Wherein observations on the online record label Magnatune are made in connection with early music recordings.
Gosh it's been a while since I've posted an entry in this category -- October 1st was the last one. Anyway, I came across Magnatune while reading an MSNBC article on Larry Lessig's Creative Commons concept. Magnatune is a record label based online that's actually experimenting with some of the copyright/licensing ideas outlined by CC, and apparently they haven't gone under yet. There are of course several other online distribution methods out there that also aim to level the playing field between creativity and commerce (CDBaby is perhaps the most well-known) by offering distribution infrastructure and a remuneration scheme far more generous than traditional record labels. However, the catch in each of those methods (Magnatune included) is that artists need to foot the bill for the actual recording process. The relative accessibility of powerful recording tools has obviously made it possible for folks to do their own stuff and have it sound good as well, but it's still an up-front cost borne solely by the artist. The main difference between Magnatune and something like CDBaby, and what seems to make Magnatune a "record label" is it screens submissions in order to use its promotional resources more effectively. Anyone can pay the sign-up fee and send a bunch of CDs to CDBaby -- they're not in the business of promoting an artist's career beyond providing them with some pre-formatted web space and access to a streaming server. And, in exchange for $4 of each CD sale you're in. Not so with Magnatune though. Your music has to at least have the potential for some kind of financial return, some kind of market that's worth expending effort to acquire and capitalize on (whether it's in terms of traditional album sales or soundtrack licensing).
All of this is interesting enough, but what caught my eye while browsing their sales statistics was the huge presence of classical music among the top sellers. It's a common fact that straight-up classical music has become one of the least successful styles commercially over the last couple of decades or so (classical and jazz continually vie for the bottom of the barrel), but on Magnatune this past week half of the top ten best-selling albums had some connection to classical music and the venerable early music guy Trevor Pinnock even leads the pack with a Rameau opera. All of that isn't as interesting as my next observation, namely the healthy amount of medieval and renaissance music not only on the label but selling well. I was struck by this because if there's a lower level below the bottom of the CD barrel, it's occupied by med/ren albums. This wasn't exactly the case five or ten years ago though, as the broad attractiveness of various incarnations of medievalism flowed through culture: Hildegard is only the most well-known example, but early music recordings absolutely exploded in the 1990s producing an amazing amount of modern recordings of a bunch of very obscure music. From an educational perspective, music history classes would no longer have to suffer through wooden just-the-notes-ma'am recordings inevitably featuring a lot of shawms. As an early music aesthete myself, my collection was largely gathered during those years and it seemed every weekly trip to Tower was met with a new batch (15th-century sacred was my priority then). Then, as the new millennium rolled around, the well dried up for obvious economic reasons. Did we really need this obscure mass by Brumel when we already had this one? Even in the golden days it was obvious some recordings were more pet projects of individual scholars with access to some graduate students willing to form an ensemble than anything with a real chance to recoup its production costs. Of course we were happy to have that obscure Brumel mass recorded at all, pet project or no, but the economic bubble was increasingly obvious before it finally broke.
And so, at last, I'll tell you what caught my eye about Magnatune. The economics of recording are cheap enough that grants can conceivably be written to cover the cost, and there is somehting of a label mechanism to at least provide something of a wheat/chaff separation. Joe Musicologist with a love of Brumel doesn't need to worry about selling nearly as many CDs in order to secure support from a label. Sure, he's got to have product with some sort of potential, but with Magnatune the overhead is minimal and we still get a decent recording of our friend Brumel that also contributes to the greater human library of knowledge. Of course, everything is moving online, but Magnatune's success so far with "classical" music tells me that the future of obscure early music recordings is particularly online.
Posted: Tuesday - March 15, 2005 at 05:35 PM