Warner Bros. "Gives Up" on Classical

This is old news, but you may not have read it anywhere: Warner Classics no longer exists as an "active" label. Gramophone published a news item breaking the story on June 2 and Norman Lebrecht apparently analyzed and excoriated the move in his La Scena Musicale web log shortly thereafter. We say "apparently," since Lebrecht's site now reads www.scena.org is now expired.

Warner Classics consisted of several well-respected, formerly independent labels, including Erato, Teldec, Finlandia, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, and Apex (a UK-based budget label). Apparently Warner Classics operations will be enfolded in the purview of Warner's Rhino division, whatever that means.

According to reports, Warner Classics generated profits in each of its last five years. "Well, that depends on your definition of profit," said an industry insider and veteran of the classical music business, who preferred not to be named in this article. "If you wanted to itemize distribution and overhead for all of a label like Warner, you could probably make a case that Warner Classics wasn't profitable enough—especially in a boardroom environment that was transformed forever by the Warner AOL merger debacle. That cataclysm removed anybody from the board with any record company background, not to mention anyone who understood classical music or even valued it."

A former Warner Classics employee (who also asked not to be identified because "I can't see an upside to speaking frankly in the shrinking job market that is the classical recording business") told me, "We released good stuff in the last 10 years, recordings like the Ligeti legacy series—which was released during his lifetime, by the way—and the Pierre-Laurent Aimard Beethoven concertos were successes artistically and musically—and they required the resources of a major label, not an independent."

Lebrecht mirrored those sentiments in his widely-quoted column: "Edgar Bronfman Jr. [AOL-Time Warner's CEO] had no patience for the prestos and adagios of an offshore accessory that contributes barely two percent of pop-music revenues...Classical music used to be the industry's core resource. The Beatles could never have developed their sophisticated sound world without the symphonic expertise on hand at Abbey Road, and most subsequent groups are indebted, wittingly or not, to the stern disciplines and mathematical logic of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. 'People in the record business understood that classics was where we all came from—the basis of what we do,' a former head of Sony Europe told me recently. 'We were happy to carry on making records in that area, even losing a bit of money.'"

The closure of Warner Classics leaves only three major labels: EMI, Sony-BMG, and Deutsche Grammophon/Decca. Naxos, which may actually outsell all three "majors," is considered an independent label, and Nonesuch, which at one time was Warner's classical division, now seems to be more broadly focused on "alternative" music, a rubric that embraces everything from Steve Reich and the Kronos Quartet to the Magnetic Fields and Ry Cooder.

Of course, it's easy to point to the decision to close Warner Classics as just another sign of the barbarians at the gates, but it's also a cautionary tale. The collapse of the old deep-catalog brick-and-mortar retail store distribution system hit classical music far harder than it did jazz or popular music—and unlike those other forms of music, classical has not seen alternative sales conduits spring up. Don't believe us? Go to iTunes or Amazon and try to find a specific recording of a well-known classical work. The meta-data is so sloppily entered in both retail outlets that you're playing Russian roulette half the time. You can find what you're looking for if you know precisely what it is, but casual browsing doesn't pay off.

Erick Lichte, musical director of Cantus, told me this week that he's been looking for a distributor for Cantus' recordings for six months. "We finally got a company that still gets its stuff into stores to talk to us, and what they said was, 'don't call us, we'll call you.'" (You can buy Cantus' recordings here.) Lichte inadvertently came to the same conclusion as my unnamed former Warner Classics employee: "It's getting to the point where the only place you'll be able to purchase classical music is at the performances you hear it—but who is going to come if they don't already listen to classical music? That's a guarantee for a market that keeps getting smaller until it disappears."