Is crossover really the price we have to pay for good music?

James McCarthyFri 25th January 2013

Appalling recordings have tormented us since the beginning

Just to be clear, when I say ‘crossover’ I mean this:

Now, you didn’t watch all of that, did you?  Not to worry, the anger and bewilderment will fade with the passage of time and I’ll add another video at the end of this post as an antidote to wash away the last dregs of bitterness and regret.

Every few months the incessant barrage of ill-considered, cynical nonsense thrown at as by the larger record labels suddenly breaks the normal reserve of those of us who care about good music and causes us to write angry blogs about the insidious effect of ‘crossover’ on serious music-making. Entertaining though these opinion pieces can be, I’m afraid to say that these feelings of despair are nothing new.

In May 1929, the problem for Gramophone’s first editor, Compton Mackenzie, was the ‘whining American songs’ which seemed to fill the release schedules of the recording companies of the time, pushing classical music to the periphery.  It is rewarding, believe me, to quote Mackenzie at length:

'It is no use shutting our eyes to the fact that the sales for big musical works are depressingly small, and that, if it were not for these wretched theme songs and the mass production of musical rubbish generally, the recording companies would not be able to give us any big works at all. Our present civilization is based on successful commerce, and it is no use expecting a recording company to be more altruistic than an artificial silk company. I regard a civilization based on commerce as disastrous, and I am old-fashioned enough not to be able to improve on the old platitude that money is the root of all evil.

‘When beyond the Isle of Skye I turn on the wireless and listen to the reports of speeches made by notable personages it nauseates me to hear nothing but their sordid remarks about commerce and industry; but if millions of sheep are determined to bleat round a golden calf I am not going to invite the directors of HMV [the record label] and Columbia to retire into the Egyptian desert like St Anthony and there practise the major austerities. I should be the first to applaud Mr Alfred Clark or Mr Louis Sterling if either of them took it into his head to fast upon the top of a column like St Simeon Stylites and despise the material world of today; but I am not going to suggest to either of them that he should do it because I know perfectly well that if they do the shareholders of HMV and Columbia will at once look for new managing directors, and that the new managing directors will take care that plenty of new theme songs are published every month.

‘I really cannot see why we should expect big commercial concerns to show an idealism which the average individual is incapable of showing himself or even of appreciating in others. I am afraid that I am writing as if I were disillusioned, but a bitter wisdom is not necessarily disillusionment.'

Wonderful, isn’t it? So, here’s my point: the next time you are in a supermarket and you see someone casually fling a sugary crossover album into their shopping trolley, rather than going at them with a French breadstick, console yourself with the thought that a penny of the income that will be derived from that sale by the record company just might go towards a new recording of some serious classical music. It might not, of course, but that is a possibility too bleak to countenance at the moment. So let’s just stick with ‘it might’ for the time being.

Now, here’s the film I promised at the start. Feel your sense of anger and crushing disappointment subside. Feel inspired.

James McCarthy

James is a composer, and Online and Features Editor of Gramophone.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014