R.I.P., CRI: Labels Peel and Fade, but the Music Plays On
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2003; Page G11
When Composers Recordings Inc. decided to shut down in January, there
were obituaries, lamentations and the usual muttering about the
malaise of the recording industry. There was also a palpable sense of
battle fatigue from those who have watched helplessly as the classical
music recording industry tanked over the past decade: Major labels cut
classical and new music releases, artists were summarily dumped from
their recording contracts, and American orchestras (which had once
enjoyed lucrative and prestigious recording gigs) were priced out of
the market and mostly into oblivion by increasingly
And yet, with the loss of CRI, which after almost 50 years had become
a beloved and venerable fixture of the new music world, there was also
a just barely audible sense of something new in the air. When things
can't get any worse, then perhaps they may begin to get a little bit
better. The story of CRI's closure supports all these readings, gloom
and optimism alike.
"I've written a number of obituaries in these pages, but none so sad
as this," wrote Kyle Gann of the Village Voice. Gann's obituary was,
in part, a personal reminiscence of the music he discovered on CRI. In
the music business, anything -- a record label, a singer, a string
quartet -- that lasts 50 years is cherished as an inviolable part of
one's personal musical landscape. Hence the mix of both rancor and
sadness when that landscape inevitably changes. CRI, for many
listeners, was not just an entree into new music but appealed to an
anarchic way of listening: adventurously, without expectations, and
individually, as an explorer of sound unfettered by what authorities
(critics, professors, pompous friends) dictate.
Susan Sontag once called for replacing the old habits of interpreting,
classifying and systematizing art with something she called "an
erotics of art," a love of the real and tangible surface. CRI made
possible an erotics of American music, because it was wildly eclectic
and it subscribed to a policy of keeping its large catalogue in print.
Young listeners, tired of whatever music they were weaned on, could
find music on CRI that was, by virtue of being the forgotten
avant-garde of 20 years before, far more foreign and fascinating than
the newest of the new.
The label went through various cycles of history during its five
decades of recording -- it put out a lot of academic music in the
1970s, and then took a turn toward the more raucously spirited
"downtown" sound in the 1990s -- and it kept it all there, jangling
together with stylistic discord in the same archive.
"Major labels delete titles," says Joe Dalton, the head of CRI during
the 1990s. "There's a certain half-life for a new release, and then
it's gone. The composers who founded CRI in 1954 had already had that
problem, so they instituted the In Print policy."
This meant CRI not only made available the music of American composers
but also strived to keep it permanently available. Composers who
recorded with CRI were not likely to enjoy the marketing and
distribution advantages that came with a large label, but they could
rest assured that they wouldn't see their recordings disappear into
the corporate vaults once the large label had moved on to the latest
flavor of the month. And unlike the myriad small labels founded over
the years to promote new music, CRI was a reliable brand name.
"When composers talked to me, I'd say one reason to go with CRI is
that we're still here, while the entrepreneur down the road is going
to own your master tapes when he decides to get out of the business in
five years," says Dalton. The death of a brand name is about more than
nostalgia; good brands take with them a legacy of trust and affection.
In 1976 CRI reorganized as a nonprofit record label. It raised funds
to cover costs and expected composers to bring money to the table as
well. It was never a vanity label, and its board was filled with
composers, which helped give credibility to the release schedule. As
the market changed, however, being a small nonprofit record label
began to be a double liability. Because it was small, it was
hard-squeezed by changes in the retail business, especially Tower
Records' policy of paying labels only on a yearly basis for product
sold. And larger commercial labels started asking composers to front
money to fund projects as well -- reducing the pool of funds available
for making difficult-to-sell projects for all involved.
"For-profit companies are now playing the nonprofit game," says Paul
Marotta, managing director of New World Records, another small
nonprofit American label (specializing in the entire history of
American music back to the colonial era).
Unfortunately, CRI's policy of maintaining its recordings in print was
not just the intellectual substance of the company but also a drag on
"I had approximately 15,000 CDs in a warehouse in Texas," says John
Schultz, the most recent and now former executive director of CRI. "We
would do a run of 2,000 CDs. Some would sell 200 copies and some would
sell 400. Over 20 years, those unsold CDs accumulate, and the costs to
house them. That was over $1,000 a month."
Schultz and his board of directors have attempted to close the company
gracefully. CRI will liquidate its stock, with composers having first
crack at their own CDs. It is also attempting to get legal permission
to transfer its invaluable master tapes to Marotta's New World label,
which has promised to keep them available in some fashion. Marotta
says his company is looking at the possibility of purchasing equipment
to produce individual disks on demand. It may also create an archive
that can be digitally downloaded. One idea is a database service that
would be made available to libraries for a fee.
At a Library of Congress news conference in January, talk of
preserving the library's vast archive of recorded music included
discussion of a new frontier in which sound is preserved not on any
particular physical medium -- LP or compact disc -- but as computer
files that act as a master source as new media and new ways of
accessing music come and go. CRI died at a moment when the music
business is trying to sort out its future, and at a time when
consumers are facing a future in which the idea of physically owning a
musical recording may be outdated.
"I believe that CRI may have outlived its usefulness," says Schultz.
"Technology catches up, composers are either selling their own CDs on
their Web sites or going to major labels. There is no shortage of
market out there."
The test of this benign assessment of CRI's death will be the future
of its music in the ethereal digitized new age. New World can keep it
available somewhere on a computer, but without a presence in retail
stores, consumers may not know what's available. The future of CRI's
treasure house of American sound requires not just new technology and
new forms of access but also a newly aggressive curiosity about music
on the part of listeners. Purchasing a physical recording used to be a
way of committing oneself to the act of listening; in the future,
consumers may theoretically have more access to this music than they
did in the waning days of the retail economy, but only if they develop
a new "erotics" of listening.