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?