Classical music in America, we are told, is dead, or at least coughing up blood. The record companies, distracted by the fearful shrieks of stockholders and the futile pursuit of pirates, apparently have better things to do with their time and their money. Radio stations with classical formats are folding left and right. Few record stores carry any classical recordings at all. This is the situation in 2002; but it was also the situation thirty years ago, when Stereo Review magazine devoted almost an entire issue to the sad state of classical music in America, and many of the problems that exist now have persisted for three decades or longer.

The Stereo Review writers, of course, made sure that their own axes were suitably ground, but the points they made were fairly inarguable: records pressed in the States were routinely inferior to records imported from Europe or Japan; the recording careers of young artists were sacrificed by forcing them to record the same old repertoire; recording costs, particularly for major orchestras, were skyrocketing; and the FM radio band, formerly the weak sister to AM, was suddenly too valuable to waste playing music without mass appeal. "Cities with competing classical stations," they predicted, "will in time lose the smaller one."

What's changed in three decades? Not a whole lot, really. I don't know how many recordings there are of, say, the Tchaikovsky B-flat piano concerto — dozens, surely, possibly even hundreds — but is it absolutely necessary for every up-and-coming pianist to have his own rendering on the shelf? Has the music industry (and let's face it, it's pretty damned industrial) fallen back on "brand management", where it is assumed we won't buy unless we are assured we're getting something with established market appeal? Is the whole classical business completely overrun with feebs and fools?

The answer, I believe, is a definite maybe. On the other hand, I don't believe, even for a moment, that classical music is actually going to die; its audience may always be a minority, but there's no indication that it's shrinking. And while the bigger labels go after "crossovers" and other ephemera, smaller companies are always there to take up the slack. Commercial classical stations are fewer and farther between, but as I discovered while driving across half the country last year, very few locations are out of range of a noncommercial station with some classical programming — even the state of Oklahoma, not known as a cultural Shangri-La, has plenty of classical music on the air. What's more, two of the top five Webcasters are actually real classical stations that stream. I came late to the classics, and I'm by no means any kind of expert on the topic, but I'm not seeing a major crisis here; if anything, with the Big Boys out of the picture, there will be opportunities to explore way beyond what we think of as the Basic Repertoire. This may not be quite a Golden Age, but certainly its mettle is strong.

The Vent

16 May 2002

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