I just read a Japanese best-seller about cleaning. The basic premise is that if you reduce your belongings to a perfect minimum of only those things you feel deeply about, then designate each a special place in your home, you will live the rest of your days in serene tidiness and order.
One short wall of my apartment is devoted to shelves of CDs. The number is certainly not a perfect minimum. And while super tidy, their order is idiosyncratic, even chaotic. To be honest, in a world of super streaming services, my archaic physical recordings are completely redundant. Shouldn’t I find some Zen balance and chuck them all out?
Happily, Richard Winter, owner of Gramola, the Austrian classical CD label and distribution company, dissuades me. “There are many people, especially in the classical music sphere, who want some physical evidence in their living room of their cultural interests, be it books or CDs,” he says. “The point isn’t to prove those interests to others; it usually has more to do with the relationship between the owner of a recording and the recording itself.”
That’s it! I love my CDs (and the music on them); many have been definitive for my identity. His Master’s Voice may now be in the Cloud, but “freemium” Spotify jumbles up my Mahler symphonies and offers me “songs” I don’t want or need.
Gramola was founded in Vienna in 1924 as a distributor for the British-Czech record label of the same name. Within a decade the label was bankrupt, but the retailer remained. Today it is the oldest shop selling recorded music in the city, still a family business in the fourth generation.
“When I was young and started selling records,” Winter reminisces, “there were 480 record shops in Austria, one around every corner.” Today there are just a few specialist stores: a handful in the 1st district (focusing on classical), another handful clustered near Mariahilfer Strasse (mostly jazz and pop). And even these are endangered: Since the high point in 2000, when 2.4 billion CDs were sold worldwide, sales of physical recordings have fallen by more than 75 percent, while availability online – whether legal or not – has grown exponentially.
BUCKING THE TREND
For classical music, however, the figures are different, according to Winter, especially in Central Europe and Japan. The Austrian branch of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reported that CDs still commanded 56 percent of the market in Austria in 2016. This may be due to the nature of classical music – centuries of compositions being constantly reinterpreted by new artists. “There isn’t one absolutely best interpretation of every great work,” as Dieter Oehms of the label Oehms Classics explains. “That’s what makes classical music so fascinating. Every generation of musicians experiments finds new viewpoints, emphasizes different things.”
Classical artists still record, despite little compensation – if any at all. Often a patron must be found to fund production costs. Long gone are the days when a record label paid everything or classical musicians could earn part of their living through royalties. Nonetheless, a discography is still part of a successful career.
And so Gramola also focuses on CD production. With currently up to 70 new releases annually, predominantly of Austrian artists (or artists living here), it is the biggest classical music label in the country. A successful run sells 2,000 copies. There must be some idealism behind this, but Winter is a trained businessman, and an optimistic one.
What a pleasure to enter his shop, with its lovely Jugendstil interior, and find six recordings of Brahms’ string sextets! Or meet a clerk who, as Winter tells me, was offered a professorship at the Music University but decided selling CDs was more interesting.
Shall I break down and subscribe to Spotify? Not yet. There are too many must-have CDs! Such as Gramola’s latest release Out of Sight, pre-WWII Viennese Jewish chansons with the sparkly and charming Ethel Merhaut. Or their box set of the legendary nonagenarian Paul Badura-Skoda’s recordings of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas. I may be old-fashioned, nostalgic, a nerd or even mad, but CDs are still part of my world.