Not waving, but drowning

For all its frenetic celebration, The Classical Brits Awards on Saturday was simply the record industry whistling in the face of extinction. Is there any hope for the future?

The run-up to the Classical Brits Awards was satisfyingly smooth. Critics who had the temerity to ask what Braveheart and McCartney's "Working Classical" had to do with classical music were roundly ticked off for snobbery, and reminded that it was only a matter of time before all the world recognised John "Star Wars" Williams as the 20th-century Mozart.

But a nasty hitch arose when the judges delivered their verdicts: Vanessa Mae had been pipped as Young Classical Performer by some guy called Daniel Harding, Lesley Garrett had been deprived of the title Female Artist of the Year by Martha Argerich (who she?), and some geezer called Ian Bostridge had landed the Critics' Award. However, I'm delighted to be able to report that all went well on the night: on a set redolent of a Gaudi space station, Lesley Garrett sang, Vanessa Mae played her socks off (and much else as well) with 20 half-naked drummers, and boring old Bostridge, after muttering his thanks, was quickly shuffled out of sight.

With the Royal Albert Hall packed with well-fed record-industry folk, and Sir Trevor MacDonald at the helm, it was a heart-warming occasion for all concerned. Nagging questions as to whether blind Andrea Bocelli (absent) could really be classed as a singer were cosily banished by Sir Trevor's reminder of the magnitude of his sales. Similar questions with regard to Charlotte Church were raised each time she opened her mouth - and she opened it a lot - but that nice Chris Smith was on hand, speaking with the full weight of his office, to assure us that only "stuffy cognoscenti" (special emphasis on the g) could doubt that Miss Church was the apogee of artistic success.

"Oh my God!" she shouted, stamping and waving her little hands in mock disbelief as he dubbed her British Artist of the Year. Then Julian Lloyd Webber played the theme tune to the South Bank Show (this is showbiz), and Bryn Terfel got made Male Artist of the Year (but didn't sing), before a mystery star stood up to sing. Filippa Giordano was, we were told, a "highly acclaimed soprano" with sales to match, but what she did to Gianni Schicchi was most peculiar: rather than singing, she swooped, gurgled, and snorted. (Check her out when ITV screen the show on 21 May: perhaps this is the latest Italian mode.) Finally, Sir George Martin crowned Nigel Kennedy for his Outstanding Contribution to Classical Music, and Nige duly played us out, amid fireworks, dry ice, and confetti, with the "Meditation" from Thaïs.

Shome mishtake in all thish? Well, yes: the juries' decisions did not always reflect the requisite tacky condescension; Lesley Garrett is still a serious artist, and Kennedy still a good fiddler, even if his repertoire is limited and his Outstanding Contribution obscure. You couldn't wish for a crueller proof of the record industry's loss of nerve than this grotesquely ill-judged event.

For that is what it was all about: whistling in the face of extinction. Look at BMG Classics, where artists like Evelyn Glennie and the King's Singers have lost their contracts, where recording plans for the survivors have been put on hold, and where most of the staff are due for the chop. Look at EMI and Warner, where shoulders are twitching after a merger that presages massive cutbacks.

Look at this month's releases from that once-great trio of Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and Decca. Decca's puny offerings include the Gladiator soundtrack and The England Anthems Album, timed to cash in on the Euro soccer championship with "Colonel Bogey" and Churchill declaring: "We will fight them on the beaches." What most excites Philips is their new record from Eurovision winner Fionnuala Sherry, while DG are depending for their profits on what they call "Originals" recycled from their archives. To compare these soi-disant "classical" lists with their equivalents two years ago is to realise how far - and how fast - the mighty have fallen.

Meanwhile Sony have reduced their output to a thin gruel of soundtracks and crossovers, laced with the results of increasing raids on their backlist. Sony boss Peter Gelb told me recently that he no longer regarded his label's new recordings as "archival", because Sony's existing archive was more than sufficient. "We should just be happy it's there," he said. "And that it is available for remastering with the newest technology." He was going to abandon the core repertoire; he wanted to make "records that break new ground, records that have an impact". Like Charlotte Church squeaking "Pie Jesu", to be precise.

And he had a message for all those whingeing classical musicians now being squeezed out of the game. "Classical music began before recordings. I don't feel sorry for artists who can't record, because that's not what they should be about. They're about playing in front of the public." (Aided by a powerful modern mike, of course, if your name is Bocelli.) But Gelb did not want to look further into the future, when he would presumably be re-re-recycling archive material to extract the last drops of profit from it.

But one can see his point: after decades of crazy over-production, the market can't absorb much more of the standard repertoire, and the Baroque and Romantic barrels have been well and truly scraped. On the other hand, telling him and his friends to take risks with new music is problematic, because the shareholders to whom they answer hate the whole idea of risk.

And which new music? Since neo-Boulezian works don't put bums on seats - despite their busy critical claque - it's reasonable to suppose that they won't sell records either. After the popular success of Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera The Silver Tassie, you could plausibly argue the case for taking further "risks" with him - as you could with the fascinating compositions of Jonathan Harvey. But Gelb and co are now more likely to go for composers like the meretricious John Tavener or the monotonous Michael Nyman, both of whom are tailor-made for Classic FM.

But the glimmer of a solution to the problems both of the record companies and their embattled new awards might be found in one cornily simple answer - in the world beyond the becalmed waters of the Western classical tradition. Listeners are leading the way, and the more wide-awake magazines - notably the admirable Songlines - are following in their wake; world music is increasingly pervading Radio 3, while concerts by musicians from Dakar, Hanoi, and Havana are routinely packed out. Ever since Debussy fell in love with gamelan, and Britten after him, Western composers have been drinking at the fountains of music alien to their own, and this ear-opening process is growing apace.

Moreover, this is dawning on the record industry, as witness the Kronos Quartet's global excursions. Its traces were even to be found among Saturday night's contenders - viz Lesley Garrett's gentle sing-along with the Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But that was only tokenism, one single track. Since Kennedy hinted obliquely at the truth when he collected his gong on Saturday, let me spell it out: the future of classical music lies not in snazzy marketing, but in all those other musics it has hitherto spurned.