Wednesday, October 06, 2010

From vinyl, to CD's, to MP3: full-price and budget labels; generally, classical prices have risen

By the time I was a senior in high school and had started to “collect” classical records, my father would say “those cheap records, not cut right.”

Actually, around 1962 or so, the record industry had a rather simple price structure and product line setup, for classical. The big labels were RCA Victor (NBC), Columbia (CBS), London, Angel (EMI), and DG (Germany) and Philips (the Netherlands). And there were some others, like Westminster, Mercury, Vanguard, Artia (Czechosolvakia). Most of them listed at $4.98 a record ($5.98 for imports) and $1.00 more for stereo. But pretty soon (by about 1961 or so), the majors had their own “budget labels”, like RCA Victrola, Harmony (later Odyssey), Richmond, and Seraphim, which listed at $1.98 for mono. Artia, while obscure as a label, had a well known low budget Parliament brand. A bizarre major label was Decca in the US (apparently no relation to British Decca which was London in the US), which sometimes marketed DG recordings as its own, sometimes on inferior vinyl. It offered a Furtwangler Schubert 9th with very muffled sound. Also, Capitol was active in classics for a while before Angel took it over.

Discount stores typically charged a dollar less, except when there were special sales. But a store called Swillers in Arlington charged $3.69 for $4.98 records. Collectors noticed how much music could fit onto one side without inner groove distortion. Sometimes the Beethoven Fifth (without exposition repeats) could be fit on one side. But a few exclusive shops like the Disc Shop north of Dupont Circle charged list price, and allowed buyers to listen to records privately before buying.

Then there was Record Sales, on G Street in downtown Washington DC. They had more half price sales than anyone else, and soon started offering supposedly full price labels Everest (with its 35 mm magnetic film) and Vox at 2 for $3.00. Vox would eventually add its own low price label, Turnabout, but probably had a wider range of obscure late romantic music than any other label.

People would ask me, "Bill, why don't you pay $4.98 for a record like most people?"  In large cities where there was retail competition, you didn't have to. But when Record Sales went out business, people said, "They sold their records too cheap." I once tried to get a job there.

It was in the 1960s that post-romantic music boomed, as Leonard Bernstein discovered all the lesser played Mahler symphonies, and added Carl Nielsen.

That product and pricing structure more or less held together as CD’s came into being in the early and mid 1980s (although in the 1970s record prices had inched up to about $8.98 list typically). My first CD was the Strauss “Also Sprach Zarathustra” on London, not very much music for one CD. In the late 1980s, Records International in Goleta CA seemed to have the definitive catalogue on a lot of late romantic music, some on its own label and related Marco Polo, with much music recorded in Singapore. For example, RI offered the early Symphony in F Minor by Richard Strauss, a lush work with a passionate slow movement and a thrilling conclusion recalling the Mendelssohn Scotch, with a hymn tune sometimes appearing in church. In time, overseas CD labels like Chandos, Hyperion, Claves, and other domestic labels like Desto and of course Telarc, offered a great range of late romantic and early modern music for premium prices.

The CD world brought some new budget labels, expecially Naxos, which featured a lot of obscure romantic music, and Laserlight, which featured anthologies. In its heyday, Tower Records was a popular place, until the Internet started eating into storefront sales.

CD’s were touted as a medium that would last forever against wear, but more recently there has been concern that CD’s could deteriorate over time, especially if exposed to hot or moist conditions. Now record collectors look at MP3 downloads, offered legally, usually for lower prices than CD’s, along with liner notes on PDF files (very copyright protected), with the advantage that home computer users can back them up offsite with services like Carbonite or Mozy.

Some CD labels have changed focus over time. For example, Nonesuch used to be a low cost subsidiary of Elektra and featured a lot of baroque music. Now it belongs to Time Warner and sometimes offers new music from younger composers, such as the recent 2-piano work “Shy and Mighty” by Tim Andres (May 20 here).

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