The Download Waltz

I had a nice chat recently with Mark Berry, publicist for classical music’s Naxos label. Naxos, for those unfamiliar, is a label with one hell of a back story.

Once they were just purveyors of ultra cheap CDs of classical music, much of it played by ridiculous, unheard of ensembles with names like the North Bratislava Radio Orchestra. Their records, often packed in large cardboard display boxes that stores like Tower would just put out as is, caused a moral split among classical music fans.

One camp held that the label and its owner Klaus Heymann were systematically lowering tastes with inferior performances by inferior bands. The theory there was if you hear Beethoven for the first time played by amateurs, you’d never be able to distinguish mediocre from great performances.

On the other side, the feeling was hey, if people were listening to classical music, or even better, buying classical records, at a time when the music was declining rapidly in popularity, then everything else was secondary.

Over time Naxos has upped the quality of its performances considerably. For evidence, look no further than Stereophile’s Recording of the Month page. We’ve chosen several Naxos records in recent months.They are now a major force, both in terms of quality and sales, in what’s left of the classical music segment of the record business. All of which makes some numbers that Mark gave me all the more relevant.

In 2004, only 3% of Naxos sales came from downloads. In 2005 that number rose to 8%. In the first quarter of 2006, that same measure was up to 17%.

When it comes to the label’s core classical records, 20% of sales comes from downloads but newer releases, like two CD, The Very Best of Mozart release are seeing 80% of sales coming from downloads. This despite the fact that the Naxos website is not exactly state of the art.

Yes folks its true, the last frontier of CD buying, classical music and it’s often less–than–computer–savy fans is now becoming downloadville.