Thursday, 8 October 1998

Norman Lebrecht: When the Music Stops (1996)

When the Music Stops coverEdition: Simon & Schuster, 1996
Review number: 131

When the Music Stops is Norman Lebrecht's notorious attack on the classical music business and what he views as its virtually terminal decline. As music critic for the Daily Telegraph he is in a good position to know the current state of the industry, and he is not afraid to be critical or to name names. Condemned by many when it came out - particularly those with an interest in the kind of activities he criticises - When the Music Stops is vitriolic and extremely entertaining.

Lebrecht's thesis is basically twofold. The large agencies gained too great a share in the market for musicians, leading to corruption ("If you want such and such a star, the rest of your opera cast must also be my clients"), particularly as these agencies were also connected with broadcasting, recording and performance venues. The concurrent concentration on a few star names has led to overpriced big fee performers, and this means lower wages for other musicians and an inability on the part of venues and recordings to make a profit. Many artists and managers come in for criticism along the way, but Lebrecht seems to want to reserve his strongest criticism for Herbert von Karajan, with his dubious Nazi past and demand for ever greater control in his autocracies of the Salzburg festival and the Berlin Philharmonic.

There is certainly some truth in the generalities of what Lebrecht says; large fees do not guarantee a good performance. Not even perfection does that; Karajan turned in many soulless performances on record in which not a wrong note could be heard. (I don't really like Karajan's conducting myself either.) It is difficult for one outside the music profession to have a complete enough picture to be able to judge how one-sided Lebrecht's view of things actually is. As he himself points out, there are record labels doing good things and even making money - Lebrecht cites Nimbus and Hyperion among others.

No matter whether or not you agree with his argument, When the Music Stops is great fun to read, as it dissects the music business fearlessly, from the time of Mozart to the present.

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