Taxing Music

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.


With conservatives in charge of Congress, everything these days is being subject to cost-benefit analysis. Governments, nonprofit organizations and zoos are expected to be run like businesses, with no monkey business tolerated. Art, as well as artichokes, must make a profit… or disappear.

Well, I can certainly live without artichokes, maybe without monkeys, but not without music. So, in the spirit of cooperation with our new Congressional leaders, I offer you now a long-overdue and thankfully brief look at classical compact discs… from a fiscal point of view.

Why do these CDs cost so much money? Are we consumers getting our money's worth? What can be done to cut costs? Why do classical CDs cost more than popular music discs? With luck, we'll answer some of these questions right now.

A cost-benefit analysis of both classical and rock CDs done by the Flaxman Institute for the Study of Compact Discs, Teenage Listening Habits and the Decline and Fall of Civilization confirms that classical compact discs retail at higher prices than rock CDs. There are three reasons for this:

(1) Classical CDs are more expensive to produce.

(2) Fewer copies are sold, so costs must be recovered and profits made from a much lower volume of sales.

(3) CD companies charge what the traffic will bear, and classical CD buyers have higher incomes than rock 'n' rollers.

Classical CDs are produced in a labor-intensive, perfectionist, quality-conscious manner by artists with impossible-to-pronounce names. This makes them far more expensive than their rock counterparts.

For example, most classical orchestras have about 100 players. Most rock groups have four to six. What do we need all those strings for? With modern technology a single violinist could be duplicated electronically as many times as necessary to recreate the sound of a traditional string section. So could a married violinist, although spouses can be erased easily with a click of a mouse.

In fact the same violinist could record both first and second violin parts. Chances are the same musician could also play the viola, too. Likewise, the cello and bass sections could be reduced to one player each, as could the trumpets, trombones, French horns, bassoons, flutes, clarinets and oboes. This measure alone would reduce labor costs by about 90%. And, on compact discs at least, none of them would be missed. Unlike a live or televised concert, you can't see the musicians anyway. So why pay for them?

But we can save even more money than that. Modern computers can digitally sample the sounds of acoustical instruments and reproduce them so that the average listener couldn't hear the difference, never mind see it. So it is now possible to reproduce the sound of an entire orchestra using no musicians whatsoever - just one, hopefully musically-literate computer operator.

Another expense which could be eliminated for all classical CDs is the use of over-paid, overbearing conductors. No one really knows what purpose they serve anyway, and they can't be either heard or seen on CDs. As it is, almost all orchestral CDs being recorded these days are led by Neeme Järvi, so doing away with conductors wouldn't put many red-blooded American citizens out of work.

Classical music CDs already save money by using music written by long-dead, lilly-white composers - the kind whose works are no longer protected by copyright. I would suggest cutting costs further by eliminating all copyrighted music by contemporary composers. No one wants to listen to this stuff, anyway. Least of all Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich, and they're in charge now.

Looking back over these suggestions, I find that I have cut the costs of classical compact discs down to about 25 cents each. At this price, even paupers could afford Prokofiev, there'll be a run on Ravel, and Poulenc could be had for a few pennies.

But CDs would have to be manufactured in Outer Mongolia for the companies to make any profits, and we'd run out of plastic unless we could get the price back up. How about adding a tax to pay for the proposed middle-class income tax cut? How about taxing music? Not all CDs, of course. Just annoying, aurally taxing music: atonal music, rock, country, rap, Gregorian chant, and anything "sung" by Bob Dylan.

Taxing taxing music would seem very fair, though slightly unconstitutional, since it would make the middle class pay for its own tax cut with every CD purchased.

If the resulting higher costs of these CDs meant that their sales plummeted, there would be an indisputable cost-benefit as well, with or without analysis.

The most-played new CDs at our house the past couple of weeks have been the two reissued by Vanguard Classics featuring soprano Netania Davrath (1931-87) singing Russian, Israeli and Yiddish Folk Songs (OVC 8058/59). These wonderful tunes were orchestrated in a manner reminiscent of Canteloube's famous Songs of the Auvergne, which Davrath also recorded (Vanguard Classics OVC 8001/02). The sound is so good, you'd think these pieces were captured by the latest digital equipment. The performances are so superb, it is obvious that Davrath grew up surrounded by this music. And I, for one, love to hear a trained, operatic voice singing folk songs.

I'm also quite impressed by Bartok's Violin Works as recorded by Mark Kaplan with Bruno Canino, pianist (Arabesque Z6649). The two Rhapsodies for Violin and Piano are delightful, as are the sets of Hungarian Folk Tunes and Rumanian Folk Dances.

Unfortunately, however, right smack in the middle of these highly accessible pieces is Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin. Kaplan calls this work a "masterpiece" in the notes he wrote for the album, but most ordinary, non-professional, romantic-music lovers - like me - will find this late Bartok composition hard to appreciate.

On second thought, maybe it would be the perfect accompaniment to completing your federal income tax form 1040. They are both difficult, dissonant and depressing, although no one has ever called the 1040 a "masterpiece" of any kind.


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