The Live vs Recorded Music business: not the same thing

Little-known composers get their due in the studio if not the concert hall

There are some interesting insights here, but as in most classical-Beltway views, there is a lot of stuff missed … and what’s missed is pretty important.

The first and most important observation is that the live and the recorded music experiences are just not sought for the same reasons. That’s not the same as saying that they are different experiences (which they are). They are also pursued for different reasons and approached in a different frame of mind by people, and assuming that people want the same itch scratched in both cases is not going to help.

Trying out unfamiliar music (I won’t say “new music” since that term has some baggage associated with it) in recorded format is much, much easier and less risky. I can download something in seconds from iTunes that I haven’t heard before, just on the strength of a review, on word-of-mouth, or for the hell of it. I can visit Amazon.com and buy a CD with the same casual commitment. I can stop the CD if I decide I don’t like it instead of having to sit there for two hours and listen to the entire thing. I can also listen to that music at my own convenience, with a mug of coffee in one hand and wearing my pajamas.

No, I don’t think that we should all be allowed to drink coffee and wear pajamas at the concert hall!

However, if I’m going to see something live, I want to know what and who it is ahead of time so that I know for sure if I’m going to like it. I have driven 100 miles one-way to hear Andreas Scholl in Santa Barbara. (I’ve seen him twice more since then.) I got onto the 91 fwy in the middle of July and drove clean through two counties to hear Time for Three. I negotiated the insane parking at the Hollywood Bowl to hear Gabriela Montero (have since heard her again as well). I went into downtown LA to hear Scholl again as well as watch “Tamerlano” put on by the LA Opera. Several of these involved taking a half-day off work since they were in the middle of the week.

There was also one “hip, trendy, alt-classical” performer — Keating, natch — whom I did not see when she was out here, and for exactly the same reasons that I’ve mentioned as obstacles above. Mid-week, too far away, too many freeways, and no time to get away from work. So those aren’t just canned excuses for mainstream classical. They apply any time I have to take off work and get on an on-ramp.

The upshot of all this is that, if I’m going to go through all that, I want to know exactly who and what I’m going to hear and that I’m going to like it.

Whereas, if I’m listening to a recording at home at my leisure, I’m more willing to take risks and think, “Meh, that wasn’t so good.” But I’ll be damned if I’ll say that, at least without the addition of some very colorful language, after getting home at 11:45pm, having left work at 2pm that day and suffered through freeway and city traffic in the meantime, plus having to get up early the next day for work!

To roundfile people who make those tradeoffs — as so much of the anxiously “hip” and “funky” classical world does — as unadventurous and timid in our musical tastes and frightened of new things, like ignorant natives afraid of a camera, is really bad audience outreach. To reply that, if they were really committed to classical music they would come anyway is arrogant and more importantly, it reads as arrogant. To further reply, as Conlon did in the above article:

“I can hear Mozart over and over, conduct it over and over,” Conlon says; “I never get tired of him. Still, people need to hear new things.”

is just condescending. Don’t feed me my vegetables, James. I’m not a cave-dweller who needs bibles and trousers. I’ll decide what I need to hear — and I’ll also decide how I will go about that. If I feel that I want something new, I actually possess the means to find new things on my own, thank you. You may think that you are selflessly trying to raise me to your level — but you can’t do that without reaching down. Now, you may think I’m beneath you, but I don’t think I am.

The fact is that unfamiliar rep belongs in recordings more than on the concert hall stage. If it builds a following, then maybe it might show up in a club. From there, possibly some media diversions like commercials, YouTube, or movies. Then, and only then, might it show up on the concert hall stage. There’s a process here. And that process might take decades.

Now, this journey can be shortened in a few ways. Yo-Yo Ma or Hilary Hahn likes some unknown composer? Well, that will push that composer into the equivalent of the carpool lane in its journey to the concert hall and the Big-Name Philharmonic, so risk will seem less for an audience. They’ll be willing to come in that case. After that though, the music had better stand on its own merits.

So in summary after all that blather:

1) The business model for recorded music and that for live music is not the same, especially live music that requires 100+ people to make it go. If this is the case — and it is — why can’t the classical music delivery industry work with this process instead of trying to make water run uphill? Why can’t an orchestra make recordings of avant-garde music before performing it live, see if it sells well, and then initiate a channel/funnel of sorts? Small free, public chamber appearances, followed by chamber groups in the orchestra in local trendy clubs, followed by matinee performances, followed by full-on performances at night? With judgment rendered at each step of the way as to where the natural home for that music seems to be?

2) Don’t talk down.

None of which should be news.

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One comment on “The Live vs Recorded Music business: not the same thing

  1. […] know, in a way, what I said earlier about not wanting or even needing James Conlon to introduce me to new music — and especially […]

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