In recent weeks I've had interesting adventures in the world of record-sales accounting, a landscape alien and forbidding to an aesthete such as myself. Back in January I noted with some amazement that the "classical" category reported a rise of 22.5% in album sales in 2006. Was this resurgence the result of blockbuster records by the "classical crossover" titans Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and Il Divo, as one might first assume? I thought there might be more to the story — that increased sales of core classical repertory online and on iTunes could be contributing to the rise. Thinking along the same lines was Chris Anderson, whose brilliant book The Long Tail attacks the fallacy that "the only success is mass success" and posits that money is to be made in selling to niche markets. You can't, of course, get more niche than classical music.
Along came Brendan Koerner, a writer for Slate, intent on slapping some sense into us wishful-thinking classical nerds. He studied the numbers and concluded that the obvious assumption was
correct: Groban and company appeared to be driving sales in the
category. In the down year 2005, as it happens, neither Groban nor
Bocelli issued a major album. Yet something nagged at me. If
classical sales are inextricably tied to classical crossover,
why did they fall so dramatically in a year that saw the
introduction of Il Divo, Simon Cowell's platinum-selling dynamo?
It would be useful, I naively thought, to know aggregate sales for the
classical-crossover category in the years 2004, 2005, and 2006. I wrote to Nielsen SoundScan. I didn't
hear back for several weeks. I wrote again. I was told that to obtain
this piece of information I would have to pay $450. For each year. $1350 in total. I'm curious, but not that curious.
Deepening the mystery was a piece by Bob Tedeschi in the New York Times. It, too, attributed the classical uptick to Messrs. Groban and Bocelli. It further claimed, on the basis of a study by an organization called the NPD Group, that sales of core classical music fell by 28 percent last year. So I wrote to the NPD Group, asking for background on their study. It turns out that they consult an online "consumer panel" of "more than 3 million adults and teens," and that they survey one thousand music buyers each week. I'm not sure if this methodology is the best way to measure the true extent of the classical audience, but it does suggest declining interest in the general population, or, at least, in the segment that responds to consumer surveys.
Contradicting all the above are scattered anecdotal reports from the labels themselves suggesting that sales of classical records —
real, actual classical records — went up, in some cases dramatically,
in the past year. After mentioning that now famous 22.5% figure, Steve
Wehmhoff of Koch International told me, "In our case we did about
the same sort of increase, but we don't have any crossover titles."
A source at a major label said something similar (again excluding
crossover fare from the equation). And Thomas May told the Times that Amazon's classical sales had risen "more than 22 percent."
One record-label honcho summed it up for me thus: "Nobody has the slightest
idea what's going on." Maybe Anastasia Tsioulcas, Billboard's
classical columnist, will soon shed some light. No
matter what happened in 2004-2006, I believe that in coming years the Long
Tail (see Chris Anderson's blog for an explanation of the term) will buoy the classical market, especially
if musicians take full advantage of the Internet. Koerner, in Slate, chortles at classical's idea of a breakout hit: "The first iTunes concert
album from the New York Philharmonic ... was proclaimed a roaring
success after it sold around 2,300
units during its first month." But the whole point is that there are no hits in classical music. It's
a niche market that is itself a vast conglomeration of sub-niches, from
early music to the avant-garde, from Furtwängler fanciers
to Toscanini types, none of whom ever agree.
Collectively, however, they purchase many millions of records a year,
and the Internet has made it far easier for them to find what they want. More important, they go to concerts. Classical music depends less on CD sales than any other genre, and if the whole record business were to go kaput tomorrow orchestras and opera houses and chamber music series and new-music ensembles would go on as before, in North Carolina and in every other state.
Classical labels were historically Long Tail in their outlook, amassing sales from a deep, wide catalogue. Time and again executives have failed to understand these idiosyncratic dynamics and tried to impose the "hit" model. My dear friend Norman Lebrecht is absolutely right to say that in the 1990s the big labels lost their way in trying to create pseudo-pop stars out of classical performers. The old approach — building audiences for significant artists over time — yielded huge dividends. Herbert von Karajan: 200 million records. Georg Solti and Pavarotti: 100 million records each. And they're still selling.
Out in the media mainstream, any information that suggests health or lack of death in the classical area will appear counterintuitive, and will be questioned or ignored. The lack of hits guarantees a lack of coverage, because media outlets want to be able to tell their audience about the four or five big things that matter in any field — the Arcade Fire, Heroes, Spider Man 3, etc. — and this galaxy of subcultures won't oblige. It's so much easier to disregard the entire thing. The neverending "death of classical music" talk is the wishful thinking of the culture industry. But the fact that orchestra subscriptions, opera ticket sales, and, possibly, record sales have gone up in the last year or two suggests that music from Hildegard to Anna Clyne can still find its audiences without help from TV, magazines, and commercial radio. That's an astonishing phenomenon.
The Minnesota composer-pianist Paul Cantrell recently wrote to me saying that the music is currently experiencing "unnoticed popularity." Enjoy it while it lasts.