Who Killed Classical Music?
Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics
By NORMAN LEBRECHT Carol Publishing Group SEX, LIES AND VIDEODISCS
The history of music is usually studied from its creative aspect -- how masterpieces of western culture came into being, how composers advanced the state of the art, how major works were received. The underside is rarely discussed: who paid for the music, who profited, who organised it, and why. The history of the music business is a half-glimpsed enigma, unknown to modern managers and undiscussed in polite society. The term itself is impolite, invoking images of fat, ash-flecked agents in loud suits. The truth is necessarily more complex. Some of the more successful operators practiced an almost saintly devotion to artists and their art. Others were outright villains, in it for what they could get. Both types took the greatest care to cover their traces. The music business imposes a stringent vow of silence that is designed to protect a myth of the immaculate artist.
That myth is now under siege from the information society. It is no longer a secret, for instance, that some tenors spend more time singing in sports arenas than on the opera stage; that `unprofessional behaviour' was the reason given by the Metropolitan Opera for dismissing a top soprano; that half the orchestras in Britain are facing bankruptcy; that Russian soloists who resisted communism cheered on the brutal invasion of Chechnya; that a well-known conductor ran off with his stepmother; that almost everything in music is up for sale to the highest bidder. Greed and fear have become the leading motives of an art in crisis. There are few secrets left in music, and little shame. While a handful of high performers grow rich and distant, unpushy artists go hungry and concerts halls are increasingly half empty. Even the big names fail to sell out, amid a widening yawn of ennui. The music business was only ever as potent as the brightest of its stars. If the stars fall, there is little the music business can do to save music.
`It's not our fault,' say the artist agents, the record chiefs, the orchestra managers and festival directors who populate the business -- and there is some validity to their denial. But looking back over two and a half centuries of organised musical activity, it was they who invented the temptations that have brought music to its present turmoil. If you want to know why classical music is in trouble, why it plays a smaller role in middle-class life than at any time since Beethoven's death, you will need to take a closer look at the camera-shy figures who control its organisation and assets. People like the superagent who holds eight hundred careers in the palm of his hand (see pp. 140-190). People like the sports king who has never seen The Marriage of Figaro but wants to change the way opera is run (pp. 343-365). People like the press agent who runs a record conglomerate, and the Japanese industrialist who owns it (pp. 366-393). People like the great conductor who wrecked the economic balance of musical performance (pp. 167-172). People like the sponsor broker, the take-over tailor, the disc undercutter. It is often said that the music business is a people business, requiring a talent for managing other people's talents. It is a measure of the current star-drought that some of the operators seem more interesting than the opera.
It may be a minor heresy on my part, but in a dozen years of close attention to this cloistered world I have come to believe that music is more than the sum of its composers and performers. Its concert fixers and ticket sellers, its publishers and promoters, its agents and impresarios, its acousticians, accountants, sound engineers and interior decorators -- yea, even unto the critic that pisseth upon the performance -- all play a greater role, for better or worse, than has been publicly acknowledged. No musician ever made it on talent alone. Tchaikovsky would have looked fairly pathetique without the backing of his publisher, Jurgenson. Stravinsky owed his career to the balletmaster Diaghilev. The philharmonic traditions of Vienna and Berlin were founded on the foresight of two unsung entrepreneurs (pp. 58-68). Orchestras exist in America thanks to a pair of piano makers and a radio mogul (pp. 53-56).
The record industry owes its professional standards to an EMI embezzler and a conductor thief (pp. 295-311). Music publishing flourished by making composers sell their birthright for a mess of promises (pp. 322-330). Such methods and motives were not necessarily admirable, but they were formative in establishing serious music as a base necessity of civilised life.
The misdeeds of founding fathers of the music business have been overlooked or pardoned by scholarly historians who, regrettably, extend the same generosity to living malefactors. The existence of the main power-brokers in classical music is delicately ignored by major reference works like The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart -- a reticence which, it seems to me, impedes any constructive understanding of the musical crisis. Unless old crimes are exposed, new ones will go unpunished. If we cannot acknowledge, for example, the unpleasant fact that the map of music publishing was permanently redrawn by Adolf Hitler (pp. 330-1, 335-6), we are unlikely to grasp the creative plight of present-day composers. And unless we accept that the record industry is now wholly in the hands of hardware and armaments manufacturers (pp. 394-5), we will not appreciate why the ideals that governed recording have become irrelevant and outmoded. If music, in concert or on record, does not thrill you the way it once did, there must be a reason for it -- and there is, take my word for it, there is.
Most serious thinkers about musical affairs (and there are rarely more than a handful) admit, privately at least, that their world has overturned in the period since -- for want of a better date -- the Black Monday stock market crash of October 1987. Ticket sales have tumbled, record revenue has shrivelled, major players have lost their independence, state and business funds have dried up and artists who might formerly have looked forward to an independent solo career have gone begging for wage packets in the ranks of orchestras, themselves threatened with extinction.
This contraction cannot be attributed to recessionary pressures alone. It bears no comparison, for example, to the Crash of 1929 when, after two or three jittery years, musical activity boomed again on a burgeoning radio and record industry and the public's need for spiritual sustenance as war clouds rolled in. This time, the habit of concert going has been attenuated by rival attractions -- computer games, TV sport, second homes in the country -- and by the night fears that stalk great cities. Mature citizens who were the mainstay of live music are frightened to venture downtown after dark. For younger listeners, the passing impulse to buy a record has been dulled by stars who have lost their shine. Agents called it `a problem of presenter decline'. Outsiders saw it as divine retribution upon a music business that tried, for want of real genius, to fool us with overpaid fakes and under-age fiddlers. When those big guns failed to fire, the entire army was imperilled.
Meanwhile, the few genuine stars were induced to flog their precious gifts to the point of exhaustion. The genial Russian violinist Nathan Milstein once told me he would never play more than thirty dates a year. `There were always other things in my life -- books, people, conversation,' he said, and people queued to hear Milstein well into his eighties, knowing that each performance would be enriched by fresh experience and insight.
Latterly, the outstanding Israeli violinist, Itzhak Perlman, gave no fewer than one hundred concerts in his fiftieth birthday year. `Some evenings it's more difficult than others,' he sighed, when asked how he motivated himself to play hackneyed concertos as if new. Perlman, whose name was once guaranteed to sell five thousand seats at London's Royal Albert Hall, was left looking at empty rows in the half-sized Royal Festival Hall. Famous conductors and orchestras faced similar embarrassments. The Vienna Philharmonic, touring European capitals with Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti and James Levine, achieved neither the seat prices nor the sell-outs for which they budgeted. The Berlin Philharmonic found itself, for the first time in a century, having to cancel scheduled concerts for want of public interest. Small wonder, perhaps, in an age when jetlagged musicians played spaced-out works with tedium engraved on their countenances. Offended by a plethora of ersatz music-making, the public defected in droves. You can fool all of the people most of the time, said Abraham Lincoln; but concert audiences know instinctively when the music fails to move them and do not return for more.
The only soloists who could invariably expect a full house were semi-reclusives like Carlos Kleiber and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Other performers, overworked and often under-involved, paid the price of over-exposure. The more they played, the more they earned -- and the less anyone wanted to hear them. The magic of stardom, like the aura of majesty once attached to royal personages, was dispelled by excessive familiarity -- and everyone knows what familiarity breeds. In desperate bids to sell half-empty halls and please their promoters, the stars frittered what remained of their mystery in publicity tours and back-to-back interviews. Arts pages were stuffed weekly with the same handful of star faces flogging the same old story.
But that was still less than half the story. The half that stayed untold were the bits the music business did not want anyone to know: the money, the lies, the illegal sex. These last taboos lay chokingly close to the heart of the crisis.
Remuneration was no longer much of a secret; on the contrary, it was now fashionable for agents to brandish their stars' fees as a kind of virility symbol. But how and where the money was paid was kept quiet. Record labels, for example, no longer signed contracts with their stars. The document was made out to a shell company set up by the artist's agent in the Dutch Antilles, or some similar haven. By such dodges, and others more contorted, artists avoided paying their contribution to the societies that bred and fed them. If the music they play lacks personal or indigenous character, it may have something to do with the fact that the contracted performer is not a live individual but a distant corporation.
Behind these arrangements lies a larger conspiracy. The agents who represent musicians are understandably coy about their finances. The balance sheet of the biggest agency has never been glimpsed by an outsider, or even by half of its board of directors. Artist managements are private firms, and nobody's business but their own. There is, however, a compelling reason for their exceptional shyness. Music agencies make most of their money from public-funded institutions: opera houses and orchestras that rely heavily on state and corporate donations. Agents owe their living to this largesse. If the public only knew what these middlemen were making and how, there would be an outcry. Their profits per se are not necessarily excessive; we shall examine them shortly. But what is unhealthy is the wholly unpoliced relationship between private agents and public-funded institutions, an arrangement that gives rise to quotidion collusion and occasional corruption.
This is how it works: a state opera house, in order to engage a good tenor, makes a deal with this agent to take on a dud conductor and soprano. An orchestra, to keep its music director, agrees to book most of its soloists from the maestro's agent. For the prize of a world tour, it may have to accept a dreary conductor. For everything it pays high over the odds.
Evidence of arm-twisting is ubiquitous. We have heard maestros at the Met who did not know the score, singers at the Bastille who could not reach the notes and soloists at the Musikverein who were certainly not engaged for the purity of their tone. The public is not stupid. It knows when it is being conned and does not come back for seconds. Critics are not stupid either; but the larger picture of collaboration between the music business and music institutions is largely ignored. There is too much bad music about, and no one seems to ask who is to blame. If the music business were to come clean on its finances and give up on fixes it might help clear the air and refill the halls -- but then the business could not operate quite so influentially. If merit alone were rewarded, who would need agents?
Leaders in the music business like to pretend it is very small, essentially a cottage industry that provides personal care to delicate artistic plants. `Nobody gets rich in this business,' said the biggest agent of all. `The people who just come for money leave, because there is not that much money in it.' Since few firms publish end-of-year results, there is no easy way of assessing size; but a trawl through institutional statistics suggests that there is enough money involved in the business to make agenting extremely worth while.
In 1991, orchestras in America spent close to seven hundred million dollars, of which just over half (fifty-one per cent, $355.8 million) went on soloists and guest conductors. Music directors cost an extra forty million. American opera houses in 1992 paid $52.4 million to soloists and conductors. With US agencies taking a twenty-per-cent commission, there was around ninety million dollars to be earned by agents from major public institutions -- just for the price of picking up the phone. And more still from recitals at venues like Carnegie Hall, as well as commission on artists' broadcast and recording royalties. Most of the nine-digit loot was collared by three US-based international agencies (see chapter 6). Nice work, for some.
The profits in Europe were smaller and more diffuse. A London orchestra in 1992-3 spent nine hundred and two thousand of its five-million-pound budget on soloists and conductors. There were four parallel bands in the capital, half a dozen more on smaller budgets around the country and four low-fee BBC orchestras. In all, UK agents taking ten to fifteen per cent were earning around a million pounds a year in concert commissions, and about as much again on opera and recitals, mostly sustained by state subsidy.
The picture varied across Europe, where the agents' net was cast over hundreds of institutions. A regional Dutch orchestra spent just over a million guilders (four hundred thousand pounds) of its eleven-million 1992 budget on artists, of which agents took a modest tithe. But there were half a dozen good orchestras for agents to service in little Holland and 150 more across the German border. In Italy, every small town had a state-funded opera house. The French and Swiss authorities paid fool's gold to attract big names to inferior orchestras.
Taken together, the agency sector earned slightly more in Europe than it did in the United States. And there were rich pickings for agents of every nationality to be made from touring their artists in the high-income halls of Japan. A conservative assessment, therefore, would put the global take of the music agency business somewhere in excess of quarter of a billion dollars, which is not, by any reckoning, peanuts. Early in 1995, the second largest international artists management company reported an annual turnover in the region of one hundred million dollars. A proportion of this money came from extraneous arena concerts, but the bulk was earned from public-funded institutions.
The cosiness of this commerce between public bodies and private agencies is cynically admitted on both sides. There is, however, one shaming truth that neither can afford to admit -- namely, that the commodities they exchange are no longer worth the price.
In Hollywood, a movie actor who makes eighteen million dollars for a six-week film will earn back the money in two months at the box-office. When Elton John receives a forty-one-million-dollar advance on his next four albums, Warner/Chappell who signed the cheque expect to recoup full value, knowing that the pop singer/writer clears twenty-seven million dollars a year in royalties. A soccer club that buys a striker for five million pounds will regain it in gate money and sponsorships, especially if the new recruit helps win a trophy.
Classical artists are, by comparison, an uneconomic embarrassment. While Caruso and Heifetz justified their high fees by leaving some profit in the till, today's stars are judged by how much of a loss they are going to rack up for the companies that engage them. Unless they sing in a ballpark and sell ten million discs, the big modern names are massive loss-leaders.
Every opera, concert and major recording loses pots of money, largely because the artists who get top billing are grotesquely overpaid and their agents are in on the take. Caruso and Heifetz also had agents, but stars in those days earned every cent of their hire and no one got conned. Today, with music on a life support of subsidy, charity and sponsorship, it seems slightly offensive for stars and their agents to milk the donors so remorselessly.
There is, of course, a simple route for live performance to stand again on its own two feet. If star fees were halved, other costs would fall commensurately, tickets could be made cheaper and audiences would increase. This is not an agenda that the music business wishes to contemplate. Stars and their managers have got used to living off the fat of the public purse.
To protect this set up, the music business has erected a screen of lies that would earn the envy of a Baron Munchausen. Half the English language has had to be rewritten to furnish excuses for an industry where double-booking is more prevalent than on airlines. `Indisposed' means overbooked; `unwell' means overworked; `invited to conduct' means begged for a date; and `a committed performance' means played, for once, as if the musicians still loved music.
These are the white lies, almost amusing in their transparency. The dirty ones, the whoppers, cover up criminal acts. It is widely known on the classical circuit that a certain top conductor has a compulsion for sex with under-age boys. He has been arrested more than once and was banned for many years from a major capital. His agent, instead of sending the sick musician for counselling, ignores his perversion until it threatens to reach print -- when he leaps in with the best lawyers money can buy and covers up with a trail of libel threats, glossy interviews and fake mistresses. Many people within the upper echelons of classical music are party to the deceit. The corruption of youth and truth would be tolerated in no other sector of the entertainment industry; even Hollywood retched when Michael Jackson was accused of child molesting. Yet the classical music business condones child-sex and forgives the maestro. Should his vice ever come to light (as it doubtless must), the damage to music will be incalculable. But the music business is not overly bothered by the health and welfare of music.
In any other area of public service the activities of the twilight zone where the music business meets public institutions would provoke parliamentary questions. Here is a sampling of current affairs that crossed my desk in the space of a few months:
-- The head of a major European festival inserts his male lover, without public tender, as the company's press director.
-- The director of Berlin's Deutsche Oper, Gotz Friedrich, is savaged by critics for casting his soprano wife, Karan Armstrong, in the much-coveted role of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. She is not, apparently, asked to sing the role elsewhere.
-- The tenor Placido Domingo, artistic director of the Washington Opera, hires his wife and son to direct operas for him in Spain.
-- Jose Carreras breaks a Covent Garden contract to sing Stiffelio because he prefers singing outdoor concerts in Germany and Scotland.
-- The head of the Bastille Opera defies a court order to allow the music director to enter the house. He ends up paying the conductor a million dollars of public money to go away.
-- A stage manager sues the Metropolitan Opera for prejudicing her career, alleging jobs backstage are reserved for homosexuals.
-- A conductor in Belgium uses his state-salaried orchestra to make unpaid recordings for his own label; players who object or ask for royalties are warned they could lose their jobs.
-- English National Opera appoints a composer-in-residence whose publisher is the ENO managing director's wife.
-- The business manager of a top German orchestra allows a record company to pay his secretary-girlfriend's salary.
Enough? There's plenty more. Anywhere else in public life an official who awards contracts to a relative or lover is obliged to declare the interest, or face the sack. A civil servant who uses public resources for private gain is prosecuted. A performer who breaks his contract is sued. In music, abuses of public trust are everyday occurrences, the common vernacular of transactions between public servants and private agents. So close is their contact that roles are readily interchangeable. A singers' agent, Ion Holender, becomes head of the Vienna State Opera. The outgoing Met chief, Rudolf Bing, joins the board of CAMI, the agency that until recently supplied most of his singers. The former Covent Garden chairman, Sir Claus Moser, is recruited by the Harold Holt agency.
Music, like the prison service, is a law unto itself. What goes on behind bars and after lights out is concealed from the public gaze, in full confidence that the public does not want its illusions of security or stardom shattered. The public is invariably the loser, for the result of unscrutinised collusion is an inferior level of performance, on stage and backstage.
The immediate victims are often musicians, who have no recourse to appeal against unseen deals and have scant protection from physical and artistic rape by maestros and stage directors. Many good singers have been shut out of opera because they would not lie down on the casting couch. A British counter-tenor, popular in Europe, has been absent for nine years from Covent Garden because, he believes, he refused the sexual advances of a director. Others, summarily replaced at the whim of a powerful artist or agent, are warned that their careers will be throttled if they seek legal or public redress.
The saddest victims are the youngest, their shining ideals shattered by callous exploitation. A former music student wrote to me from Florida recalling the summer he spent in the company of a celebrated conductor who surrounded himself with admiring teenagers and habitually abused them:
The adoration and subservience is a little hard for me to describe ... One evening, one of the girls was walking past `Jack' (a pseudonym), who was sitting in his usual reclining chair. Without discussing it, `Jack' stopped her next to his chair, with his hand, slowly reached up and pulled her panties down, and stroked her legs up to her crotch. She didn't protest, and neither did anyone else. Such was his power. And he didn't want to have a sexual relationship with her. One of the reasons why she left -- she saw no future with `Jack'.
Another night the conductor ordered my informant, then seventeen, to strip naked and engage in mutual masturbation. The boy, a virgin, was still mortified twenty years later by his subsequent rejection.
I think `Jack' really was just interested in the sex, and was interested in relationships only to the extent that they served him ... It's bad when your God dumps on you, hurts you on purpose and will not discuss or negotiate the subject ... I was so subservient that I accepted abuse from him. He continued till I broke down and cried. No one ever hurt me except him. I can think of no description of that evening other than physical abuse. `Jack' said that in a way his relationships with me and the others `saved us all from a first divorce'. Yet that was exactly what his relationship was -- without alimony, social support, or anything else.
His tormentor occupies a prominent position at a major opera house. He is, so far as I am aware, an unreformed character -- and there are more like him. The music authorities and the music business cover up for star abuses and give them ample opportunity to wreck more lives. Misconduct cannot be stopped, but it should certainly not be fostered by an art that aspires to spiritual values.
The trouble is, classical music has become so polluted by the unregulated intercourse of private pushers and public servants that it cannot distinguish principle from expedience. Unless some light is shed on shady dealings and some probity restored, more young lives will be blighted and careers choked off. This book is not primarily an exercise in whistle-blowing, but I make no apologies for breaking the silence. It would be easier, and legally safer, for me to discuss the issues in the kind of anonymous generalities I have used until now. But enough's enough. From here on, I shall name names and call witnesses. The future of musical performance hangs in the balance at the close of the twentieth century. Orchestras and opera houses are in peril and musicians tremble for their livelihoods. It would be irresponsible on my part to employ euphemisms in order to spare the blushes of those who wield authority over a wilting art. If music lovers can see behind the curtains of collusion, it may help them differentiate between harmony and hype, art and lies. It may also help rebuild a measure of public faith in the integrity of the art itself.
There will be no more sex and lies in this chapter. All that remains to be discussed is the videodisc dimension, the last-ditch resort of an art in retreat. The gleam of high technology has rescued music many times in the past. Stereo in the 1950s buttered the bread of major orchestras; compact disc in the early Eighties put jam on the loaf. In the gloom of Black Monday, as live music faced recession, a posse of white knights appeared on the trading screen bearing good tidings for the faltering record industry. CBS and RCA, the American parents of classical recording, were bought in quick succession by Sony of Japan and Bertelsmann of Germany. Philips of Holland consolidated its control of the PolyGram grouping of Deutsche Grammophon, Decca-London and Philips Classics. Thorn, an electronics conglomerate, corporatised the senior British label, EMI. The world's six big classical labels changed hands or line-control in the space of two years, and the new owners were bullish about budgets and prospects.
Classical music was not necessarily the principal motive for their moves, but it was not an insignificant element. Sony's two-billion-dollar acquisition of CBS was driven by Norio Ohga, a classically trained baritone and close friend of the conductor Herbert von Karajan. Bertelsmann, a book conglomerate, followed its RCA swoop with a raid on Ricordi, publishers of Verdi and Puccini. PolyGram, which headed into Hollywood with such hits as Four Weddings and a Funeral, strategised its classical labels as resource centres for movie sound-tracks and computer software. When Thorn-EMI was readied for demerger in 1995, its classical archive was listed among the company's prime attractions. In a world where movies, broadcasting, computers, telephones and home entertainment were hurriedly interfacing, no major player could afford to be without a classical music component, which it could reproduce in all forms and media.
The monetary value of classical recording was not a large factor in this equation, but it was fairly substantial. In 1992, the world value of record sales was $28.7 billion (in plain English, eighteen thousand million pounds), having surprisingly doubled in six years of world recession. The classical share of this amount was around seven per cent, or two billion dollars; its value had doubled in a decade. Of this amount, roughly ten per cent -- two hundred million dollars -- was paid out as artist and orchestra royalties, and one-tenth of that went back to artist agents, a small matter of twenty million dollars. These sums were vital infusions into a nervous musical economy. Without them many institutions and individuals would have gone under. The music establishment was touchingly grateful to the new masters of the record business for their support. But how long that support would be sustained, and what direction it might take, turned uncertain within seven years.
The alarm bells began ringing late in 1994 when Sony slashed budgets after writing off losses of $3.2 billion in Hollywood and an untold amount at its Hamburg-based classical label (see pp. 380-2). Decca, which had dominated the classical charts through the 1990s, turned in a 1993 net loss of a hundred and forty-two thousand pounds, small but shocking. If Decca had a bad year, others had a nightmare from which they awoke in sheer panic. In a blether of self-doubt, market leader Deutsche Grammophon launched quick-shot chart-busters called `Top Gear Classics' and `Classic Relaxation' and put out a disco-beat album with the London Symphony Orchestra. EMI, once the proud carrier of Furtwangler and Beecham recordings, blew its promotions budget on a pubescent violinist, Vanessa-Mae, who played rocked-up Bach and paraded in a see-through swimsuit. Sony Classical plastered a dread-locked would-be conductor, Bobby McFerrin, on Manhattan bus shelters and buses.
These were not the sort of reactions normally expected from a thoughtful, cultured industry that had weathered a century of storms without sacrificing its highbrow image. Rather, these were the snap decisions you got from corporate salarymen whose careers were on the line if they stayed more than a couple of years in the red. Across the spectrum of classical recording an historic sense of purpose was being weakened by executives whose main concern was to please the corporate parent.
In these seven years, the record industry lost its last autonomy. Labels that were once owned by music-loving businessmen and run by musicians were reduced to a cog within a conglomerate. If a multimedia boss in Tokyo or Hollywood decreed that videodiscs were to be the next household gadget, classical music would be retuned to fit the format. If markets responded better to CD-ROM or CD-I, classics would meekly supply the software. The glorious history of western art music was reduced to the status of a servile database. The continuity of musical creation and interpretation held a priority so low it was almost invisible.
Any classical record that did not sell a thousand copies a year was deleted by computer regardless of its artistic significance. Any fad that caught the fleeting imagination was proclaimed `classical' and ruthlessly promoted. Recordings that were truly classic were disdained as old hat or recycled notelessly in bargain bins.
In the hands of multinational electronics giants and armament manufacturers, symphonies were no more meaningful than bytes and bullets. The recording factor that had underpinned musical life for a hundred years had fallen into alien hands and was unable to save music in its hour of need. In the maelstrom of the market-place, classical music was an art held hostage by business interests. This book charts the course of its capitulation.
St John's Wood, London, March 1996
(C) (C) 1996 Norman Lebrecht All rights reserved. ISBN: 1-55972-415-3
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