The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has a new lease on live recording.
It is one of 48 classical music institutions -- primarily orchestras -- that signed a significant agreement Friday with the American Federation of Musicians pertaining to the recording of live music.
The pact allows orchestras like the PSO to reduce upfront payments to its musicians for any live recordings sold as CDs or digital downloads, but will increase revenue sharing of those products. Orchestras will own the recordings, but future revenues will be shared with the musicians.
It's a deal that should make it once again cost-effective for major orchestras' recordings to come to a CD or MP3 player near you.
"It has been too long in coming," said PSO President Larry Tamburri. "It means that the cost in recording the orchestra has gone down."
The last time the Pittsburgh Symphony issued a major-label recording was 2001.
"The new agreement will provide a greater opportunity for symphony orchestras to record," said George Clewer, president of the Pittsburgh Musicians' Union. "It ultimately will enable a symphony to get its product into the marketplace and maintain a presence that may otherwise be lacking."
For recordings of 78 minutes or less, orchestras that signed the agreement must pay musicians 6 percent of their weekly scale, and then $10 per 1,000 copies/downloads sold above 15,000 units.
Under the new deal, "people are not going to be earning a significant amount from recordings," Bill Foster, a violist in the National Symphony Orchestra, told The New York Times, "but it might be a steady amount, and it could be more if there is a very highly successful recording."
In the 20th century, many American orchestras had robust recording catalogs. Even as late at the 1990s, the PSO and music director Lorin Maazel were featured on several recordings on Sony Classical.
But slow sales, competition from smaller labels and rising studio and union costs hindered larger-budget domestic orchestras from releasing studio albums. Independent labels such as Naxos thrived by looking to smaller American orchestras or nonunion European ones.
During the seven-season tenure of music director Mariss Jansons (1997-2004), the PSO had only one commercial release on a major label, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 on EMI.
The orchestra has, similar to many U.S. orchestras, released an album on a vanity label, Curtain Call. That project, the three-disc "The Jansons Years," and the EMI release contained only live recordings.
Still, the PSO would have liked to do more, and more often.
"It is a shame in the Jansons years we didn't record more," said Mr. Tamburri. "We are one of the world's great orchestras. That type of visibility is important, but it is also historic."
The PSO already has equipment and sound engineers in place to make live recordings because of its long-running radio broadcasts, produced by WQED Multimedia for Public Radio International.
The biggest savings in using concert recordings versus studio recordings for orchestras and opera companies is in avoiding the extra labor costs.
"Orchestras used to pay for work and rights; now we are just paying for rights," said Mr. Tamburri.
Zarin Mehta, president of the New York Philharmonic, told the Times the cost of recording a concert will be about $20,000, a tenth of what studio time would cost in the old system. "It represents another step toward bringing orchestras into the digital age, which is essential for increasing accessibility to classical music and reaching a broader audience."
Mr. Tamburri said the PSO has recording projects in the planning stage.
"Now we can look at them again as being more realistic," he said.
He also stressed that the agreement makes it possible for the orchestra to be more systematic about its recordings.
"You have to go back pretty far for a consistent recording plan [at the PSO]," said Mr. Tamburri. "Now we can look a few years down the road to see what sort of plan we can have for repertory -- not do recording helter skelter, but have a plan."
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750.