Is there a place for classical music in a culture obsessed with the Backstreet Boys, "The Real World" and "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut"? At first glance, the St. Louis Symphony would seem to think so. It has launched its own record label, Arch Media, whose latest releases are a pair of compact discs on which Hans Vonk, the new music director, can be heard leading one of America's finest orchestras in live performances of works by Beethoven and Mahler.
But in fact, the founding of Arch Media is less an expression of confidence in the state of American culture than an act of despair. Less than a decade ago, the St. Louis Symphony was recording for RCA and EMI under Leonard Slatkin, who now leads the National Symphony Orchestra; today, no major label is interested in working with the orchestra, which must peddle its own records or make none at all.
What's going on here? The answer is as chilling as it is simple: Cost-conscious record company executives have come to the conclusion that nobody is interested in buying new, full-price recordings of the classics anymore. Of the top American orchestras, only the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic are recording regularly (the latter for a small German label, Teldec). Except for Deutsche Grammophon, which continues to focus on the standard repertoire, most of the major classical labels are now signing up pop-flavored "crossover" acts like 13-year-old Welsh soprano Charlotte Church and violinist Nigel Kennedy, whose latest CD, "The Kennedy Experience," is devoted to the music of Jimi Hendrix. In addition, they are reissuing cut-price versions of recordings by legendary artists. But if you're alive, well and longing to record a Schubert symphony for a major label, you're pretty much out of luck.
It is this sea change that has forced the St. Louis Symphony to get into the record business, not so much to make money as to preserve its reputation as a major American orchestra. "We are the first orchestra to found its own ongoing label of new recordings--but I doubt we'll be the last," says Tim Page, the orchestra's newly appointed artistic adviser and formerly The Washington Post's classical music critic.
Not only are most American symphony orchestras and instrumental soloists unable to land recording contracts, but their live audiences are also growing steadily older. Though opera attendance is up, younger baby boomers and twentysomethings show comparatively little interest in classical concert-going. Not surprisingly, the media are devoting less and less space to an art form that appeals to fewer and fewer people. Rarely does a classical musician appear on "The Tonight Show" or "The Late Show with David Letterman," or in magazines such as People or Entertainment Weekly.
The conventional wisdom is that the audience for classical music has shrunk as a result of cutbacks in funding for secondary school music education, and it is true that those who are not exposed to the classics at an early age are less likely to listen to them for pleasure in later life. But the decline in concert-going is also a paradoxical outcome of the introduction of the digital CD, which has changed the way Americans consume classical music.
The effect of the CD on American musical life is a quintessential example of how the law of unintended consequences can frustrate the best-laid plans of well-meaning people. Digital remastering made it possible to reissue recordings of the '50s and '60s--the golden age of such classical music superstars as soprano Maria Callas, pianist Van Cliburn and composer Leonard Bernstein--in high-quality sound that for most listeners is as good as new. Having long since amortized their investment in these recordings, the major labels began marketing them at unprecedentedly low prices. Since CDs do not deteriorate with age and as yet show no signs of becoming technologically obsolete, this meant that record companies no longer had any incentive to make new recordings of the standard repertoire.
But world-class artists had long since come to rely on recordings both as a source of income and a means of promotion--and thus of attracting audiences to their performances. Though Callas, Cliburn and Bernstein were all hugely charismatic public performers, it was recordings, not concerts, that made them famous. Now that the major labels have mostly stopped recording younger musicians, it has become far more difficult for them to win fame in a culture dominated by the mass media; indeed, there is no classical musician under the age of 50 whose name is nearly as familiar to the average middle-class American as Bernstein's was in the '60s.
A number of noted performers, among them cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Joshua Bell, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and soprano Dawn Upshaw, have responded by starting to record popular music, just as beleaguered symphony orchestras are devoting an increasing proportion of their schedules to "pops concerts." Yet there is no evidence that such concerts build a lasting audience for anything other than more of the same. The Phoenix Symphony, for instance, sells about 90 percent of the tickets for its pops series, but only 55 percent for its regular programs.
Does all this mean it is no longer possible to perform serious classical music in a serious way? Michael Tilson Thomas, the charismatic music director of the San Francisco Symphony, thinks otherwise--and is doing something about it. Tired of hopscotching the world as a celebrity guest conductor, Thomas decided to make a major commitment to the orchestra and concentrate on drawing younger listeners to its concerts. To this end, he programs large amounts of 20th-century music--skillfully and imaginatively juxtaposed with the classics--and goes out of his way to explain it, Bernstein-style, prefacing unfamiliar works with lively, informal lectures from the podium. This strategy appears to be working, and Thomas is now widely thought to have turned what was once a distinguished but unspectacular second-tier ensemble into a model for other performing-arts organizations.
At the same time, the Internet is creating alternative means of self-promotion for performers who are not interested in going the crossover route. David Finckel, the cellist of the world-famous Emerson String Quartet, also makes solo CDs that he markets through a Web site, www.artistled.com; Arch Media also has a Web page, www.archmedia.org, at which the St. Louis Symphony's recordings can be ordered by mail.
Computer-savvy teenagers are already using Web-based technologies such as MP3 to download digital files containing rock-and-roll singles. Once it becomes feasible to access high-quality recordings of extended pieces of classical music via the Web, the classical recording industry as it has been known for the past century will cease to exist. "Within five years," says Page, "the whole music scene will look very different than it does today."
It is far from clear what effect the Internet will have on concert-going. It may well be that the new information technology, with its unparalleled ability to link tens of thousands of individual users into decentralized online "communities," could give classical music a much-needed push into the 21st century. But will the members of those communities choose to travel to downtown concert halls to hear tuxedoed superstars playing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms? Probably not. Until soloists and orchestras follow Thomas's lead and start offering music lovers something they can't get at home, chances are they'll stay at home--and the institution of the public concert will continue to wither away.
Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary, covers classical music and dance for Time magazine. He is writing a biography of H. L. Mencken to be published by Simon & Schuster.