Recording Rules for Orchestras Page 3

But let's forget about the musicians for a moment and think about the music.

Every symphonic musician knows that he plays best on those special occasions when the orchestra and the audience are hyping each other—those rare times when the tension between them is almost electric. When this happens, the excitement and inspiration of that performance can transcend any shortcomings in the orchestra's execution. It hardly needs to be said that this almost never happens at a recording session.

Typically, a commercial recording is made up of bits and snatches of different "takes," often played in a completely different order from the normal one. The result may be "note-perfect," but in no way can it be considered a "performance." So what do we have to show for 100 years of sometimes-inspired symphonic performances in America? Practically nothing, because the only symphonic recordings available are the result of recording sessions.

Symphony orchestra performing is the only artistic endeavor for which we have no historic record whatsoever! Most of the inspired performances of the greatest conductors of the past century are gone forever, leaving not a trace except for written concert reviews, which can only give a hint as to what the performances sounded like (footnote 2). This is criminal!

Due to some AF of M rule relaxations in recent years, orchestra performances can now be routinely taped for broadcast or private archiving, without additional reimbursement to the players, and individual Union Locals are free to choose their own recording fees—as long as no recordings or broadcasts are disseminated beyond the geographical boundaries of that Local. But anything going outside that area automatically calls up the national Rules and the national scale for live-performance recordings. This means a civic orchestra could sell live-performance recordings in its own area, but without national distribution, no recording would be likely to do much better than pay for itself. Give it national distribution at national recording rates, and it would have to sell thousands more copies before it would break even. It's a can't-win situation.

It's too late now to do anything about those lost definitive performances, or the lost opportunities of struggling orchestras to supplement their income from recordings, but it isn't too late to change the situation. That is, if the AF of M has the courage to consider changing some of its archaic and self-destructive recording policies.

Before this can happen, it is necessary that the musicians' union stop its paranoid thinking about symphonic recordings. They are not a threat to orchestra musicians, but a potential boon. Unlike popular recordings, classical symphonic recordings are never used as a substitute for live musicians, because they are never played in places or situations where a live orchestra could ever be employed anyway, such as in a restaurant. And the appeal of symphonic concerts and symphonic recordings is so different that the latter cannot possibly be considered as being in competition with the former.

People do not attend orchestra concerts because they don't have the music on records. They attend because they like to go to orchestra concerts, and the love of symphonic music is probably the least important of the reasons for that liking. More important is the feeling that it is a special occasion, the desire to be seen in a socially acceptable environment by one's peers, a liking for the sound of a live orchestra (which, as I noted above, has still to be replicated in the home), and the appeal to one's herd instinct that comes from sharing an enthusiasm with a large crowd of like-minded people.

Few music-lovers use symphonic recordings as a substitute for the real thing; the symphonic record collector who rarely attends concerts would not attend any more often if records did not exist, because the unique appeal of the concert hall is not changed in any way by the existence of recordings (footnote 3). The recording can only supplement the live concert; it cannot replace it.

In other words, it would make good logical and economic sense to liberalize the AF of M's recording rules pertaining exclusively to symphony orchestras. Here are my suggestions for those new rules:

• The "standard" recording rate must be abolished for symphony orchestras and opera companies. The hourly pay rate for formal recording sessions should be determined through negotiations between the record company or producer and the representatives of the orchestra and its Local, but should never be less than what each musician is paid for a concert performance. This would make second-string groups economically competitive with the top-ranking orchestras for recordings.

• There should be no restrictions on how much session time per hour can be used for a final release. The 15-minute-per-hour restriction would unfairly handicap the best orchestras when they are being paid a higher rate than their lesser counterparts. If one hour of recording produces one hour of releasable material (very unlikely), all of this should be available for use.

• The management and musical director of all orchestras should be free to authorize archival recordings of all public performances, and their broadcast by noncommercial radio stations, without approval by or additional payment to the orchestra members, and should be encouraged to do such routine archiving (footnote 4).

Routine archiving would accomplish several things. First, it would allow the building, over time, of a library of real performances, for whatever purposes these might later be put to. Second, it would give the recording personnel the time to experiment with different purist mike placements, in the hope of eventually finding one that works in that hall. And third, it is insurance against performance piracy, which is easier to pull off than most orchestra managements realize. (Comparing a performance tape with one that is suspected of being an illicit recording of that performance will conclusively establish the truth.)

• If the decision is made to release a recording of a performance for national distribution, the players should be paid no additional money for the recording, because it does not represent additional work on their part. Instead, a substantial royalty on each record sold should be paid by the record producer to the orchestra fund, with a previously contracted proportion of that money to be disbursed among the orchestra personnel. The royalty amount should be negotiated and contracted for before record production begins.

Royalties from records sold, rather than payment for the recording itself, would encourage a backer to invest in the possibility that a title of dubious sales potential will sell well enough to release. If it didn't, the investor is out only his production and promotion costs and the musicians have lost nothing. If the record makes money, everyone involved should continue to make money from it as long as it continues to sell. With the present arrangement, guaranteeing a three-hour session reimbursement at the outset, a record producer would be foolish to consider releasing anything that didn't look like a sure-fire best-seller.

• Finally, the three-hour minimum for a formal recording session should be reduced to two, because without the 15-minute-per-hour restriction, a good orchestra could probably turn out enough clean material for one CD in that two-hour period. Anything less than a two-hour session would be impractical for those orchestra members who live a "commuting" distance from the concert hall, and would (rightfully) balk at driving an (unreimbursed) hour for an hour's work.

These revised recording rules would make many more American orchestras available for recording, and would provide a means for getting some variety into the rather mundane musical fare now available on disc. With the recording rate what it is today, only the major record companies can afford to record American orchestras, and the majors tend to opt for warhorse titles or glamorous performers with proven mass-market appeal. Bringing our second-string orchestras into the recording pool could encourage, once again, the recording of lesser-known but no less enjoyable works in the symphonic repertoire. (Who remembers Don Gillis, John Alden Carpenter, or Randall Thompson?)

As for supplemental income for starving orchestras, I won't pretend that one modestly successful recording of Chadwick's Suite Symphonique will save a civic orchestra from bankruptcy, but the slow, steady sale of ten such titles could make a significant difference in its financial health.

Then there's the dividend for us audiophiles. The opportunity for serious amateur recordists around the country to experiment at leisure (and without cost) with minimalist mike techniques will result in some superb concert recordings of the kind high-end audio is all about. And the opportunity to release these recordings for public sale could result in a bonanza for audiophiles.

Revised symphonic recording rules would benefit all concerned. It's past time they were considered.



Footnote 2: A very few orchestras which have been regularly broadcast through the years, such as the Philadelphia and the New York Philharmonic, were, of course, routinely taped, but where most of those tapes are now is anybody's guess.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 3: Whoa, JGH! This is untrue in my case. If records did not exist, I'd be going to concerts much more than I do. Besides, if records did not exist, neither would symphonic record collectors. Also, the unique appeal of the concert hall has been changed by the existence of records: orchestras play much more loudly than they did at the turn of the century, and most audiences have come to expect to hear the perfection they're used to from records. I'm not sure our orchestras' overall levels of proficiency have increased as much as our appreciation of hearing live music at all has decreased.—Richard Lehnert

Footnote 4: Nearly a quarter-century after Gordon Holt penned these words, most American symphony orchestras archive their concerts, and many—the San Francisco Symphony and London Symphony Orchestra, in particular—have become record companies in their own right.—John Atkinson

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