Recording For Composers & Soloists: Save the Music, Inc.

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On the Charles Bridge in Prague

Advice to Composers, Soloists, and their Agents by Joel Eric Suben

The following essay, from 2007, is as applicable to the present-day music scene as it was when written.

Anyone contemplating a commercial studio recording project today faces a significant outlay of money. Maximizing the outcome of such an expenditure is the subject of this essay. Some 20 years of organizing, executing and supervising professional studio recordings—mostly with large orchestras but often with choruses and with small chamber ensembles—have taught me many lessons. Let me share some of them now.


The Recording Scene Today

The decline of the retail market in CD recordings has considerably reduced standard Classical repertoire recording activity; contemporary art-music recording, always marginal, has seen smaller declines. Record labels have consolidated; online dissemination through streaming and related venues has cut into CD sales. Yet the studio recording of orchestras and choruses for commercial distribution takes place much as it has for decades.

Although composers seem chronically wary of the impracticality writing for large orchestra, the activity of symphonic, opera, choral, and chamber music composition continues unabated, and the urge to compose for orchestra cannot be extinguished. To meet the needs of composers, a cadre of recording-for-hire operations, mostly U.S.-based, mostly for-profit businesses, stands ready to serve those about to take the plunge.

Studying a map of pre-1939 Poland

Rise of the New [Old-] World [Recording] Order

The opening of former Soviet-bloc orchestras to worldwide markets around 1990 attracted some ambitious, savvy entrepreneurs who profited from low-cost professional recording venues. Throughout the 90s American composers acted increasingly to satisfy their desires to hear faithful recorded performances of their works, many of them for the large instrumentations we see in the scores of Penderecki and Lutoslawski. The new recording-for-hire enterprises fed these desires with promises of super-cheap recordings in Eastern Europe.

With recording deals combining studio recording, production, and public commercial CD distribution on the enterprise's own label, the number of CD labels and releases grew. A golden age for American composers—and small American businesses—was at hand.

Hiring local middlemen, the enterprises relied on local conductors who accepted massive projects (as did the orchestras) for very low compensation and worked efficiently by speaking the orchestra's language. Enterprises economized on preparation time by packing into a three-hour recording session as much as 20 minutes of orchestral music. What had begun as a way for beleaguered Eastern European orchestras to survive in an era of shrinking government support quickly morphed into a visible sweatshop environment among orchestras showing signs of exploitation fatigue.


You Get What You Pay For

Under a delirious wash of orchestral sound, many composers found the experience itself rather intoxicating, and their critical faculties were suspended. Other composers, more accustomed to technical and aesthetic accountability, balked. (So too did one highly competent and conscientious Polish producer, whose comments drew immediate dismissal followed by a vicious round of slander from the impresario.) Some deficiencies became apparent. The chosen local conductors for the American music sessions were not among the leaders in their own lands (who quickly realized that accepting such assignments would do little to serve their own careers). And Eastern European orchestras, grounded almost exclusively in nineteenth-century repertoire (increasingly so going farther East), revealed limitations of flexibility in adapting to the hair-trigger rhythms, clipped articulation, and metric changes of many American composers since mid-century. The introduction of a few American conductors did little to improve the situation.

 

Enter Save the Music, inc.

Numbering more each year, dissatisfied customers ultimately fueled my own decision to increase my recording activity in Eastern Europe. After examining the scores of several composers who found the house conductor less effective with their works than with orchestras, I organized Save The Music, Inc. and saw its incorporation as a tax-exempt not-for-profit entity by January 1993. My personal experiences as a composer informed the principles on which I began to record large numbers of orchestral, operatic, and choral works (and eventually chamber music):

  1. concentrate on strengths (in my case, orchestral conducting, score study/preparation)
  2. avoid involvement with the CD release-leave that to the client (foundation, composer, soloist, or agent)
  3. demand the composer's presence at all recording sessions
  4. insist on having physical possession of all performance material two months before the recording date
  5. pursue concerns of notation and orchestration with the composer, even to the point of risking his/her indignation at being challenged on such points
  6. ensure sufficient session time for the orchestra to master the work in recording
  7. offer free-of-charge no-obligation exploratory consultation based on preliminary study of the score(s) in question
  8. be obsessive about communicating, well in advance, with the composer and/or soloist about every detail, no matter how small, which may be open to question and which bears upon the work and its realization

You Don't Get What You Pay For

Encountered along the road to recording some 500 works by ca. 125 composers: a number of composers and soloists who pursue record labels and performers for their alleged star quality in the hope of catching some hired luster and career advancement. This strategy, coming directly from the box-office guidebook of every concert manager, has generated for me and for Save The Music, inc. many sadder-but-wiser clients who had poured thousands of dollars of their own savings into recording projects which ultimately failed.

The failure, disappointment, and resentment invariably stem from:
• the conductor's inability, or disinclination, to master the score
• the impresario's failure to schedule sufficient session time with the orchestra

It's not difficult to understand the impulse to advance a career by pursuing the maxim, "Hitch your wagon to a star." Nor is it beyond comprehension that some of those in pursuit come to me after having been burned in the glow of the star. If only I could have saved them the wasted expense!

Endgame for the Commercial Record Industry

Domination of the record industry by the compact disc in the 1980s inaugurated a marketing boom. Before the CD era, a relatively small number of large record firms controlled virtually all commercial Classical repertoire releases.

When small labels issued recordings of works by living composers, funding normally came from outside sponsorship. Only the likes of Stravinsky, Barber, Copland, and a handful of others-the stars-could induce record executives of the major labels to risk the capital needed to fund the occasional recording against the hope of sufficient sale revenue.

Soon after the rise of the CD and the replacement of analog recording with digital technology, the ranks of small labels grew, and the number of Classical releases mushroomed. This growth coincided with the East-bloc boom and ushered into the public marketplace an unprecedented number of commercial recordings of varying quality and of previously unknown repertoire.

Until 2002, a number of small labels, among them Centaur and Albany, risked some of their own capital to underwrite recordings (mostly of new works) deemed likely to sell enough copies to generate a profit. As I write this, in mid-2007, small labels in general no longer provide funding for projects. This situation creates a hidden risk to the individual artist.

A maxim for anyone about to fund his/her own commercial recording: When all funding is secured in advance (i.e., provided by the composer, soloist, or other sponsor), there is a natural tendency toward erosion of the label's concern for quality, and there is a corresponding erosion of the presumed advantage in release through known brands. The client must see to quality control, especially quality of performance and quality of engineering; the record label should not be counted on to do this.

The advent of online streaming may well revive the commercial recording market in ways which are currently unfolding. The present atmosphere of uncertainty appears destined, however, not to alter the basic conditions of the recording studio. In a world which in many ways seems adrift in a political, economic, and cultural whirlpool, we can only welcome this aspect of stability.

Copyright (c) 2007 by J.E. Suben. All rights reserved.
No part of this essay may be reproduced without the author's express permission.