CDs in stores, again simply because retailers didn't see the social and cultural value in them, you can still find and purchase any CD you've been searching for online. Many websites, including mine, are still devoted to the well being and future growth of the classical music industry.

Take away the value out of music and the sales go down. As sales go down and without adequate funding, musicians will vanish, orchestras will vanish, conductors will vanish, recording studios will vanish, record stores will vanish, new recordings will no longer exist. All that will remain is one person making sure that the computer that serves your download does not crash. That is not good value for your money. Down with downloads!!!

1 comment:

  1. I fully support the condemnation of 'downloading' clasical music recordings. Serious art music is simply too wide, deep and long for the download format. In fact, classical downloading has not been accepted to nearly the same extent by consumers as more easily encapsulated pop tunes. Downloading may be cheap and dirty but it cannot satisfy the ambitions of the genuine record collector. Today I received from Germany a 60-disc box of RCA Victor 'Living Stereo' albums. A two handed grip enfolds the stuff of legends: Monteux, Munch, Heifitz, Van Cliburn, Rubenstein, Stokowski, Reiner, Fiedler, Leinsdorf, Piatogorski, Anna Moffo, Leontyne Price and Mario Lanza. For a collector, this is a treasury which will entertain for decades. The booklet for the collection includes the original LP liner notes and the box itself could be described as possessing artistic merit.
    Collecting classical recordings (and oh how many we collect in the convenient CD format!)has a very specific psychological template with both central and collateral paradigms. How is the enabling information gathered and assessed? To what extent are acquisitions influenced by visual accuity (i.e. cover art)? Is listening a primary or parallel activity? Are performances received at face value or do critical faculties engage? How does one curate and store a burgeoning CD (and DVD) collection? Those labels formerly known as 'majors' have gone over to downloads in a big way. These big corporate entities should follow the example of Naxos and a host of premium quality independents and get to know the mindset of collectors and look after them accordingly. The future of the classical record industry should be in safe hands with the likes of CPO, Oehms, Hanssler, Chandos, Hyperion, Dutton Epoch, Lyrita, SIMAX, BIS, Ondine and Da Capo. The music is, and shall be, imperishable.