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Classical Notes

At last: a new record deal for American orchestras

Posted at 5:19 PM on August 7, 2006 by Don Lee (5 Comments)

We may be seeing more record releases from American orchestras in the coming months and if we do, we'll have a labor agreement to thank for it. The American Federation of Musicians and 48 North American orchestras have just cut a deal that's intended to reduce the upfront cost of making recordings. (Full story in The New York Times.)

With sales figures in the tank, orchestra musicians finally seem to have accepted the fact that there's not a lot of money to be made in the classical record biz. And they've recognized two truths about downloading music: 1) no one has any idea whether downloads will be profitable; 2) they're already well behind the rest of the music world in that game.

Is it a shortcoming that the new agreement covers only "live" concert recordings? I don't think so. Several orchestras have already headed in that direction, and with impressive results. Will an increase in American orchestra releases make a noticeable difference to record-buyers? That's a more interesting question.

Comments (5)

It needs to be noted (and I'm shocked that the NY Times didn't) that this agreement does NOT replace the traditional recording agreement under which many orchestras have been operating quite successfully in recent years. It merely provides orchestras which haven't been recording much with a second option at lower cost. In order to protect those orchestras which have existing recording deals under the old agreement, there is a provision in the new deal which requires any project undertaken under the new (cheaper) agreement to get approval from the orchestra's full musician roster before proceeding. (I don't remember whether a simple or super majority vote is required.)

It's also worth noting that since this agreement covers only live concert recordings (augmented by a very limited number of "patch" sessions,) quality of performance will be a very real concern. Personally, as a member of an orchestra that has recently been making internationally acclaimed recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, I can't conceive of a way that we could have released such a high-quality product under the new agreement's parameters. You could even make a case that the new agreement has the potential to flood the market with a new, cheaply produced wave of mediocre recordings. (See "Naxos".) More isn't always better.

Really, what this new agreement does is dodge the larger, more complicated issues surrounding the American orchestral recording scene. The upfront fees paid to musicians under the traditional recording model are unquestionably causing many orchestras to be priced out of the marketplace, and that needs to be addressed. But many of the orchestras that are still recording under that agreement (Minnesota, Atlanta, and Cincinnati, to name just a few) have a complicated system known as EMG, under which recording payments are broken up and rolled into musicians' weekly paychecks. If the whole system were scrapped tomorrow, the musicians of these orchestras would be facing hefty pay cuts, and by extension, a drop in the caliber of musicians they could attract to their auditions. Obviously, this complicates things, but many of us in the business feel strongly that real change will only occur when the AFM is willing to face these larger issues, rather than providing a loophole for a few big orchestras with the means and money to self-release and self-market concert recordings.

Posted by Sam Bergman | August 8, 2006 7:57 AM

Thanks, Sam, for the insight from inside the Minnesota Orchestra. If you don't mind, I have a couple of follow-up questions.

I understand that live concert recordings don't give you the opportunity to assemble a note-perfect performance. But there are those who argue that recording sessions seldom capture the spirit of a live performance. Do your well-trained ears hear it that way?

For the average record-buyer, who can't hear what you hear, how much does it matter if a live recording is slightly imperfect?

And as long as you brought up those complicated rights issues, let me ask you this: Are you saying that the union is the primary obstacle to a more sensible American orchestra recording system? What would you and other AFM members who share your views like the union to do?

Posted by Don Lee | August 8, 2006 11:01 AM

These are good questions, Don, and require more time than we can devote on a message board to answer. But I'll do what I can:

I've always preferred live concerts to recordings, too, and it is true that a great live recording will always be preferable to a mediocre studio one. With most of the major labels having dropped classical music and many of the best engineers focused on other genres, there aren't as many great studio recordings being released as there should be. But, as I believe our Beethoven series on BIS indicates, a truly top-notch studio recording is an object to be prized. They require not only the artistry of musicians, but also of a small army of technicians and producers. I understand that we all want to believe that music is magic, but it isn't, and translating great live sound to digital media is (as you and everyone at MPR know) a true art as well.

I've never bought the argument that, just because a supposedly "average" listener can't hear everything a musician onstage hears, quality is unimportant. Just as any baseball fan who's been around the game for awhile can tell the difference between a good at-bat and a bad one, anyone who spends a good amount of time listening to classical music and attending concerts can detect mediocrity. I'm not suggesting that all live recordings are mediocre, merely that focusing on cheap production leads to lowered quality in many cases.

I don't believe the union is the primary obstacle to change, but nor do I believe that musicians are blameless. The American orchestral sphere is so widely varied and so complex that any change will create great ripple effects that will inevitably hurt some orchestras. Furthermore, the recent labor history of orchestras shows that, in many cities, orchestras are run by people with little to no knowledge of the music business, and boards with little to no experience dealing with a unionized work force. All too often, boards and executives seem mortally offended by the notion that they must include their musicians in the decision-making process at all, and that leads to combative situations in which the very notion of cooperation goes right out the window. Media and broadcast rights are complicated things (as well they should be,) and when musicians and management can't even agree on the simple points, complex ideas often go out the window.

It seems to me that, in order for real change in the area of recordings to occur, the AFM and the major orchestra managers will need to collaborate in a very serious way. It would take forever to lay out a constructive suggestion for such a collaboration here, so I won't, but suffice to say that there are many people in the business with good ideas on the subject. How long it will take for real change to occur, I have no earthly idea. In all likelihood, the changes will be incremental, and there won't ever be a watershed moment when we can all say, "Aha! It's all fixed now." That's sad, I guess, but it's also the reality of working in a large and complex industry.

Posted by Sam Bergman | August 10, 2006 9:02 PM

Oh, and lest I get myself into trouble: the views expressed by me on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the Minnesota Orchestra, its musicians, or the AFM. Treat them as the individualized ramblings they are...

Posted by Sam Bergman | August 10, 2006 11:01 PM

Thanks for these answers, Sam. Because of the vacation-imposed delay--and because I wanted to call attention to what you have to say--I decided to follow up with a post on the main page--August 22.

Posted by Don Lee | August 22, 2006 11:34 AM