How the internet has ushered in a new era for classical music

Leon BotsteinThu 4th December 2014

Each recording becomes part of an incredible and easily accessible library, more so than ever before

Many people in today’s music industry are walking around saying that there is no money to be made from CDs. From the individual artist’s point of view, they are largely correct. From a financial point of view some would, and do, say that the age of recording is over. But recordings are not just about finance. And amidst all the obsessive talk about whether new technology can ‘save’ the record industry – usually talked about purely in money terms – it is sometimes missed that digital presents a great opportunity.

I have made recordings, some of them on CD, and I was always delighted and thankful that they got reviews. But in the last few years I have concentrated on putting recordings online and the response has been terrific. With no marketing, our American Symphony Orchestra recordings have cumulatively sold more than 250,000 downloads, and are also now available for streaming.

Online sales aren’t really more commercially favourable than CDs, so am I suggesting digital as a way to make money for orchestras? Not at all. It’s a question of what it adds to the artistic mission or philosophy of an artist. That is the raison d’etre for recordings.

The internet above all is flooded with recorded material. You can go on YouTube and find everything you want with very few exceptions. Fewer now care about any high fidelity aspect. There is so much online that it has in fact freed many people to regard recordings much as a tourist might regard a guide to a great museum. As a schoolboy about to travel to Florence you might have once looked in your schoolbook at a picture of a Botticelli and then you would go to the Uffizi and see the real thing. That is something new that digital brings. It makes recordings true reference tools for the works, so that one can familiarise oneself ahead of the live concert.  

There’s another side to it – recordings have also become a reference to what a particular live performance was like. So we put up our live, unvarnished performances so that people can have something of the experience. There’s no patch session, no attempt to make the performance anything other than what it was. So there are imperfections and blemishes – a wrong entrance here, a missed note even there. Instead of being embarrassed about that, I feel it gives a vitality, an unpredictability, and certainly it keeps alive the spontaneity - a quality you feel in any live performance. Also controversy. We are about to upload a Brahms Fourth Symphony in which I tried a radical approach to the tempo relations. Is it ‘definitive’? No. Is it interesting? I think so. Might it infuriate some of those who listen to it? Will they get annoyed and want to debate it? Good! They should. 

That musicians are putting more and more recorded material out there, especially online, so that there is an almost endless reference library for listeners and performers alike, is fantastic. Each recording becomes part of an incredible and easily accessible library, more so than ever before.

So now, the new age. The recordings are an invaluable educational and reference tool. And, with the web, the great thing is that it’s now possible for a music lover to have 15 different versions of a Mahler symphony without becoming bankrupt. You can find any number of rare works that were never previously considered bankable enough to record, because now very little is bankable. We now truly have a store of guides to the repertoire and of performances caught as they actually happen – and that is not a trivial thing, it’s a huge and important role and it’s very exciting.

Leon Botstein's picture

Leon Botstein

Leon Bostein is the Music Director of the American Symphony Orchestra. Their forthcoming online releases include a collection of Schubert recordings such as the Mass in E flat major, Symphonies Nos 3 and 8, and 'Die Verschworenen', as well as Suppe’s operetta, 'Franz Schubert'.

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