How Does a Record Get Made? (Part 1)

This post is the first part of three. Here, I describe the way a session is typically arranged; in part 2, I describe venue and personnel hire; and in part 3, I will discuss some general features about what happens in the recording studio. (The question of editing is very substantial and will be addressed in its own posts later on.)

It’s a simple question with a heap of complex answers. There is no single way that a record gets made in the classical recording industry today. Different record labels operate with various business models; musicians have a variety of reasons for wanting to make a record in the first place. But it’s worth sketching some general patterns to the process of making a classical record, if not quite as a how-to guide, then at least as a way of illustrating how dependent the recording industry is on social networks, how these networks form, and how fragile they sometimes are.

What is the project?

Typically, classical recording projects are driven by musicians. (Only in very rare cases are classical musicians under contract to a label, in which case the negotiations over recording projects are rather different.) Musicians consider repertoire that they want to record and they approach record labels with their ideas.

The record label considers a number of factors in deciding whether to accept proposals from musicians. Has the proposed repertoire been recorded before on that label, and how recently? Does the project fit with the label’s brand? What might be the marketing opportunities for the project? Really, the record company is concerned with one fundamental question: How many copies can we expect to sell, and what will be the cost to us?

During my research, I rarely saw well-known works recorded in the studio; on the rare occasions when I did see a recording of a relatively famous piece, it was usually a “live” recording of a concert performance. This was largely a function of the record companies sponsoring the projects I saw: typically independent record companies without the sprawling budgets of the major labels, these companies need to be economical and strategic about their repertory choices. They need a “niche” in the market. Deutsche Gramophon or Decca can certainly market a record of arias sung by a trendy young tenor, or Beethoven symphonies conducted by their newly-signed charismatic conductor. They have both the means to finance a project up front and the marketing infrastructure to make consumers and critics aware of their product.

But a smaller label needs to be pragmatic with these repertory considerations. They could also release a recording of the Beethoven symphonies, but there is virtually no chance that they could elbow their way in with the competitor records from the major labels. The project would fail financially because the market demand is filled almost entirely by the majors. (Of course, this is broadly true, but there are exceptions. For instance, Hyperion’s series of Romantic piano concertos includes both some obscure works and some warhorses. Stephen Hough’s recording of Tchaikovsky is a personal favorite—although I would note that he recorded the complete Tchaikovsky piano concertos, and not just the ubiquitous—and over-performed—First Concerto.)

As a result, independent classical record companies tend towards lesser-known music—works that haven’t been recorded before, or that have very few competitors already in the market. This results in records that are specialist products. For example, London’s Opera Rara label records and releases unknown and forgotten operatic repertoire, works that have fallen out of the standard repertoire or perhaps have been forgotten altogether. The projects are immense, including the preparation of a new musical edition from original sources, a full studio recording of the work (which, as it involves singers, choir, orchestra, and supporting personnel, typically takes a week or more), and a beautifully packaged product with a glossy booklet and well-researched notes. Steven Revell, the former director of Opera Rara, told me that the company has a devoted customer base of about 2,000, on top of which they might do sales to various others when a particular project appeals. Opera Rara relies on that consistent audience, which exists because they do not make records of standard repertoire, which already have dozens of records on the (virtual) shelf. (Opera Rara’s finances are, like many independent labels, a bit more complicated than I’ve indicated here—but I’ll save that for a later discussion.)

Who pays?

Once a record company agrees to take on a project, it has to be financed. In some cases, the record company will pay the costs of the recording session (and, of course, will take that into account when making an initial judgment about the financial viability of a proposed record). For independent record companies, paying for a session can be a substantial burden, although it can have its advantages. A company that pays for session will be much more highly regarded by musicians, and it gives the company a bit of leverage in a competitive business. This sort of company doesn’t have to rely on sheer volume, but instead can be selective with projects that it thinks will sell.

A record company that pays for sessions often will not pay its artists royalties. While this may at first seem a shady business practice, it is often of little consequence to musicians, who don’t often hope to make much money from their recordings under any circumstance. This is the tradeoff musicians make: if the label pays for the session, you don’t have to put up the money, which can be substantial, once you figure the cost of studio time, the producer and engineer, piano rental, and any number of costs that need to be addressed. In exchange, the record company owns the record when it is finished, and having shouldered the entire financial risk, reap all of the financial reward (should there be any).

But it is quite rare today for classical record companies to pay session costs. Far more common is the euphemistically named “artist-led” record label. These labels often operate on a much larger scale (think Naxos), but they take on very little initial financial risk with their projects. Musicians who record for these labels typically agree to pay for all recording costs themselves, as well as to pay the label to distribute their recording. It would not be wrong to suggest that this arrangement is sometimes quite predatory: the musician lays out a great deal of money to make a record, and the rewards from doing so can be nebulous at best.

For a musician, a record can be a kind of business card, a way of promoting oneself to concert venues and audiences. You might sell a few copies at a concert, but the value in making a record for most classical musicians is in the less straightforward idea of building one’s brand. This ill-defined but important value for records is why many musicians do finance their own recordings: even if the returns are not immediate or obvious, they are betting that there is a long-term value to their careers when they put their performances out in the public. At the same time, sessions can be exceedingly expensive, and when a musician puts up the money, it can create some substantial tensions in the studio (as I discussed earlier). This is a precarious balancing act for musicians—and that precarity exists largely because of these “artist-led” record labels.

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