Globalization and the Destruction of Culture

[I received the following as a letter from Harmonia Mundi, USA. Bernard Coutaz articulates a crisis that needs dissemination. I find the percentages, particularly with regard to classical sales in Europe, especially alarming. Ed.]

Bernard Coutaz, founder and chairman of harmonia mundi

[August 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:4.]

The whole world was up in arms when the Talibans blew up the statues of the giant Buddhas at the foot of a mountain in Afghanistan — the world’s heritage. It was a shameful and stupid act, the result of over-zealous religious fanaticism.

But when, at the same time, the power of money causes the insidious but inexorable disappearance of classical recordings, even though they, too, are part of the world’s heritage, few people bat an eyelid and very few of those in the media denounce this massacre. You could say: ‘This is market forces’. In other words, profit comes first.

To make a comparison between the giant buddhas, now in smithereens, and classical music recordings, condemned to disappear slowly, may seem drastic. But these two undertakings, similar in their final consequence, are the products of two similarly fanatical and blind attitudes.

Here we have a strange paradox: classical music can be heard in concert and its followers are growing in France:

  • Concerts of classical music attracted more than 6 million people last year.
  • Between them, music schools and conservatoires have 200,000 students.
  • During July and August last year there were 300 music festivals which attracted 1.2 million people.
  • Specialist radio stations (France Musique, Radio Classique) had their best audience ratings ever.
  • At the ‘Folles Journées de Nantes’ in January last year, 85,000 tickets were sold in one weekend.
  • Certainly, there are plenty of senior citizens in the audience but contrary to popular belief, young people and children are also interested in classical music.
  • At the aforementioned ‘Folles Journées de Nantes’ there were 3,000 children and adolescents, from primary school upwards, and people of 25 and under represented 30% of the total audience.
  • At the Cité de la Musique, according to a study which has just been published, half those who come are less than 34 years old.

The paradox is this: the other way of hearing classical music, i.e., by listening to recordings, is decreasing at an alarming rate. From 11% only 5 years ago sales of classical music recordings now only represent 6% of the overall sales of records in France. Does this mean that music lovers prefer going to concerts rather than listening to discs? Certainly not!

At the ‘Folles Journées de Nantes’, for the last three years, it is noticeable that the audience takes advantage of the intervals to buy large quantities of recordings. Why? Quite simply because people no longer have the opportunity to look at, touch and listen to recordings in record shops, many of which have closed down.

Why is this? Because the sale of classical recordings is no longer considered to be profitable enough for investors. And this is nothing new. But the dominance of the major record labels only exacerbates this phenomenon.

The publication of books, flourishing today, was and still is controlled by publishers who are more interested in the quality of their products than their appetite for profits.

Recordings, which are relatively recent, haven’t been made so much by enthusiastic producers as by people who, ever since the days of LP, have looked at their development in terms of profit. Truly it wasn’t their interest in music which guided them and that, from the launch of the LP, has resulted in prices which were based more on length than content; a disc of solo guitar music on a 30cm disc cost more than a concerto on a 25cm record (like saucepans!).

Today the investors, who find the turnover of classical recordings is too slow and that the sales figures are just too small, justify their decision by pretending that classical music recordings don’t interest anyone. This is not true!

The problem is that the media, without really investigating, have perpetuated this myth by publishing articles announcing ‘the death of the CD’, often with headlines big enough for the blind to read!

Classical records, the importance of which cannot be overstated in nurturing the appreciation and knowledge of music, deserve more love and care from record companies and more interest from the powers-that-be.

I also can’t stress enough the importance of début recordings — the great majority of which are made by small, independent labels — in helping to launch the career of a young, unknown artist.

To want to reduce to the minimum standing, and thus to bring about the disappearance of rrecorded classical music, is like wanting to shut museums with the excuse that they’re not profitable and replacing them with a number of more profitable Disneylands.

It is imperative to reconsider the important rôle played by classical music in our culture generally, and in the education of children in particular.

It is imperative to reinstate its status and maintain its production, rather than shedding crocodile tears.

It is imperative that recorded classical music finds its José Bové (white knight — José Bové is the French trade unionist farmer who played a major rôle in disrupting the world trade negotiations in Seattle last year) to denounce the dangers of globalization and profit.

[English Translation by Celia Ballantyne and Serge Rousset. Copyright April, 2001, Bernard Coutaz, Arles, France.]

[Next Article: Close, but no Seeger]