PSO discs see light of day again

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Some of the recently reissued Pittsburgh Symphony titles now offered by ArkivMusic.
By Andrew Druckenbrod
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is deleted no more.

The recording industry employs the harsh term "deleted" to describe CDs no longer being pressed. If demand for a certain title falls beneath a profitable standard, the label typically removes it from its catalog. The disc becomes unavailable except through second-hand sources.

For an orchestra with a legacy of making admired recordings such as the PSO, the practice of deleting can be depressing.



Listen In:

Selected tracks from the newly available Pittsburgh Symphony discs reissued by ArchivMusic through burn on demand:

Brahms' Symphony No. 4, I. William Steinberg. This was recorded at the old Syria Mosque in Oakland, originally released by Everest in 1960 and paired with a Houston Symphony recording of Brahms First under Leopold Stokowski.

This recording of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 conducted by Andre Previn was the only work on the original undated Philips release.

Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh come together on this recording of Robert Russell Bennett's "Stephen Foster Commemoration Symphony," recorded at the Syria Mosque in 1960.


"To hear snapshots of music from that history is invaluable to our understanding of the cultural growth of the institution and the cultural heritage of our community," said Robert Moir, its vice president of artistic planning.

Over the years, many titles featuring the PSO have disappeared from the active market, even some vinyl records painstakingly remastered and reissued on CD.

"It's as if all the photographs taken in the 1950s were to disappear and we had no idea what things looked like between 1950 and 1960," Moir said.

But now, a pioneering music retailer is out to rectify this situation and make out-of-print recordings available once again to the public -- and it's doing it with a one-at-a-time, on-demand approach.

Founded in Bryn Mawr in 2002, ArkivMusic began as creators of an innovative database of classical music that many distribution companies now use. But its Web site, www.arkivmusic.com, is now at the forefront of the new burn-on-demand phenomenon that is bolstering classical music sales along with the industry's great strides in digital downloading. The company's growing specialty is in reissuing discs that you cannot buy except in a used-CD shop, by burning them one at a time for consumers. It may seem like small change, but it adds up.

"There are more out-of-print [recordings] than in-print ones," said Eric Feidner, president and CEO of ArkivMusic. He estimates there could be more than twice as many.

"When we go into the deep catalog of classical recordings, there are many recordings that do not have a demand of 1,000 or 2,000 units in the U.S., but they have a demand of 100 or 200 units," Feidner said.

"On-demand is great because a lot of companies won't bother to do pressings of titles that have limited appeal," said Anastasia Tsioulcas, Billboard classical music critic and recording industry expert.

In the past few weeks, ArkivMusic has made available seven deleted PSO discs. They include Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and Brahms' Symphony No. 4 led by former music director William Steinberg, and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, Liszt's piano concertos and Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" under his successor, Andre Previn. The titles were originally released on the Everest and Philips labels and now sell for $13-$15 each.

"To hear them now ... offers us a window into an earlier era when styles, players and conductors were different," said Moir. "Even recordings from the '80s, when digital techniques were new, offer the opportunity to hear a different PSO. This long-term legacy is important to document."

ArkivMusic recently completed a deal with EMI for the license to sell the many titles deleted from its immense catalog. With Sony/BMG, Universal (Philips, Decca and Deutsche Grammophon) and many top independent labels already on board, ArkivMusic can sell a catalog disc or new release over the Internet the same way Amazon.com or Borders does, but also offer a host of long-lost titles through the burn-on-demand process.

Across all ensembles, ArkivMusic now offers about 2,700 on-demand discs. Feidner expects that number to soar as the company makes its way through about 8,000 retail-worthy titles.

"For people who are looking for historical performances, it is a huge benefit," said Tsioulcas. But it also can be true for more recent recordings on major labels. "Because they are so busy issuing titles to compete with each other, some things that are released 18 months ago are already deleted."

"Our on-demand CDs [called ArkivCDs] are burned like what you would do on your own computer, except that we are using industrial-strength equipment," Feidner said. The company takes all the music and the packaging elements, store them digitally until a consumer orders one.

The quality of the reprinted material and the CD art of the ArkivCDs are not the same as the original, although the company is working to improve that. "We have been putting more effort into the packaging," said Feidner. "The question is how important is it to make this music available again and affordable, weighing that against the expensive packaging."

The real question, Tsioulcas said, is whether the practice of shipping a physical disc burned on demand will stand up to the explosion of digital downloading.

"In 2005, classical download sales grew 93 percent, and in 2006 they grew 100 percent," she said. "If [ArkivMusic] can build a real specialty and really meet consumer needs, that is fabulous. I just don't know if in the long term they are going to have enough business."

Yet even with the competition of downloads, many consumers still prefer a physical product. A download, "is not the same thing as holding a CD in their hands," said Tsioulcas, not to mention having the often extended liner notes that come with classical recordings.

"Digital downloading may also be the future of ArkivMusic," said Feidner. "But we feel right now that the digital CD is the best format. It may be easier to rip it to your hard drive than download a large file."

As of now, a physical ArkivCD is the only means to get some of these reissues. "We do not have exclusive deals with the labels, so it is possible that someone else could reissue these recordings, but I am not aware of anyone currently doing this for classical in any significant way," said Feidner. "Right now, the majority of the ArkivCDs we currently have available would be very hard to find elsewhere other than in the second-hand market."

And the seven restored PSO discs are just "the tip of the iceberg," said Feidner. "For the Pittsburgh Symphony, I know there is a lot of stuff, particularly on Philips, that we haven't gotten to yet. I am sure there are 30 or 40 discs coming."

Considering there are only 60 CDs currently available that feature the PSO in some fashion (about 20 of them compilations such as "Bedroom Adagios"), the burn-on-demand discs ArkivMusic will offer constitute a substantial increase to its catalog. That number could rise even further if Feidner is able to acquire the many excellent PSO recordings on the now-defunct Command Classics.

Moir does not think the availability of these reissues will be a hindrance to its new recording plans with PentaTone. For instance, the PSO is in the midst of recording a Brahms symphony cycle on the label, and a Steinberg recording of Brahms' Fourth is one of the ArkivCD reissues.

Some orchestras might see this as competing against itself, but, Moir said, "Would the PSO rather have one recorded performance of Brahms' Fourth in circulation, or two? The answer [is], clearly, two."

For the Pittsburgh Symphony, the larger its catalog, the better. For ArkivMusic, there's no need for huge stockrooms to hold multitudes of out-of-print recordings. "The traditional business has disappeared," said Feidner.

"If they have found a way to make this into a viable source of revenue then they have succeeded, even it if it is a small amount," adds Tsioulcas.

The Pittsburgh Symphony certainly thinks so.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs about the classical scene at post-gazette.com/music/classicalmusings .


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