Classical Music as an Act of Rebellion

There's a widespread myth that writers who get published are more talented than writers who don't get published, and that musicians who make records are more talented than musicians who don't make records. But anyone with any talent who has ever tried to earn a living as a writer, a musician, or any other kind of artist understands that the correlation between merit and success is, at best, loose. Some successful artists are talented, and some talented artists are successful. But for every talented artist who manages to make a living there are a dozen more, equally deserving, who have no choice but to keep their day jobs.

Unfortunately for consumers, for every one of these talented artists there are dozens of talentless pretenders vying for your attention, and that's why publishers and record companies exist. Historically, these arbiters of culture have performed an essential function, filtering out some of the dreck and helping to hook us, the culture consumers, up with artists who have something to offer us.

I'm not sure this system ever worked well, but now it is pretty much broken. Merit is, apparently, off the radar screen of most of today's major-label talent scouts. With their conservative orientation and their bottom-line obsession, most of them end up working against the interests of both artist and audience. Commercial culture—an oxymoron in the best of times—becomes more oxymoronic with each passing day, as the people who ought to be nurturing art drive it into oblivion. And even as they reduce consumer choice, they raise prices and try to take away rights that consumers have long enjoyed. It's an appalling, exasperating, disheartening performance. What's a poor music fan to do?

Try classical.

On the face of it, this is an odd suggestion. The classical sector, after all, is probably the least healthy part of the whole music industry. Major labels are closing up shop or reducing their output. Record-store listening stations in the classical section—the ones that haven't already been taken over by other musical genres—play symphonic mood music, hunky love-singing tenors, and sexy electric violinists with pop record contracts.

But for all its apparent ill-health, classical music has much to offer music fans who, like me, are fed up with the conglomerates' corporate mentality. To a greater extent than other musical genres, classical music allows consumers to escape from high prices, celebrity culture, and the worst abuses of corporate art dissemination.

How? For one thing, classical music has already stood the test of time. The dreck was filtered out long ago. You can pick up a classical disc pretty much at random and be assured that it will have merit, even if isn't your brand of scotch. You can sample even unknown works with confidence.

Another important factor is that major artists increasingly choose to bypass the record companies altogether. Several major orchestras and opera companies, and at least one composer, have created their own labels. If you're a fan of the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, Madrid's Teatro Real, or the orchestras in Portland (Oregon), St. Louis, Liverpool, or Manchester, you can—or will soon be able to—go straight to the source. And many of these artist-owned labels have distribution agreements, so you can still find their recordings online and in record stores.

Another factor is Naxos. Naxos may be a major label, but it's a major label with a difference. Unlike the others, it respects the interests, not to mention the intelligence, of its customers. [See Sam Tellig's interview with Klaus Heymann of Naxos.—Ed.] Although Naxos is younger than most other record companies, its catalog is vast, far deeper than the other labels. Naxos recordings are cheap ($7.99 retail, often discounted), so you can try new music without great financial risk. Because Naxos selects artists by how well they play and not how they look, the standard of performance is generally higher than the cut of the musicians' skirts. And while it wasn't always true, these days Naxos recordings are usually well-recorded and -engineered.

Naxos set the trend, and now other labels are following suit, issuing their back catalogs in new lines of high-value, low-priced releases. I recently paid $4.99 for a disc of Debussy piano music performed by Arturo Benedetti Michaelangeli, one of the great pianists of the 20th century, on Apex. It's one of my favorite discs.

Which brings up the third reason for giving classical music a try: Many of the best performances in the long history of classical music recording have been preserved, and most are available—often remastered and sounding better than ever—at reasonable prices. Not only can you explore a vast array of classical music at bargain prices, you can also explore classical music's rich recorded history. And if allowances often have to be made for the sound quality of historical recordings, this needn't be seen as a disadvantage: For me, there is much that is appealing about vintage sound—a sense of event not unlike listening to a good live recording. The character of the live performance may be the ultimate audiophile objective, but it's not the only valid standard for listening pleasure. In any case, a little hiss and distortion (at $7.99 retail for Naxos Historical recordings) is a small price to pay for some of the great artistic events in history.

In short, Naxos does what the other distributors should do, but don't: Where the other majors try to play king-maker, Naxos limits itself to a quality-assurance role, putting out a wide range of product manufactured to a high standard. They leave it to the customer to decide what to buy. Another thing you can feel good about in buying Naxos is the service they provide to musicians: musicians don't get rich on Naxos recording contracts, but they do get a chance to record on a major label, and to win recognition on the strength of their performances.

The bottom line: The record companies have proved that they cannot be trusted to do the filtering for us, so we have to do a little work to find out what we like. That's far easier in the classical realm, where much of the best music is available at bargain prices, and we don't have to get in bed with the major labels to hear it.

Footnote: Jim Austin PhD is an audiophile and science writer based in Maine. His bio can be found on-line.