Why CDs are Killing Classical Music

In 1996, American composer john Adams wrote a whirligig of a piece called "Scratchband." In its short running time, woodwinds and brass chase each other through thrashing figures so drunk on high spirits that the electric guitar, bass, and percussion can barely keep up. It would be the perfect track to play for anyone who thinks classical music is plodding or stuffy beyond saving—except for the fact that no one owns a legal recording of the music. It's not as though Adams is ashamed of his daring 12-minute essay in sound. He's simply been at a loss, for more than a decade, when it comes to identifying a major symphonic work or concerto that "Scratchband" would make sense next to on an 80-minute CD. "I've been kind of hedging," Adams admits, "because it's hard to find a spot."

This obsession with the compact disc would make a lot more sense if sales of the format weren't plummeting across the board. But that is not the world we live in. It's time someone said it: the cult of the CD is throttling discovery and enjoyment of new concert music to an unacceptable degree. Shorter pieces should get Web-exclusive treatment, and quickly. It's not as if juicy live recordings of works like "Scratchband" don't already exist to tide us over until proper studio versions can be cut down the road. They do, and they're being traded on an online gray market by collectors who would be only too happy to pay money for official, downloadable versions with digital liner notes. But several years into the age of iTunes, the enthusiasm fostered by the Web has yet to be turned into a revenue stream by most composers, publishers, or classical record labels. Some ensembles, such as the L.A. Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, are hip to the online scene, though most "premiere" recordings by big-name composers are coming out years after whatever media buzz surrounding the music has already dissipated, never to be recaptured in quite the same way. That's what's happened to this year's 25-minute, Pulitzer Prize–winning composition, Steve Reich's "Double Sextet." "Sextet" won't see a release until 2011; until then, it awaits the completion of two other pieces needed to fill out the CD debut.

There are, of course, logistical challenges to distributing new opuses outside the aegis of the holy disc. Union contracts for performers and stage workers often have nothing to say about how to divvy up digital moneys from live recordings. But this is less a reason to do nothing than it is a reason to get busy negotiating. Composers also need to get over themselves. Instead of waiting for years and years to deliver one immaculate product, they should approve digital releases of compositions as those works receive their first major performances. The big draw on Adams's newest disc—a symphony culled from his opera Doctor Atomic—premiered two years ago in a form twice as long. It actually works better in the 24-minute version on the new Nonesuch CD, but there would have been nothing wrong in allowing curious fans to have purchased both versions over time. That would allow us to listen as the composer shapes the piece into its final state, not unlike the way Hollywood includes alternate scenes and outtakes on special-edition DVDs. Even more galling: the feistier premiere recording on the new Adams CD is a piece titled "Guide to Strange Places," written and first performed way back in 2001. Hey, where have you been all decade?