Symphony orchestras go DIY

Without major label contracts, classical groups have to record themselves
Symphony orchestras go DIY
Getty Images; Istock; Tso; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Independent musicians realized a long time ago that they’d have to record and market their own music. Now classical orchestras are doing the same thing. In the 20th century, orchestras used to sign contracts with major music labels, but a combination of higher costs and lower sales have made those contracts unavailable; Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, says that “occasionally we get a project with Sony, but the days of a 20-record deal are over.” That means the future of recording may be with self-financed labels like Boston’s BSO, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s TSO Live, and even conductor-based labels like “Phi,” for period instrument conductor Philippe Herreweghe. Recording is still about what Andrew Shaw, president of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, calls “having a calling card, having a chance for radio stations to play your disc.” What it’s not about anymore is making money.

It’s hard to believe, but classical recording used to be a way for artists to supplement their income. “In the old days, the Boston Symphony used to make quite a lot of money,” Volpe says. “Contracts covered all the costs and paid a royalty on top of it.” Today, Shaw explains that though orchestras have managed to cut the costs of recording—mostly by recording live instead of going into the studio—there’s no way to make a profit, and no one expects to: a TSO live recording costs $35,000, much less than a big-label recording, and yet, “if we earn back 10 per cent of that $35,000, we’ve got a smash hit.”
But it’s a cost that may be worth writing off, because recording is “promotional. It’s branding,” Volpe says. Shaw says recordings “keep our customers more engaged in our core product offering,” namely live concerts; like pop artists, orchestras use CDs and downloads to entice fans into buying tickets. And Shaw adds that recording can improve orchestras: it gives players “the experience of listening to themselves and thinking about the recording when they’re performing.” Musicians may need the extra pressure of knowing their playing will be preserved forever.

Symphony orchestras go DIY
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Making its own recordings can also allow an orchestra to record anything without selling the idea to an executive. But because of this, there are accusations that the market is being flooded with unnecessary discs; David Hurwitz of grumbled that the London Symphony Orchestra’s new version of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was “okay for your average subscription concert, but not for general release.” With for-profit recording, musicians had to convince record companies they had something new to say about a piece. Now they just have to convince themselves—and while the result can be a good souvenir for fans, it may not compete with the great records of the past.

Perhaps aware of the problem, orchestras are increasingly trying to release records that have some good reason for being preserved. Volpe says that when the BSO chooses to release a physical CD—which costs “considerably more than a digital download”—they try to pick special performances or concerts. So the BSO’s first disc was James Levine conducting Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, a Boston specialty, and it won a Grammy for best classical performance. Shaw also says that the TSO tries to release “repertoire that the orchestra has had a chance to perform several times over,” like Shostakovich’s huge Leningrad symphony, or an upcoming release of a Vaughan Williams symphony that they will perform at Carnegie Hall in New York.

After deciding what to record, the next step might be to figure out a way to increase revenue. Some orchestras have tried more creative ways of marketing: an English period instrument orchestra, the English Baroque Soloists, recorded the first half of a concert and had CDs ready when the concert was over. But for now, orchestral recordings are mostly a way to improve a band’s reputation in town and internationally. “Not everyone can come to Boston and hear the orchestra,” Volpe says, and besides, “touring is even more expensive.” Orchestras may lose money on recordings, but at least it lets them lose money while staying home.