Concert halls are the new studios

(Thank you for not coughing.)

Fred Cattroll / NAC Orchestra

The National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) had released its last recording 10 years earlier when pianist Angela Hewitt approached it in 2012 with the Hyperion label on board. She had started recording the Mozart piano concertos and was changing orchestras—were they interested? She might well have come in on a white steed. Orchestral recording has suffered from the collapse of the music industry. NACO first clarinet Kimball Sykes explains, “It’s more normal not to be recording than to be recording these days.”

It may be a nice time to be shopping for classical music: “For the first time since the invention of the gramophone, there are retailers who carry every recording on the market,” as Andy Doe, former head of classical at iTunes put it. But orchestral recording is so expensive that new recording fell off a cliff along with the record labels. “Philips Classics used to record a hundred discs a year and all of a sudden was recording 30,” recalls producer and McGill professor Martha de Francisco. Philips was later swallowed by a merger, while others stopped subsidizing “prestige” divisions that had once produced recordings through a system that paid conductors, soloists and orchestra musicians for studio sessions. Today, orchestral studio sessions are limited to a few hours of “patching” after a concert to produce excerpts for correcting the live recording, and performers welcome audiences by commanding them not to cough.

Contracts are changing to reflect live recording and digital distribution. “Unions have developed lower recording rates with the participation of musicians, so it is possible to get the product out,” explains Francine Schutzman, president of the Musicians Association of Ottawa-Gatineau. For now, it’s still cheaper to record in Europe, and “that’s why a lot of American and Canadian orchestras are losing out,” says Hewitt. Musicians face pressure to release live concerts without guarantees of additional payment, though, as long as most revenues from these arrangements return to orchestras, this may be fair. It seems easier when the orchestra is working for itself. The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, a commercial subsidiary, charges subscribers $10 or so a month for opulently produced video concerts.

The NACO is trying something different. The musicians pushed the orchestra to create, where 150 archival concerts recorded by the CBC can be heard for free, says NACO managing director Christopher Deacon. The project cost about $600,000 and they can add five concerts a year, for now. The difficulty was “not the technical complexity, but rather the agreements and licensing with all concerned rights-holders,” he says. But the NACO’s new collective agreement has a new-media clause, a first in Canada, and it is helping the Toronto Symphony Orchestra—which founded a label in 2008—with an online project. Tafelmusik launched a label in 2012 specifically to feed a future digital concert hall.

Six-figure budgets raise the question of how much recordings are worth. It’s accepted that an orchestra that’s heard more will make more money, too, but it’s difficult to measure the effect, or the cost, when already stretched management staffs become producers and broadcasters. Still, the decision to invest in recordings involves surprisingly familiar mathematics, Deacon explains. “Say an orchestra invested $40,000 in a recording and it didn’t recoup that money. People might say that’s crazy. But the typical concert might require the equivalent—over a week—in sponsorships, donations and, in our case, selling parking in our garage. So whether we’re losing money doing a concert or a recording, we have to measure how many people are being served.”

Was the business always selling records, not making them? If that’s the case, the bright side of the industry’s collapse may be the reassertion of classical music’s non-profit nature, and increased opportunity for some orchestras. Doe sums it up optimistically, “Generally, you can either make the record you want, the way you want, or you can make money.” An orchestra that wants to record should be rich, or able to seduce an actuary. The rest can keep waiting for a knight.