A couple of years ago I wrote a note to an ensemble that recorded some rather rare music by a little-known composer I happen to like a great deal (and anyone reading this blog could probably guess the identity of that composer). I wrote my message to the ensemble through the rather large company that made their CD, which was the only way I could reach the musicians who played this music. My message included a statement about the quality of this composer, and suggested that the members of the ensemble might consider scanning the manuscripts they played from into the Petrucci Library so that other people could study it and play this music. I mentioned how difficult it is to interest publishers in music by little-known composers, no matter how good their music happens to be.
(Nearly three years have passed since that e-mail message, and these pieces are still not available for other musicians to play.)
The recording company executive told me that he passed my message onto a person who would forward it to the ensemble, and included the phrase "This music deserves definitely more recognition; we hope that many customers encourage us to advance soon."
What strikes me as terribly sad about that statement is the simple fact that the furthering (and preserving) of worthwhile musical endeavors is so often driven by consumer demand. It is one thing when the consumer in question is a music ensemble, and that ensemble is looking for interesting and unusual music to play. Most musicians are happy to pay for nice editions of music they want to play. The "economy" in that kind of situation is one that would, under the best of circumstances, move forward. In the case of newly-discovered music by people who have been dead for a while, a publisher makes money (or makes back an initial investment of time and engraving skill) by selling the music, and musicians can make money by playing the music in concerts (and the same people can play the same piece of music for many different audiences). Perhaps there is also money involved in paying people who staff and promote the various ensembles and concert venues. There is also a little money involved when academic musicians include musical analysis in the books and articles they write, and money involved when applied teachers use published music to teach. Most of all, the music itself can be played many different ways by many different people, and a lot of people can get a lot of pleasure from playing and listening to it. At any rate, the egg-white economic theory is at play: money (or anything) is worth more when it remains in circulation.
It is another thing when the consumer in question is a person buying a recording. A person may love the music on the recording, and it may be extremely meaningful for his or her life, but there is no way a record company can measure how many times someone plays a recording. S/he only buys it once, and the only thing that can be measured is how many recordings are sold. Many recording companies require a certain amount of investment on the part of the people playing on the recording, and the production of a recording does involve some economic movement, but once the music is on a disc and the disc is in a box, that is the end of the line. A record company can make the investment to promote a recording, but the resulting numbers really reflect more on how well the recording is marketed than how worthwhile the music on the CD happens to be.
The idea of a wonderful piece of music ending its life as a single out-of-print recording is terribly sad.