alan little’s weblog

liner notes

14th June 2004 permanent link

Lynn Sislo of Reflections in D Minor says “I don’t normally send email begging for links but this is sort of a crusade of mine and I'm hoping it will get a lot of attention.” Happy to oblige in a good cause, Lynn.

Lynn is pointing out that a lot of people start listening to classical music from “Greatest Hits” selection CDs, and that those CDs (like many others) often have very poor liner notes that don’t even indicate that they only contain parts (single movements) of pieces of music, or where somebody who likes something on the CD might go about finding more of it. “Not everyone will choose to seek out the complete works but doesn't it make sense to at least let them know that there is more?”

(See, for example, the shockingly amateurish liner notes by Sony France that I noticed a while ago. It doesn’t have to be this way: as Lynn says, “Naxos manages to have impressive liner notes and still keep their price under $10 per CD”. The blogosphere loves Naxos)

I agree with Lynn about what the problem is – if classical music is going to attract and keep a bigger audience, it needs to be welcoming and easy for people who have already dipped a toe in the water to wade further in if they want to. I know from my own experience that it’s daunting to be faced with all these names that you’ve perhaps heard of but basically know nothing about, and not have a clue how to find out what you might like. And I had several extremely well informed classical musicians in the family who were all too willing to give me advice and recommendations, plus BBC Radio 3 where I could find out about other things for myself without having to risk a fortune on CDs. Most people have neither of these things.

However, I’m not sure if I agree with Lynn that liner notes, or anything else done by record companies – especially the major labels who don’t care about what the product is anyway, are part of the solution. CDs – and any other means of physical distribution on plastic disks – will be a small and obsolescent market niche in a few years anyway, although like vinyl they’ll probably never completely go away. Record shops generally carry a pathetic selection and are dying even faster than the major labels’ classical departments. I happen to live in a city where there is huge specialist classical record shop with a vast selection of full price titles, and two other places that have interesting ranges of discount stuff. I’m well aware that this is highly unusual; and in any case, I still get a lot of stuff from amazon or ebay.

What’s going to be important is search facilities and ratings and recommendations services; but what’s available at the moment is generally either very poor or difficult to find. Some examples: Amazon has quite a lot of classical music available, but their search facilities are abysmal. No matter what you’re actually looking for, the list almost always come back with a pile of those “Best Romantic Candlelight Music Ever” CDs that Lynn is talking about. The record labels are no better. I wanted to link to particular EMI CD for this entry; I couldn’t find it on Amazon, and EMI’s own website was so badly organised and designed I gave up after five minutes.

Apple’s iTunes Music Store opens in Europe tomorrow, supposedly. I’ll be interested to see if its search is any good for classical music. (Among other things, like whether the sound quality of their compressed files is actually any good, and if the prices in the UK are really almost double what they are in the US as rumoured)

The musicbrainz project has some interesting ideas in this direction that I really do intend to talk about in detail one day (Drafts folder).

Ratings and recommendations: there is good advice out there even if your brother isn’t a professional musician. The problem is, it takes a lot of finding. I don’t set much store by Amazon’s average ratings or their “people who bought this also bought that”. There are just too many variables in classical music. I might love a piece but dislike many of the recorded performances of it, and I can’t see Amazon or anybody else ever having a large enough sample of customers sufficiently like me to be able to make any useful predictions at that level. I have, however, found some individual reviewers whose opinions I find very interesting and worthwhile.

And down in the dark, dank vaults of the Internet there’s still Usenet. (old-time internet pedants please do not write and inform me that Usenet is really a separate thing from the Internet, because I already know. Thank you.). Usenet has newsgroups for the discussion of everything anybody can possibly imagine and many things most people probably can’t; included among them is If you read this on a daily basis the signal to noise ratio isn’t that high, but if you search the archives you can find well informed discussions of pretty much anything.

None of this is easy to find for somebody who isn’t already committed and determined. Tim Oren thinks there’s a major role in the future shape of the music industry for what he calls a ”genre manager”:

You could also call this component a market maker, and it follows the sysop role described above. The genre manager should know everything about the area, assemble an audience, keep them informed and entertained, help publicize new acts. The genre manager is the promotional specialist.

This is a large part of what record labels originally did, and what good small labels still do. DJs also largely fit into this niche in dance music and several other fields – John Peel and Andy Kershaw (whom a good friend of mine, also called Andy, knew at university) being very famous British examples – but not in classical. Apart from the small labels, it really isn’t clear to me where these people are going to come from or how they are going to make a living in the classical field; although I strongly suspect it isn’t going to be from writing random thoughts about what one’s listening to in one’s weblog at random intervals. Even if what one is listening really is exceptionally good and interesting.

Some other things I think might help:

Not intimidating people with the idea that it all has to be terribly, terribly serious po-faced High Art. I had a great time at a concert a couple of weeks ago listening to Tchaikovsky’s hilarious pisstake Mozartiana.

Not insisting that it’s all wonderful and everybody has to like everything that’s commonly regarded as a “masterpiece”. I don’t have a car at the moment; when I need one for something I hire one, and the first thing I do is tune the radio to Bayern 4 Klassik (nearly as good as Radio 3). Where I generally find that a lot of what I hear sounds to me like complete nonsense (romantic orchestral music, majority of) or pleasant enough but not really especially interesting (baroque music, most). But I listen anyway, mostly because I know that every now and again I’ll discover some absolute gem that I didn’t previously know about.

Or that you always have to like the whole thing. I’m sure if they’re honest, lots of people could name plenty of pieces of music – including famous masterpieces by big name composers – that they really only find interesting in parts. The finale of Brahms’ first symphony, to name one piece I’ve been listening to lately. Some people find that heretical; I don’t have a problem with it.

But on the other hand, not being afraid to show people serious High Art either. Lots of people don’t know much about classical music but listen to lots of other serious, sophisticated, demanding music. Brian Micklethwait’s friend, for example:

I remember once trying to interest a friend at university in classical music. He was a true friend and he was truly showing interest. So I played a succession of pieces that I thought might be accessible, easily "understood", tuneful, approachable, and … nothing. It might as well have been dishwater for all the tastiness he could find in it. Finally I said to hell with it and resumed my listening to Bartok's Fourth String Quartet, which I happened to be playing through at that moment. This is considered fearsomely "difficult" by those who know about these things. And my friend also heard that and loved it, because it was the nearest thing that classical music offers to the kind of drug driven rock and roll he favoured – being violent, rather discordant, full of heavy gypsy rhythms and cross rhythms, especially in the rather dry and edgy sixties CBS recording I had of it by the Juilliards. Indeed he got it a lot better than many people coming to the piece with a background of Beethoven and Mozart listening tend to get it.

Not a lot of point presenting somebody like Brian’s friend with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, fine piece of music though that is.

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