The U.S. classical music market

by on May 13, 2015 at 2:12 pm in Data Source, Music | Permalink

The classical sales situation in the US has hit the pits. Aside from Andrea Bocelli, who trundles on at around 400 a week – cds and downloads combined – the best performer on Nielsen Soundscan was the Anonymous 4, chirping sweetly on a farewell tour with just 189 registered sales.

Sales are so bad that Hilary Hahn, at number 10, failed to clear 100.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Samir Varma.

1 Enrique Guerra-Pujol May 13, 2015 at 2:24 pm

Is this decline in sales due to Internet piracy and YouTube? If so, this would make for a good natural experiment to test what effect the lack of property rights has on the level of artistic creation

2 Blake May 13, 2015 at 2:30 pm

I believe that experiment is called “China” and it’s not a good effect at all.

3 E. Harding May 13, 2015 at 3:17 pm

China lacks a free media of any kind, so it’s not a good test case.

4 honkie please May 13, 2015 at 4:42 pm

I’m hosting a couchsurfer from Shanghai at the moment. Last night after we watched a movie via Amazon streaming, she said, “You paid for that? In China we watch for free.”

5 Dain May 13, 2015 at 6:51 pm

At about half the audio-visual quality, probably.

6 ivvenalis May 13, 2015 at 9:55 pm

I doubt it, unless things work much differently over there. I’ve noticed a significant increase in the quality of unauthorized digital copies of movies from ten years ago. For one, companies have released high-quality digital copies of movies legally, which are then copied without having to rely on fairly exotic (or crude) digital conversion equipment. Also, back in the day before DVDs became widespread it was somewhat important for pirated movies to fit onto a CD-ROM, which limited quality, but is now a niche “market”. Consumer internet connections have gotten much faster too, making it practical to download larger files. Hard drives are also larger, although at around 8GB per copy most people don’t want the highest-res print that’s available.

Watching a movie on your hard drive probably delivers better quality on average than streaming, even without taking the reliability of your connection into account.

7 affenkopf May 13, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Demographics probably plays a role as well. It’s not like other genres of music have sales declines quite as sharp.

8 Doug May 13, 2015 at 2:44 pm

Seems to mostly be due to traditional pop genres carving out high-brow substitutes to classical music. Young people just don’t consume classical or jazz anymore. My guess is that the ones who would have in another era are listening to IDM, math rock, and dream pop.

9 AB May 13, 2015 at 2:48 pm

The audience for “modern classical” music has always been infinitesimal. For the traditional repertoire, one has to be a real obsessive to care about new discs whent there are dozens of high-quality recordings of all the favourites, all played in more or less the same conservatoire style. Spotify puts this entire catalogue at your disposal in high bit rate (for premium subs) for a tenner a month. Why would anyone buy CDs?

10 Art Deco May 13, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Because the technology they are at home with is the compact disc.

11 Dan Weber May 14, 2015 at 9:32 am

So they already have CDs of all classical music from 100 years ago.

I like it as background music, but I’ve probably bought all the classical music I ever will.

12 Sam Haysom May 13, 2015 at 2:58 pm

What do the German charts look like? It’s my feeling that the demand for classical music even in European countries was largely people interested in signaling. Germany and Austria seemed to have been the only exceptions. Those two countries genuinely adored classical music.

But building off what Doug said a culture in which you can signal cultured status by watching game of thrones or True Detective isn’t going to produce many people interested in classical music which is a shame. Maybe if Handel had composed operas in English instead of just oratios thinngs would have been differnt in the Anglosphere.

13 Art Deco May 13, 2015 at 4:27 pm

It’s my feeling that the demand for classical music even in European countries was largely people interested in signaling.

Evidently none of you knew anyone who listened to it at home. (Or are they ‘signaling’ when no one else is around?).

Charles Peters used to say that 80% of the people at art museums were displaying their erudition. I do not think he ever explained how he came by that datum. Maybe it just says more about Peters than about the people at the museum.

14 Sam Haysom May 13, 2015 at 5:19 pm

Someone as old as you should probally realize there was a time when classical music couldn’t be consumed at home. That is the period I am talking about. That’s why I predicted German sales might still be rather bullish-because in a period where music had to be consumed at orchestras and opera houses, the Germans and Austrians seemed to be the least prone to attend for signaling reasons.

You are such a tiresome old man.

15 Art Deco May 13, 2015 at 9:52 pm

Someone as old as you should probally realize there was a time when classical music couldn’t be consumed at home. That is the period I am talking about.

Oh, I’m sure everyone realizes you were referring to the period prior to 1920.

16 Derp May 13, 2015 at 7:05 pm

Accusing people who take part in some activity you can’t comprehend of signaling is the worst kind of mood affiliation.

17 dearieme May 13, 2015 at 2:59 pm

When my favourite CD shop closed a dozen years ago I said to the chap “I suppose jazz lovers are just dying off?” He replied that it wasn’t his jazz sales that had collapsed but his classical sales.

I admit that we are so well CD’d that it’s hard to see why we’d buy more unless someone unearths the Buddy Bolden cylinder or a bunch of lost Beethoven.

18 Noontime Spender May 13, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Khatia Buniatishvili!!!

19 Dain May 13, 2015 at 6:52 pm


20 Hadur May 13, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Virtually any work of classical music can be found online for free – everything is up on YouTube. You can take your pick of performers too. I have to imagine that a major market for classical recordings back in the day would have been students whose music teachers told them to listen to a professional recording of the piece they were learning to play – those same students are likely to be savvy enough to just find it on YouTube for free.

And as for “high status” consumers: they seem to prefer to consume live performances instead of recordings, Might that be because, for them, it is about the other people in the audience with them, not the music itself?

21 Art Deco May 13, 2015 at 4:21 pm

You’re the second person who has suggested my mother had season tickets for decades to display herself, even though she listened to the stuff at home when no one else was around but her family. She wasn’t an academic of a music maven. She was a college-educated bourgeois of a certain vintage, as were many of her friends who went with her or had tickets themselves. See Allan Bloom on how classical music was regarded and appreciated among his contemporaries.

22 The Original D May 13, 2015 at 7:03 pm

Allan Bloom’s jeremiad about music was self-parodying in that he completely disregarded jazz. The protector of the canon didn’t notice America’s most important contribution to music.

23 Thor May 13, 2015 at 11:42 pm

Allan Bloom disparaged jazz? That’s nothing compared to Theodore Adorno’s treatment of jazz.

24 Bernard Yomtov May 13, 2015 at 7:09 pm

Well said, Art. Good for you.

The tendency to sneer at people doing things they want to do as “just signaling” is really obnoxious.

Yes, sometimes people do things to be seen doing them – not really signalling at all in the economic sense – but hey, guess what, more often they do them because they want to. Attending a live performance is a different experience than listening to a CD at home. Maybe the attendees enjoy it.

25 Roger May 13, 2015 at 3:39 pm

I am a music lover. I stream four to six hours a day, usually while reading or writing, but often just to listen. Classical is one of my favorite genres, and I have repeatedly streamed all the above names except Bocelli.

I agree with Hadur that streaming is changing the industry, and in a great way for consumers. I subscribe to Deezer for la monthly cost less than a single CD. Other plans with unlimited streaming and ads are free,

Thus, I can now pull up every classical composition and performance and screen them for the best performance, sound quality and such. Then I play that performance.

It is no longer an issue of what is new. What the heck does new even mean in this genre (or jazz or blues for that matter). Many of my favorites are on Mercury Living Presence recordings from fifty years ago, why is the latest performance better?

The point is that artists aren’t competing with some artificial construct of new releases in the record store. Every performance must beat the very best performance ever made in the genre in terms of being more desirable. For the record, Hillary Hahn made my cut!

The market is indeed telling new artists that the bar is substantially higher.

26 It's Over May 13, 2015 at 3:40 pm

In this thread and assorted links thread yesterday, there are several comments asserting that people only listen to or attend classical music performances to signal high status. I really don’t think that’s the case. There are less expensive and less time consuming ways to signal. I think a more likely scenario is that these people genuinely love classical music. Beethoven’s music has been captivating people for 200 years, so it isn’t all signaling.

27 Noontime Spender May 13, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Enduring Feldman’s String Quartet No 2 is pure signaling.

28 msgkings May 13, 2015 at 4:04 pm

As is being able to reference that specific quartet and expecting us to get the joke.

29 Abe May 14, 2015 at 12:46 am

One of my most cherished memories is seeing Mahler’s Ressurection symphony in Maryland a few years ago. The people in attendance did not seem elite or eager to seem so. They dressed plainly and appeared mesmerized by the music. National Symphony Orchestra is playing Mahler’s 3rd next season and I’ll make sure to catch it (it’s the longest symphony in the repertoire.)

30 Mike May 14, 2015 at 10:54 am

I saw this performed in Dallas a few years back. Last-minute purchase and got two of the best seats in the house on opening night. I was literally in tears for most of the performance; can’t say that for any of the acts at SXSW or ACL.

31 Jody May 14, 2015 at 6:53 am

“There are less expensive and less time consuming ways to signal.”

For biological signaling (which is a lot of signaling), the cost is sorta the point of the signal.

32 ibaien May 13, 2015 at 4:22 pm

perhaps young classical musicians should follow the model their indie and punk peers have been forced to take – tour relentlessly, set ticket prices low, sell merch, sell beer. if you can offer a good product at a good price, people will go. if the subtext of all this is yet another ‘o tempora, o mores’, well, get fucked. times change.

33 Nick L May 13, 2015 at 4:24 pm

One thing that differentiates most new classical music “albums”(?) from other genres is that most performers aren’t also the composers of their works. They’re playing, of course, the classics.

With that being said, if you are in the market for classical music, how many different versions of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 do you really need in your collection?

34 James May 13, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Music marketers need to stop calling it classical and start calling it orchestrial. Soundtracks qualify as modern orchestrial music but aren’t captured in these sales.

I, for one, have purchased three World of Warcraft soundtracks and absolutely love them on their own. I’ve done my part.

35 Sam Haysom May 13, 2015 at 5:37 pm

Is this so non-signaling it kind of signals? Either way bravo.

36 Ray Lopez May 13, 2015 at 11:55 pm

Sam Hayson–you’re too clever by 0.5 sometimes. Why are you here with your irony and b.s.? Posting anonymously? Who are you signaling? LOL.

37 ET May 13, 2015 at 7:44 pm

Likewise. the LotR and Hobbit soundtracks are the classical music I’ve spent the most money on recently.

On the whole, a strong case could be made that the best original composers of the last two decades worked in either the movies or video games. Part of that view is undoubtedly nostalgia coloring my opinion, but songs like Liberi Fatali or Time’s Scar are as good as anything the famous orchestras are composing or recording currently.

38 Jonas May 13, 2015 at 6:51 pm

Where is Jay-Z when you need him? Seriously though – How come there isn’t a lot of collaboration happening with classical music and well known pop or rap artists. Music is music. Why couldn’t a well known pop diva have a Hilary Hahn play a violin solo on a track. Classical music is so isolated and that is my opinion why it fails to grow.

39 The Original D May 13, 2015 at 7:09 pm

I studied classical music in college and can’t for the life of me understand why the world needs more recordings of things that have already been adequately recorded. No one laments that Shakespeare isn’t on TV.

Orchestras would likely do better by having a policy of not recording, so the only way the public can hear them is live. The conductor Sergiu Celibidache did that with the Munich Symphony. Their concerts were automatic sellouts because of the scarcity of a Celibidache performance.

40 Dylan May 13, 2015 at 9:36 pm

Larger troubles in the music industry aside, I think that “classical” is exacerbating its decline by ignoring a timely marketing opportunity. I’m a youngster – a millennial – and I’ve noticed that more and more contemporary/”popular” music is drawing from tricks found in the classical canon, particularly in electronic genres, than ever before. It’s not just the blues anymore. For instance, I listen to playlists that include Debussy and Rachmaninoff piano solos and tracks from Aphex Twin and John Maus. Now I understand I’m a pretty sophisticated listener, but I think there’s a chance for some spaces in classical music to reach and to be appreciated by a younger demographic today.

41 Belisarius May 14, 2015 at 10:53 am

There was a disco version of Beethovens 5th in the 70s

42 Austin May 13, 2015 at 9:38 pm

I definitely agree with the statements already made about the state of music recording and classical music. The fact that some compositions have been done many times over is exhausting and seems to mean whoever chooses to try next has to set the performance bar even higher. However, I don’t think classical music is as accessible to people as other music on places like YouTube. I’ve tried listening to artists before and usually I’m given either the entire musical performance or nothing at all. On some streaming sites, I tend to hear composers like Beethoven but I couldn’t tell you any newer artists. I don’t want to listen to an hour long performance by one artist all at one time, in regards to some of the content on YouTube, and I don’t want to hear only the most famous composers. Live performances are great, but that’s why you see them in person. These are the issues I see with digital media and the internet. Maybe some of you are right in saying artists should move away from recording all together. I want to hear relatively short compositions and lots of artists when I’m at home. Not to mention, it’s hard to encourage your friends to listen to anything you find with titles like Benjamin Grosvenor – Two Etudes de Concert, Gonmenreigen S. 145 compared to something more mainstream like simply Drake – Started from the Bottom. Overall, I don’t think classical music is as accessible as some of you think and this is why I believe movie soundtracks are much more popular. They have easy to read (and say) track titles and they are usually shorter in length. I love movie soundtracks but if I could add some more classical music to my music library I would love to.

43 mulvya May 14, 2015 at 3:20 am

I don’t think the issue is oversupply of recordings featuring canonical works or free supply viz. streaming/piracy. The former applies to those who already like and patronize classical music, and the latter may fully satisfy a few new inductees but it doesn’t explain the genre’s abysmal sales relative to other genres which are also subject to the same forces. I think the problem is deeper. The popular music in a period reflects that period, in its pacing, phrasing, idioms, sounds..etc and classical music no longer fits. No amount of marketing or “innovation” can correct that and restore the genre to a prominent place in the public’s musical tastes.

That said, the audience could be larger. It involves getting the attention of those who are attracted to long essays of structured sound for just the sake of listening, rather than serving some social or functional need. I’m still fuzzy on how to identify these persons precisely and market to them effectively.

44 The One True Snob May 14, 2015 at 9:46 am

The classical music world lost interest in maintaining, extolling, and creating elite music that was at once superior and accessible. Post WWII the teachers even gave up trying to claim some types of music were superior to others. Musicians wanted to avoid the appearance of snobbery. States wanted to subsidize old music but not support the creation of new music descended from that tradition. They also participated in a world change that denigrated authority and tradition. Fine. I have all the great classical music by great performers that I want. When new music is written in a great tradition by great performers, I will consider buying it. Until then, I frankly don’t care if the entire world of modern music were to descend into a rat hole. Since they no longer care about real music, I no longer care about them.

I will be happy if I see all modern art forms disappear before I do.

45 Ed May 14, 2015 at 1:32 pm

I agree with this sentiment, but I also think there is a finite number of combinations of chords that people will find meaning in, and by the time of World War 2 classical composers had pretty much mined all of them. It took popular music genres even less time to exhaust themselves.

46 kk May 26, 2015 at 7:50 am

There is more to music than chords and harmony
I have never accepted western logarithmic piano tuning either. The third s sound horrible to me.

47 Critic May 14, 2015 at 11:42 am

An age in which Beethoven and Bach are not at the center of the musical universe is truly a dark age.

48 kk May 26, 2015 at 7:47 am

An age where north indian classical


49 kk May 26, 2015 at 7:46 am

Indian classical also exists. I think it will be much more popular than European classical. And let’s not forget Chinese classical music.

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