The music makers; John McClure
This is John the Clore. The market is disappointingly and surprisingly small for modern music. Wee wee wee very often. Well I must say it is sort of bitter. Very often when we spend money and put out a record that we think is interesting and significant record we have no hope of making a return on and find that it's so little noticed or bought by the public. Michigan State University radio presents the music makers. John McClure as our guest in these series of conversations with prominent Americans whose art and business is music. Mr. McClure is director of the masterworks division of Columbia Records and has been associated with production of concert music recordings for many years with Mr. McClure as host for these conversations.
Pat Forde in this book who are going along play records first came out somebody said this is going to revolutionize music. And the long play records is going to be to music what the printing press was to the printed word what extent of influence has the advent of the long play record exerted on music. Well I think I think it's perfectly legitimate to say that it is a revolution I think all you have to do is is to. Tabulate the number of record companies in the number of releases that existed in forty five six seven. When we were working on the long playing record and compare it with now now you have more record companies than you can count more releases each month from them than the stores or the consumer for that matter can possibly handle and variety of repertoire that would be would have been just
inconceivable in 1947. All right of course not only the long playing records I think contributed to this revolution but also that the tape machine which which tape recording which came in about an hour we switched over to tape in about 1950 and of course that's made it possible it's made it made it possible for him. For a single person or two people to become a record company just by the purchase of a microphone and a tape recorder going and recording something and then taking it to one of the major record companies to produce a record and then finding marketing or distributing channel and there you are their record company a more rather mortal unstable one very often. Not to long live but still a record company. Of course as much as we complain and moan about the flood of records that comes out each month and the number a record company is releasing at the present time I think altogether it is pretty healthy despite the high
rate of bankruptcy as you still can get into musical areas of repertoire and composition that just couldn't happen otherwise unless there was this kind of free and enterprising. Possibility I think that the main result of this diversity of this choice that the consumers and confronted with in other words going into a record store and having to choose from 40 versions of Beethoven's Fifth. I think it's made the consumer's more discriminating. I think they they know more about performance styles and the possibilities of music performance among the many Tauriel styles I think they're more discriminating than I think they are. If you go back and listen to the records we were making in the 40s all of us. You'll find that the public was saddled really with a lot
of a lot a lot of inferior product. I think the technical standards and and also performance standards orchestra accuracy and intonation has all been improved by this by this competition. The fact that you have to get out there and and compete with 10 or 20 or on a very popular. Extremely popular piece with 40 or 50 or 60 versions of the same thing means you just have to keep working on on your technical quality on your on your standards of performance and I think it's I think it's good and it's healthy. This is had a healthy effect on the performers themselves too and the fact that they have now international exposure through recordings makes it far more difficult to gain acceptance. Yeah they do of course have. They can make one recording that will expose them in 15 or 20 different countries. Of course we can
complain about what this is done to their own performance standards as far as tapes blessing goes because now you can just go in and make a record and release it quickly the artist and knows the possibilities of tape editing now and certain of them really really use it really put it to a test. Some don't but I think that that again this is healthy general performance standards have gone up from the fact that artists can listen and select their best performance and really there's no there's no need anymore for us to accept sloppy or inaccurate and accurate playing any conductor or a major soloist now has to be master of infinite variety of styles and periods from from Baroque through classical to romantic to modern and the old. The old performer who
played everything his way in one style it just can't exist can't compete anymore in this in this world. Of course Columbia Records I think among the large record companies has recorded more contemporary music than any of the others and I'm just wondering what are the criteria for selecting new compositions to be recorded and really how you justify them in terms of business investment in return this after all is a business. It is a it's a tender topic. You've just brought up. Very often in a very large percentage of cases it's really impossible to justify it. We've just been fortunate in having got a Lieberson as president who is not only a composer him self and is very aware of contemporary music and the duties of a large
communication medium such as records its duties to the world of music and so not only did he when he was in my job hear not only did he start and establish this policy of paying full attention to the contemporary scene but as he moved up and became president has allowed us the same privilege I really feel it is a privilege that few companies can afford and many more wouldn't want to afford. And Mr. Lieber isn't in allowing us this freedom allows us to pretty much follow our own tastes and make our own mistakes. I would say that. The way we act the way we decide on recording a certain contemporary piece of music varies an artist can get a sudden enthusiasm and and sell us on a piece that he wants to do or thinks is significant
or we can hear a piece that that moves or interests us even if it repels us at certain times. You have to knowing the history of the traditional lag of audiences and critics behind the the best and most forward looking creators music creators in the past hundred years you have to almost train yourself to disregard your immediate impression of distaste if it's a modern piece should strike you that way. If you find that it moves you or annoys you particularly you have to allow the fact that it may be a significant piece of music even if it touches on sensitive nerves. And so we find ourselves even doing certain pieces that we that we don't like. But we feel are our important or significant or could lead somewhere you know and then possibly a foundation will volunteer to underwrite a certain compositions recording this
doesn't happen very often but. I would say it's kind of you can't really say how it comes out how the majority of income that come in is in as many ways as there are pieces almost. Of course having Stravinsky on the roster means that we are very interested in all of his new compositions and styles as they come up. And Robert Kraft his assistant of course is probably the world's leading authority on Sharon Berg and they've been and he has influenced our direction. Aaron Copeland has just become a Columbia artist as a conductor and he will lead us certainly into other paths. And so it's really hard to say. I would say that we seldom discover new pieces and artists by the by audition tapes and records. It's
very strange you would think that would be one of the ways that we would discover them but it seems it seems that over the years very few if any pieces submitted on tapes or artists making audition tapes have really worked out. From the concert world yes but from from are submitted tapes I don't know I don't know why. You do realize I'm more or less heavily down on the judgment of those leading composers contemporary composers such as Stravinsky. Yes certainly to a degree in and. And also the judgment of our of our conductors and Bernstein because always interested in contemporary music and he exposes us to quite a bit of it in his concerts and we agreed together which pieces we are particularly interested in and go ahead and do them and and try not to worry about the cost. I just hope that what we what we're doing of a more
commercial nature will make the ends come out even and not leave us not put us in the red or anything like that. Bernstein and his concerts and others before and still others now use the sandwich technique of of putting in a contemporary work maybe a shorter one along with a regular concert. But it strikes me if my memory serves me well that you don't generally do this on recordings. Both sides may be contemporary works and you don't ordinarily add a contemporary work to say a standard. Well I think we've finally been pretty much pushed into that position by the the record market and what we discussed first the enormous ramifications complexity of an overcrowded unus of the whole disk industry now so many records are issued each month that appear on the markets in advertising and in retail outlets that they have to fight to be noticed to
keep their identity and we find now that if you mix repertoire or if you mix certain periods or if you mix artists and. And the record doesn't have a strong central unifying idea there's just no way of keeping of keeping its identity in front of the public and merchandising it so we tend if we're going to do. Contemporary record we try to make it a contemporary record and not dilute it and hope that it will reach its market the market is small the market is disappointingly and surprisingly small for modern music. We we we very often. Well I must say it is sort of bitter very often when we spend money and put out a record that we think is interesting and significant. Record we have no hope of making a return on and find that it's so little noticed or bought by the public there's a probably a small
hardcore group who who is consistently interested in the music and will buy it but that at the moment is that there's no commercial Joy let's say in issuing such a record. I wonder what effect or what responsibility some of the critics who review records have in this problem. I know frequently record critics will take issue with the work itself rather than the recording that that has been done when there especially when there's a choice of recording. Well yes that's true but I must say that on the whole the record critics in this country the professional record critics who write for the record magazines and also for four newspapers are pretty good and pretty aware of of of what we're trying to do and accept these works on their own merits.
I would say that they're much more open minded than the concert critics who are writing for an audience who write for newspapers and who in addition to their other duties have to worry about about keeping an audience and selling newspapers. And so they are very often. Harder and less receptive to new music than the people who are insulated say from the necessity of selling magazines that can write reviews of records just for themselves and not have to worry about circulation figures. I find that I find for instance as an example the difference in the acceptance of Bernstein's concert performances here in New York by the New York newspaper critics who are very hard on him. The difference between them and his acceptance on records by record critics is incredible. He has gotten I think in the past two or three years. Most
extraordinary consistently fine reviews for his recordings with which you get no hint of my reading reviews of the performances which produced them for the money call. You mentioned earlier in this book or about the fact that occasionally foundations underwrite the expense for the recording of the new work. Does this happen in your opinion far less than perhaps it should happen in other words as it seems to me the foundations are a good source for the promulgating of new music in the country. Well they are from foundation for instance has been very generous have done quite a few put in the bill for quite a few records on our epic label and for other labels too. And the foundation that we work with generally supports one record a year. The composition that they award their yearly prize to but right now
looking at the at the State of the record market sorry this obsesses me sell but it might be almost more useful and more worthwhile if if we could work out something with the foundations for keeping some of these. Unusual contemporary records that we make but keeping them on the market. There's a limit to how long we can keep in the catalog a record of a contemporary work that just doesn't sell that sells so few each year that costs us an enormous amount of money just to keep listening and keeping it. Keep it inventory keep jackets and inventory and all the rest and we are forced after a while of of no action to delete the record from my catalog. This is not an easy decision to make as a record we made believe didn't put our blood and sweat into released and then just seen gradually wither up and die. And that hurts us very much to delete it but after awhile
the business and financial people just show us that it's to keep all these records in the catalog is just untenable. Commercial proposition and so we're forced to delete it now. I'm currently exploring with them with several foundations where there is a possibility too of of getting their assistance in just keeping these records available so that people that want them can order them. Even though they fall below the movement the yearly movement needed to make them just. Break even and say parallel case might be in the Louisville Record Club. I think you might rest. Didn't Columbia have done their recording in pressing for well ever since their inception. As a matter of fact even taken a couple of their of their selections over into our regular catalog.
But this is this is part of the general difficulty and Tragedy of the contemporary music they're in serious financial trouble and have been for a long time and are always just on the point of disbanding you know because they can't they can't get enough people interested to be in becoming subscribers to really make things pay and they've gotten some foundation assistance here and there but it's a very difficult very difficult recording music is a terribly expensive proposition which is why most of the independents and smaller companies do it in Europe. Very very few people do it here and even even the majors even Victor and ourselves can't afford to record opera in this country. Just totally unfeasible organization such as C R I and I mentioned Louisville even though they are having difficulty making it there. These organizations exist only for the purpose of
recording and exposing contemporary music. Do you think this kind of activity will continue. I think they'll always be one or two. Possibly no more than one small company that can can get along scrape along on private and foundation support and serve the sort of the contemporary composer by exposing his works albeit to a small market but still expose him and give him a chance to hear him himself. This is terribly valuable. Who knows what kind of composer I would have become had he been able to hear what he was doing you know and make the corrections and that all composers have to make corrections from their past works. But certainly another thing that the that the LP revolution has done. The fact that you look through the shrine catalogue and
you find that perhaps you only recognize every third composer listed and realize you've never heard his music was this kind of richness. I think this has affected our concert programs as well as not only made the consumer the record buyer more discriminating and introduced him to a vast range of music. He just couldn't have heard either in performance or on records 10 15 years ago. Isaac Stern said in commenting about the performance of new music that the difficulties of getting major orchestral compositions new ones performed has caused a lot of are as he said our lot of our most promising young composers to compose for smaller ensembles. And this is not just you know a choice of form I mean of course a composer wants to compose a quartets not going to a composer because he can't compose a symphony but because of this there's going to be a lack in possibly a few years of major compositions from our own time.
Have you seen any indication of this. I think I think the trend is. It is very obvious and it goes past it seems to me past just the utilization of smaller ensembles I think it goes right directly into tape composition and tape and composition on the synthesizer computer music. I think that of course the few few composers now are are writing big orchestral compositions and the ones that are are perhaps holdovers from 20 years ago. That of course Glenn Gould believes that some symphonic concerts as such are are doomed and sooner than we think the records are going to actually replace concerts and I've heard some of
the same kind of pessimism from from a major conductors you know if if the material isn't being written for a large Symphony Orchestra. Where do we go then. We still just keep playing Brahms and Beethoven and Mahler for another hundred two hundred years. I don't think anybody really knows where we're going and where the the real the really fresh and genuine direction of the music is going to take lies if it's going to be tape that changes everything. Maybe the large Symphony Orchestra is eventually in 50 or 100 years going to follow the path of the dinosaurs although I doubt it. I must say that composer conductors are desperate in their search for new things to perform
even things they themselves don't like and they know the public won't like. Still they're there looking for material that they too can't just go on playing Brahms Fourth forever. The Philadelphia Orchestra I think has commissioned a new work each season haven't they. And I generally they do. Yes each year and of course a large number of works were commissioned by Lincoln Center for their opening up there. But that's very difficult as to spot in the in the spate of new young composers working in means in media and techniques that are that are foreign to our current older generation of music lovers working in Alyea Torak music music a chance working on tape working with computers. It's hard to tell from from the spate of people who are now able to work without
enormous financial support because they're working with means that are very economical to work with it's hard to tell. Which is legitimate which is the is the real stem and not just a branch a dead end Brain Age. And of course the same thing is true of foundation support when you have foundation support for composers and you have Fulbright and other grants for composition. You end up getting an enormous amount of music because composers that would otherwise be unable to compose or only able to compose under severe difficulties or hardships are now able to get support. And so you have a lot more music and ergo a lot more bad music written. It becomes harder in the flood to winnow out the wheat from the chaff. Of course this is this is
possibly a little a little dazzling in this meeting at first but there is no doubt whatsoever that the old historical process of weeding good works from bad works is still working beautifully I'm sure it's just taking a little longer longer to do so. But obviously there is there is legitimate honest. Music being being written today and just sort of hard to tell at the moment exactly which which it is. I noticed that day Columbia doesn't and most of the other major companies really haven't gone very big on electronic music I don't see much of it. Now this and maybe a simple matter he cannot mix well. We have issued several works of tape compositions but now I know the coarse tape tape music is cheap to
do. Generally you don't have to pay a symphony orchestra three thousand dollars an hour to record it and you can you can get it cheaply but now the problem becomes getting the record out getting it noticed and keeping it in the catalog because this is the hard part. You know if you want to buy cheap music you can buy it in Europe. But the question is can you keep it in your catalog longer than two years. And if you can't then you begin to think twice about issuing it at all because the pipelines are so clogged now. But. No one really can say at the moment whether the tape music like trying to compose music is is going to wither up and become a an interesting by path an interesting branch from the main stem or whether it's going to become the main stem.
That was John McClure. Today's guest on the music makers a series of conversations with prominent Americans whose art and business is music host for the conversations is path forward. This is Ken Bates We're inviting you to be with us again next week for a conversation with Peter Mehlman. These programs are produced by Pat Ford at Michigan State University Radio under a grant from the national educational radio. This is the national educational radio network.
- The music makers
- John McClure
- Producing Organization
- Michigan State University
- WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- This program focuses on record producer and engineer John McClure.
- Series Description
- Distinguished Americans discuss their profession of music, from composition to criticism; the business of music and its current place in our national culture.
- Broadcast Date
- Media type
Interviewee: McClure, John
Interviewer: Smyth, Henry De Wolf, 1898-1986
Producer: Ford, Pat
Producing Organization: Michigan State University
Producing Organization: WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-6-7 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “The music makers; John McClure,” 1966-01-21, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 25, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-0z710f8d.
- MLA: “The music makers; John McClure.” 1966-01-21. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 25, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-0z710f8d>.
- APA: The music makers; John McClure. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-0z710f8d