Recording an Album is Just So…
It started with a joyful live performance with a bassoonist far above my own calibre of playing and I wanted to do more. Elizabeth Raum (composer of increasing stature, oboist, and friend) heard me bleating on about how much fun I had with this performer and how I was plotting another performance or recital series to find an excuse to play with her again. Betsy dropped this on me: “Get yourself a FACTOR grant and I’ll write you two a piece!”
FACTOR is the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings.
“AN ALBUM! ARE YOU CRAZY?!”
– Who wants to listen to me for an hour’s worth of music? – Was the running internal dialogue and is one that I discovered runs similarly in the hearts of so many of my classical music colleagues.
"I couldn’t possibly!"
"I’m not good enough."
"It’s too expensive."
"I don’t even know how!"
"What’s the point, nobody buys CDs anymore."
"Classical music is dead!"
"Who wants to hear me?"
I have heard all of this from my colleagues since releasing my album (in November of 2021) whenever I mentioned that someone might think about recording themselves and I got to wondering why.
Attitude to Recording vs Live
In our own Canadian luminary history we have a classic opinion of recordings being the only way to experience our music from none other than pianist-genius Glenn Gould. He was prescient in his predictions!
“Perhaps the most important thing that technology does is free the listener to participate in ways that in all previous periods of listening were governed by the performer.” – Glenn Gould
A little further back, the conductor Celibidache (European star conductor) was adamant about NOT recording music “Listening to a recording is like sleeping with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot,” whereas Charles Dutoit put the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal on the map with a huge body of recordings during his tenure.
In my own circles while still studying it seemed like hubris to consider creating a recording if one wasn’t either approached by a group or label, or an up and coming soloist, or some sort of wunderkind. Less of this attitude if one was part of an ensemble like a quintet (usually brass) or a string quartet/piano ensemble.
Some also felt that live music was a whole other industry and musician-type from the recording/radio play industry, and in many ways it is (was?) in the realm of ‘art music’ (Is this what we are calling now, to move away from the dead composers society?) The harsh reality of the digital paradigm and how we need to move around within it came to light with the covid pandemic in 2020.
Suddenly bereft of live performing opportunities, we were faced with the reality that we (most of the live/classical world) were not prepared to perform on digital media and even in the ‘performing online’ there is the element of the recorded medium as the leading way to reach audiences.
The art form of classical music (an insufficient term at best) has been suffering from audience attention and retention and given that practically everyone looks for their entertainment online in some way, we have an opportunity to learn from those succeeding in the digital and streaming realm.
Indie Music Marketing
I did succeed in getting a FACTOR grant (the “Oh crap. Now I have do it!” response — after the squeal — has become a core memory) and took the opportunity to become a member of the FACTOR jury to both give back to the granting agency, offer a classical ear to a mostly pop support system, and to learn what everyone else was doing to market albums, since I couldn’t find anyone to help me in my own genre locally.
Current popular music marketing practices centre around building a community of fans rather than selling recordings (both physical and streaming). This is more true for the independent recording industry than for the large label-managed artists but remains the main thread of all the marketing training available. Streaming counts and playlists are the domain of ‘the single,’ something that classical music has some difficulty in fitting itself into. We still conceive and create ‘concept album’ of connected pieces, many of which have several connected movements that benefit from consecutive listening rather than on shuffle.
“If I’m going to do this, I’d best learn how people do this.” I took this approach to the whole business and went looking for people and resources to learn from. In the process I discovered that classical musicians are not doing much at all in the new reality of streaming and there were precious few people out there to guide me, especially in Canada. I found several training and PR agencies with free and paid services in the US and the UK that I took advantage of. Adapting classical recording releases to this current paradigm I will explore in another post but suffice to say that there is a lot more work we can do as classical recording artists to improve our ‘findability.’
Why Was I Resistant to Recording
When Betsy suggested I record I took it as a challenge that could only improve my playing but I had to get my head around it. I took a look at why I hadn’t yet and why it was such a foreign concept. It came down to not feeling like I had anything to say. What more did I have to add to the existing recorded flute works? I’m still stuck in that way of thinking (the fixing of which is on my todo list) and was a factor in what I chose to take on as a recording project. If I’m going to have a commission recorded, what else can go with it? Why not MORE commissions and I promote Canadian composition for flute! What was left then was just to get my playing up to an acceptable level and get other folks interested in playing this new music too. Notice that I’m still somewhat deflecting people away from me and to the new music. This self-effacing characteristic is not unique in the classically-trained instrumentalist. Why is the individual classically-trained musician so reluctant to record? What in the training, culture, internal voices, and/or social messaging is creating blocks to attempting what has been an adventure in personal growth.
Orchestral Musician vs Solo Instruments vs Soloists
I think some of the issue lies in the musical path undertaken. The orchestral musician, depending on the instrument, is invested in the collaborative venture of presenting symphonic, operatic, or ballet music. For string players it can be a calling or just a gig but there is very little of the individual on display nor allowed. Wind, harp, and piano players can have some personal expression in the solo positions but all under the artistic decisions of the conductor. Additionally, the focus is on presenting the work of the composer and not the instrumentalist. To achieve a professional level of playing, one is either trained or self-admonishes to subsume the personal musical journey in favour of perfection and accurate historical performance practice.
Orchestral musicians may often feel as cogs and their identity as musicians may not include the idea of putting oneself forward as a performer to be heard in solo or small ensemble. It can be as much a fear of reprisal as an attitude imposed during the training period. The idea of “I’m not a big name wonder star of a player so what have I got to say.” Is SO very prevalent as to constitute a stifling of voice and potential. I fell under this category and is the demon I am exploring through this experience and share with you.
A solo instrumentalist who can often play an entire recital on its own like a harpist, pianist, guitarist is in a different realm. Similarly for the small chamber ensemble (two to five players or so), they don’t necessarily need a host of people to perform with and their path is not unlike the indie band in their ability to perform just about anywhere they can get their instrument and throw up a mobile device. The need and ability to share in a solo capacity necessarily leads to thoughts of recording for many, though the expense and ROI of the traditional marketing methods has put off so many from the recording realm altogether.
The star soloist, lifted from the fray by talent and hard work and a ’something special’ is offered the recording contract and just has to play while the traditional label and album marketing wheels do their work. There is the tiring touring and promotion and expectations that can be punishing but the idea of recording is not foreign to these instrumentalists.
We have been told repeatedly that classical music is dead, no one listens to our recordings, no one goes to concerts, nobody cares anymore. If the increasing popularity of instrumentalists on TikTok and the use of full orchestras and classically trained instrumentalists on rap and pop tracks are any indication, people want to find us. They just don’t know we are there! We have to show up.
My primary concern is the individual voice of the ‘workhorse’ musician and I have now become an advocate of that small star in the musical sky.