Wednesday, 6 February 2013

In Praise of Hyperion (and Indie Record Labels)

In December I attended a Hyperion recording session and had the chance to sit down with Steven Isserlis, Robert Levin, and Simon Perry (the director of Hyperion), among others, for lunch on the first day. Since then I've thought about that session and what we talked about over the five days of the session a lot, but some of my reading over the past few days made me consider it again, and I thought I'd put some of my thoughts down onto (digital) paper.

In his excellent book A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), Timothy Day writes that 'nearly all independent labels issued a wide miscellaneous repertory ... The small independent labels could not afford the greatest artists, so they exercised their skill and cunning and identified markets for other repertories, for unknown music,' (p.136). Reading this made me think of Hyperion, which 'became renowned for recording lesser-known works' (Wikipedia), as well as unusual or new versions and interpretations of pieces. After a brief look at their website, amongst several pages of offers and deals I found this fantastic page: 'Please, someone, buy me ...', which features 'our "top ten" albums which no one - at all, worldwide - has bought from us for the longest period of time.' I promptly paid £2.80(!) to download an album of English Clarinet Concertos, with Dame Thea King, but could have bought the album by post for the same price. I confess that I haven't had a chance to listen to the album yet, but I can't possibly see how buying around 60 minutes of music for less than a large cup of coffee could be a mistake. I also suspect that I am going to be returning to this page again and again. Hyperion's 'Please, someone, buy me ...' page is the best example I've seen of the Long Tail effect in action in classical recording, and it really is something to be admired. I had never heard of Frederic Lamond, or his Symphony in A Major, which is also currently discounted by Hyperion on the same webpage, but I also want to explore music other than that which occurs over and over again even in the music course at Oxford, and I am glad that someone has recorded it so that I can.

This brings me back to what Simon Perry was saying in December. As someone with an intimate knowledge of the recording industry, he argued that services such as Spotify, alongside widespread piracy encouraged by use of YouTube and file sharing sites, are doing real damage to the recording industry, and labels such as Hyperion. He has made a clear decision not to place any of their music on Spotify, as it simply does not pay them enough for the privilege of having Hyperion's catalogue as part of the service, and is not the only one questioning the validity of the streaming model. Is that really such a surprise when the most anyone pays for it is £10 a month - for which one gains unlimited access to what is effectively limitless amounts of music? He was also aggravated, unsurprisingly, byt the idea that people who had purchased music from Hyperion were posting it online for others to listen to free of charge: while he respected the fact that many were simply trying to share music they loved, he also made it clear that they do not own the right to distribute it to others for free. Whatever the philosophical problems we have with the 'work concept', or the practical issues with have with wanting to share our tastes with others, surely we can agree that if people take the time to record music that we listen to, we should be willing to pay them for their services?

I have previously been a strong critic of the recording industry's business model, and I still firmly believe that things need to change, but listening made me realise that I have been rather too blasé about the impact of these developments on music. I had argued that piracy, and streaming or distributing music for free, or nearly free, was now part of the fabric of musical culture, and that the industry needed to accept it and move on, rather than struggling against the inevitable. Whilst I still don't think we can suddenly turn back the clocks and stop piracy, I have also realised that it is important to keep stating, as I have already said, that musicians and labels deserve to be paid for their work - and that unless they are, we are quickly going to end up in a very different musical landscape. If people aren't willing to pay for music, then labels like Hyperion aren't going to be able to produce it, especially music in less demand (at least in the short term), or with greater difficulties attached to it.

Of course, part of the difficulty is that there is a divide between popular and 'art' or 'classical' music in the effects piracy and streaming have had, and the possible methods to counteract them. Pop music can, by its very nature, make money more easily than music with a smaller audience, and artists have realised this and begun concentrating on tours and live music as their major source of income, rather than records. Because of this and other revenue streams (such as merchandise), pop musicians can actually gain from giving away their records for free, by profiting from the attention it gets them.

However, less mainstream music does not have the same options open to it and in the 'classical' music world the problems are exacerbated by the divisions between areas of musical life. Record labels cannot make money from the tours artists undertake with the same repertoire, and recording groups are less unified - conductors, orchestras, and soloists often come together for a single concert within a season, or a single album. That is not to say nothing can be done - recording and releasing an album before, rather than after, touring internationally with the music, for mutual benefit, is still an option in a large number of cases - but it is more complicated. Furthermore, the huge extent of the 'classical' repertoire, its inherent division between composer and performer, and greater time and resources much of it demands compared to pop music means that recordings are still very valuable in giving the opportunity to hear rarely performed music, but also more expensive to produce. It is for precisely that reason that small, innovative labels such as Hyperion, which allow us to explore more unusual areas of music than the big labels or broadcasters (such as Classic FM and their hall of fame - it has some great music, but I'd like to spend my life listening to more than just 100 thanks), must be supported by continuing to fight piracy and working to create sustainable business models. For their part Hyperion should be praised, as I suggested in the title of this post, for seeking out new business ideas, and fighting a blind acceptance of popular opinion and taste that would make Adorno turn in his grave, and which sadly seems to be growing more common.

When we take a step back it does not take much to realise that £10 per month represents a ludicrously low valuation of what Spotify offers - i.e., access to as much music as it is possible to consume. Of course, it is priced that low to compete with 'free', which has come to be many people's expectations of the cost of listening to recordings, but if we disallow that currently unsustainable option, then surely it becomes reasonable to expect people to pay a higher, more realistically valued, price for what they are getting? I would be very willing to pay more than £10 per month to have access to a high quality, fully indexed, comprehensive catalogue of 'classical' and popular music that was available on demand, both on and offline, and I hope that other people would be too. Ultimately, if the money can't be found somewhere then we may find our choices disappearing along with record labels. In the meantime, thank you Hyperion, for recording music beyond the obvious choices, and for you ideas that led me to such a bargain.

Postscript: I may edit this post in the next few days, but just wanted to post something as it had been so long since I last did so.

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