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Generations around the fireplace see a glimpse of the future of classics

August 28, 2008

"Naxos is the greatest label in the world," a history major from Toronto commented this week. "It always has the best performances."

She was one of a few folks gathered around the fireplace at a camp in the Gatineau valley, a place where I retreat annually with no intention of talking shop. Well, music is everywhere. Coldplay was on the boom box. Even if I wanted respite, I would never find it.

But back to the testimonial, heartfelt if uninformed. The speaker, in her early 20s, was not a classical type. She had never even seen the once-famous yellow logo of Deutsche Grammophon. So what was the big deal with Naxos?

Many readers will recognize Naxos as the white-booklet budget label founded in 1987 by Klaus Heymann, a German entrepreneur who realized that compact discs could be retailed for far less than DG and the other established companies were charging.

Artists were not necessarily household names, but neither were the pseudo-stars promoted by the majors. Naxos was accessible and unpretentious. Soon enough its catalogue encompassed the entire standard repertoire and more.

In many record stores Naxos became a department within a department, so loyal was its clientele. The appeal was obvious. Bon, beau, pas cher [‘Good, beautiful, not expensive’]. Why fuss over the dozens of Pastoral Symphony titles available in the Beethoven section?

Is any of this relevant in the post-CD age? Perhaps classical consumers are conservative in a few senses. They have good stereo equipment and remain interested in booklet documentation. The first to accept the shiny saucer, they will be the last to abandon it.

There is, however, the problem of the next generation, brought up on file sharing and the MP3. How will they acquire classical music?

The answer I derive from my less-than-scientific fireside survey is: two ways. A lot of downloading, a little traditional CD retail. The history major, who straddled the CD and MP3 eras, was comfortable with both formats. Her loyalty to Naxos was based partly on price and the preference of her parents for the label. (This rings true. I recall developing loyalties to budget labels that let me buy two LPs rather than one on a Saturday afternoon.)

But part of the appeal of Naxos was its Internet presence. Most labels now offer downloading options, but Naxos has its entire catalogue available online for a subscription fee. A schoolteacher at the fire said he had used this service in the school library. The loyalty-building potential of such penetration is obvious. It is the equivalent of having a Coke or Pepsi machine in the cafeteria.

Pop and classical at this gathering were not viewed as mutually exclusive interests. I slipped a recent sampler by the pianist Lang Lang into the boom box and no one objected.

The varied tastes were matched by varied modes of acquisition. A psychology major who had studied piano and sung Mozart's Requiem with the University of Ottawa Choir recognized one of the Coldplay tracks. She had it on her iPod, but had not known the title or the artist.

That was the problem with Lime Wire, commented a 17-year-old, who acquired most of his music from another free file-sharing service, Torrentz. This operation apparently sends cover art and documentation along with the unauthorized music. The teen had no interest in classical that he was prepared to own up to, but, like the history major, was willing to buy a CD from time to time on principle.

"I'll do that for an artist," the history major said, implying that she also downloaded (or copied) some of her music without paying. The 17-year-old had downloaded Madonna's album Hard Candy at no charge from Torrentz, but then bought the disc as an expression of "artist support."

His decision was dictated not by a concern for Madonna's personal well-being but by the fact that he liked all, or most, of the songs on the album. Forget about artist support if the album has one listenable track. The only Coldplay number he cares for is Clocks.

In any case, his Hard Candy CD promptly went out on loan to a friend. He was not sure whether it had come back.

Maybe the teen, like his elders, will become interested in classical as he gets into his college years. If he does, he will feed the interest on the Internet, the fundamental wellspring of music for people of his age. The industry should prepare the field accordingly.

- Arthur Kaptainis, The Gazette (Montreal), 23 August 2008


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