When The Music Stops

An acquaintance in the world of CD distribution recently gave me an astonishing statistic: that the average classical title sells fewer than 2000 copies worldwide in its first year of release; which in turn means that many titles sell only about 500 copies! Given that the cost of producing a classical orchestral album can include up to $100,000 in union-mandated musician fees, such minimal sales guarantee financial disaster.

Another problem is that the big classical bestsellers are almost all "freaks" aimed at the mass market: the notorious Three Tenors album and EMI's Chant, for example, or the various orchestral compilations released by Victoria's Secret. All that's left for the traditional labels is the fringe, where small, so-called "independent" labels such as Harmonia Mundi, Telarc, ECM, and Nonesuch have traditionally found a comfortable home.

Classical companies are therefore cutting back both on their artist signings and their release schedules of the core catalog. In general, however, recorded music sales appear to be healthy, to judge from the official RIAA statistics (see this issue's "Industry Update," p.29, and "Final Word," p.226). But classical sales are shifting away from the major labels and toward both their own back catalogs and aggressive cut-price (but not cut-quality) labels like Naxos.

But why are classical CD sales so low?

I went to my first classical concert—an organized trip for members of our school orchestra to London's Royal Festival Hall—almost 35 years ago. (I remember that the program included Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, but nothing else other than that the sound was viscerally exciting and intellectually stimulating.) It didn't surprise me that I was one of the youngest members of that 1963 audience. But when Wes Phillips, Gretchen Grogan, and I were recently recording a killer performance of Brahms' A-Major Piano Quartet at the 1997 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival for release on a Stereophile CD, I was perturbed that, a year short of my 50th birthday, I was apparently still younger than almost all the enthusiastic audience—as I was at last year's excellent Arizona Opera performance of Wagner's Ring in Flagstaff.

Music Editor Robert Baird touched on this subject in his July "Aural Robert" column (Vol.20 No.7, p.141) when he pointed out that, for most listeners, classical music was "their parents' music." In this month's "Letters" (p.13), reader Paul Canis is even more extreme: classical music is "grandparents' music," he says. From my live classical music experiences, I suspect Mr. Canis is right.

Recording engineer Peter McGrath has postulated that the abandonment of music education in schools in favor of team sports is a major factor here. But that sadly misguided policy has only really started to bite in the 1990s, and doesn't explain the current malaise. In his bestselling 1996 UK book When the Music Stops, Norman Lebrecht argued that the Herbie von K. classical-superstar syndrome has deprived the core of the classical music industry of financial sustenance.

But as RB pointed out in July, the real point is relevance: Other than sounding "nice," mainstream classical music just doesn't seem to have anything to say to people under 40. The result is the relegation of much of the world's great music to the museum. Anyone know how we can get it back into the streets?—John Atkinson