Big business cheats listeners

Music: Record labels are choking off their own market in America by restricting the release of recordings that classical music fans would love to hear.

May 11, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Anyone who enjoys listening to classical music knows that the classical division of the recording industry is in trouble -- at least in the United States. Compared to sales of pop records, classical sales have always been a tiny part of the industry's revenue. But never have they been so small as they are now.

As high as five percent as recently as the late 1980s, they are currently estimated between one and two percent of total sales. And that figure takes into account the occasional "crossover" blockbusters that feature team-ups such as the "Three Tenors" or cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin.

Those of us who read such European-based classical-music magazines as Gramophone and BBC Music look at their records, gnashing our teeth in envy. We know that less than half of what we read about will ever appear in American stores.

Why can't those recordings -- many of them produced by multi-national companies such as BMG (RCA in the United States), Polygram (DG, Decca and Philips here) and Sony (once Columbia Records and now Sony Classics) -- be released here?

Record industry folks blame the shrinking audience for classical music.

The truth is rather different. If the audience for classical records is shrinking, then the industry has no one to blame but itself. They are motivated by greed of the narrowest kind. In order to protect their already slim profit margins, they are willing to deliver the coup de grace to what remains of the classical music market.

Two recent incidents have led me to this jeremiad.

This was the first. For the last two years I have been buying (by way of the Internet) from a Japanese mail-order house CDs, still available to Japanese music lovers, containing performances that are either long out of print here or that were never even released in the West.

In this manner, I have collected complete sets of the Beethoven sonatas by Wilhelm Backhaus and Friedrich Gulda, which were recorded in the 1950s and once available on Decca.

I have also purchased Soviet-made recordings of similar vintage by such pianists as Grigory Ginzburg and Yakov Flier, whose names are obscure to all but a few Western aficionados.

But last week the Japanese mail-order house, Abend, informed me that it could no longer sell such recordings. They had been restricted by suits from Polygram (which owns the rights to the Backhaus and Gulda recordings) and BMG (which has an agreement with the Russian company Melodia that gives BMG exclusive rights to sell Russian-made recordings in the U.S. and Western Europe).

Now for the second. Yesterday I visited the Charles Street record emporium, An Die Musik. I spent $111.93 for seven CDs on the Russian Revelation label, a division of Telstar Records in the United Kingdom.

It was my final chance to obtain the performances on those CDs because BMG had succeeded in preventing their distribution -- not only in the U.S., but also in the U.K.

This is legal. It is also immoral.

While Polygram owns the rights to the Backhaus and Gulda recordings, it has shown no interest in making those historically important performances available to Americans.

And while BMG has released a certain amount of Russian archival material, almost all the performances on Russian Revelation had never been (or are likely to be) released by BMG for the American market.

There is surely interest among American record buyers in this stuff.

Of the thousands of Russian Revelations released in the United States, all but a few have gone unsold. And in their e-mail, Abend has indicated it had more than a thousand regular customer in the U.S. and Canada alone.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this what is called restriction of free trade? It would be one thing if Polygram and BMG were interested in selling these CDs themselves -- but they aren't. The giants of the record industry have joined forces to prevent us from purchasing what they themselves have no interest in selling.

Nothing is more difficult to explain than stupidity, but here's some speculation.

A few months ago, Polygram brought pianist Alfred Brendel and conductor Simon Rattle to Vienna so that the pianist, now in his late 60s, could record Beethoven's five piano concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic. Brendel had recorded the five concertos three times previously -- but this would be his first recording in digital sound. It takes an enormous investment for a project that involves one of the world's most famous pianists, one of its hottest young conductors and one of its most distinguished orchestras. Is this recording better than Brendel's three previous efforts? No -- in fact it is weaker. But Polygram has made an investment and it wants American record buyers to pay $50 for each set so that the company can recoup its investment.

But what if American record buyers -- for less than half that price -- can buy Brendel's superior earlier sets, or superior sets by Backhaus or Gulda? I suspect that Polygram's thinking about the matter is that sales of Brendel's latest Beethoven will improve if they deny access to his earlier recordings and to those of other pianists.

They have put American music lovers on a diet -- a diet proving injurious not only to the health of record buyers, but also to the industry. If you want people to buy things, you need to provide a wide variety of choices to make the market appetizing. The major labels have succeeded in choking off their own market.

The record companies may deserve their fate, but I -- and others like me -- surely don't. If they don't want to retail certain things in the United States, Americans should be able to buy them from somewhere else. Such decisons to restrict our freedom are un-American; and they fill me with rage and anguish.

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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