Charting the Future: Is It the End of the Top Ten?

If you think times are tough when it comes to ticket sales for classical music concerts, you should read this recent Washington Post article by Anne Midgette about classical CD sales. As a Matthias Goerne fan, I was pleased to see that a record featuring his vocal stylings has rocketed to the top of the charts; I was less excited to read that the record, Hilary Hahn’s Bach: Violin and Voice, sold only a thousand copies to reach that lofty perch. Moreover, Midgette’s sources seem to indicate that such a modest figure is actually kind of miraculous for a classical album: Most of them struggle to hit a hundred sales in their first few weeks. And as I look over the Billboard 2009 Top Classical Chart, my eye is assaulted by the likes of Il Divo, Sarah Brightman, and Sting—so I think it’s fair to say that the category of “classical album” has been broadened about as generously as possible. I’m sure I don’t need to point out that there were no contemporary music records on the Billboard chart.

As a person whom one might expect to purchase classical CDs—and who doesn’t, ever—I guess I’m letting down the team here. I have access to a university subscription to the Naxos Music Library, for crying out loud; very seldom do I have an itch that such a service can’t scratch when it comes to common practice-era music. And given the success of platforms like Rhapsody and the gone-straight Napster, maybe that’s a model that deserves more scrutiny in the classical music world.

That proposition, however, rests on a couple of assumptions that may not be valid: first, the assumption that consumers (both real and potential) of classical music are sufficiently computer-savvy to deal successfully with streaming audio; second, the assumption that consumers are interested in hearing pieces rather than specific performances which may or may not be available; and third, the assumption that taking part in classical music is not about owning a physical product (and, donning for a moment my Ideologue Hat, I would submit that if taking part in classical music is about owning a physical product, something is amiss).

Do we think that classical music listeners are ready to cut loose from the tyranny of the compact disc? Maybe they already have, and that’s why Il Divo is ruling the Billboard Classical roost. Has anybody else had good experiences with subscription services? Could they represent the wave of the future?

4 thoughts on “Charting the Future: Is It the End of the Top Ten?

  1. rogerrohrbach

    Classical.com has been quietly streaming the classics for over 5 years. They’re inexpensive, have got music from 1,200 labels and support dedicated devices like the Logitech Squeezebox.

    I’m not sure how they’re doing, and less certain of the future for niche services such as this. For a few dollars/pounds more, I can subscribe to Rhapsody or MOG All Access in the US, or Spotify in Europe, and my Celestial Jukebox selection expands to embrace all genres.

    That said, Rhapsody, at least, cannot be classified as a “success”; it’s ony got 70,000 paying subscribers, is losing money, and is possibly on the block. There are several possible reasons for this. It’s an old service, and is not as usable as its younger competitors. But the biggest factor may be that consumers have become so used to getting music for free over the past decade that the notion of paying a subscription fee is received with dismay. There are signs that that is changing, though, and there is hope (as evidenced by the investments made in these streaming companies) that the model can be made to work.

    And now that Apple is about to enter the market, things will get very interesting…

    Reply
  2. amc654

    “As a person whom one might expect to purchase classical CDs—and who doesn’t, ever—I guess I’m letting down the team here.”

    I think that pretty much sums it up.

    Reply
  3. colin holter


    I think that pretty much sums it up.

    Teddy Wiesengrund said it best: “The more reified the music, the more romantic it sounds to alienated ears. Just in this way it becomes ‘property’.”

    If you find it a little too convenient that someone with limited discretionary income lives so assiduously by this anti-commodificatory maxim, I understand.

    Reply
  4. amc654

    I do like (and certainly support!) that you’re probing the possibilities of new technological avenues for the dissemination of classical music, but I don’t buy the discretionary income argument, Colin. I was a grad student in a reasonably similar boat to you not all that long ago (okay, maybe longer ago than I’d like!) — I used whatever extra money I had to buy books and discs. This was just at the beginning of the era of illegal-Napster, but also before this sort of behaviour had become standard practice.

    I’ve been involved in a number of professional recording projects — as a composer, as a producer, as an engineer, as an editor — and I know the difference b/t good recordings and bad recordings. It goes well beyond just a question of sound quality (though that is crucial). Indeed, even most professional recordings now are either a) slapped together from a few live broadcasts or run-throughs (often subsidized from one source or another) or b) funded through some source completely independent of the label itself (universities, perhaps a radio station, a state-funded festival, etc.). To make a real studio recording is substantially more expensive, and with New Music these recordings generally only get made if some independent entity puts up the funds.

    I guess the point that I want to make is that your free access — say, the Naxos online collection — isn’t actually free. It’s in fact massively expensive, and the undergrads who you teach (and the taxpayers of Minnesota) are actually funding the venture. (It’s true that Naxos’s overhead is lower than many other labels, but it’s also true that the quality of both performances and recordings is generally quite a good bit lower than their competitors, on the whole.) If there are recordings, _somebody_ is paying for them. The players, the engineers, the hall, the security guy, the microphones, the producers, the editors, the software, the computers, the speakers/headphones, the distribution systems, the liner note author, the cover art, the press releases, the reviewers …

    If you’re not paying for it, I promise you, it _will_ go away. There will always remain some trickle of new discs, but quality costs money. Difficult pieces require more rehearsal time and better players. Large ensembles require more players and more microphones.

    Record labels in our field come and go w/ ridiculous regularity, and there are a few gems that are facing extremely dire financial conditions. The kinds of discs that are, indeed, included on those free streaming sites you enjoy won’t be made over the next few years (who paid for those, in the pre-streaming years?). Almost all of the important American labels for new music have vanished, and the one significant remaining one has its hat in hand to raise funds to stay afloat. Fine, you say, record labels are a thing of the past — we’ll share recordings of live performances (shared through web discussion groups and such). Radio stations in Europe are seeing their budgets slashed (in large part b/c they’re not getting income from selling rights to record labels, coupled w/ declining tax revenues), universities are seeing their budgets slashed across the US and Europe, foundations have lost 30-40% of their endowments …. who, exactly, pays for the microphones? Or the hall? Or the players? Or the editing software? A few years down the line, who pays to have the performers there in the first place (it’s already fair to assume the composer has written the piece for free)?

    Make dismissive comments about commodification if you want, but making things costs money. Somebody pays the bills, and we then make decisions about hierarchies of value (personal, ethical, aesthetic, political, artistic). It’s absolutely no different from going to the grocery store. I’d argue that you need to take a wider view, you need to step back and actually examine where the money comes from — for your TA position, for your university’s visiting artist concerts, the streaming content on Naxos or Spotify, …. the real _stuff_, not just what it costs to rebroadcast material, but to actually _make_ stuff. We’re not talking about Justin Timberlake, we’re talking about EXAUDI and ELISION and MusikFabrik and Ensemble SurPlus and Kairos and mode and NEOS and Naive and other people/institutions/labels whose work you admire. If you want to call what they do a commodity, I’m fine w/ that, but I’m also willing to pay for it.

    For the time being, the subscription services don’t pay to make new recordings, and there’s little evidence that the new economic models will ever generate enough income to create new work at all, much less substantial new work. That seems like a substantial problem to me.

    Reply

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