Culture on the Market

Some thirty years ago, the then head of CBS Records, Clive Davis, sent out a directive that no recording was to be undertaken if the recovery of its costs could not be projected within one year’s sale in the United States. Accordingly the plan to record Mozart’s Serenade for thirteen wind instruments with George Szell and members of the Cleveland Orchestra was canceled. One of the producers at CBS was properly indignant. “Doesn’t he know that we’re an international company?” he said to me. “The sale of classical music in Japan is twice that of the United States, the sale in Europe three times as great. We could have recovered the costs of this record in a short time with no difficulty.”

Thinking in terms of so long a time as a year was, in fact, unusually broad-minded in the American record business. Normally the goal was nothing more than a fast recovery of costs and a quick profit. A continuously growing profitability was also desirable since selling only the same number of records each year would neither please stockholders nor attract investment. Staying in business merely by sustaining the same level of activity was not commercially appealing. This is part of a general conviction that affects most activities today. Countries must attract more tourists each year, airlines must fly ever more passengers to more destinations, energy companies must supply—or appear to supply—more energy to more customers. This conviction, it seems to me, is less a principle of economics than an article of faith.

If the market does not grow fast enough, the most common commercial policy is not to try to sustain the level reached, but to cut back drastically. Canceling a respectable project if it does not promise a fast return is the easiest road to take. It is often deplored that the market for classical music is not growing or that it is even shrinking, although it is hard to interpret sensibly any of the figures sometimes given. The population in the parts of the world in which classical music is historically most at home—Western Europe, for example—is also shrinking. Part of the loss of interest in classical music may, however, be laid at the door of the record industry. At the time that listening to records was beginning to overtake going to concerts as the chief way of staying in contact with the classical tradition, the record companies consistently refused to make records freely or cheaply available to schools. Educating a future public would have meant planning in longer terms than the habits of thought of the modern business world are comfortable with. Nevertheless, this makes a coherent view of our cultural heritage in literature and music an awkward undertaking. Some educators have abandoned the idea as hopeless and even (sour grapes!) as unnecessary. Even the idea of a canon of great works of the past can inspire resentment today.

At the beginning of the third book of …

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