Were Reports of Classical's Death Premature?

Over the last several weeks, one newspaper after another has made note of Nielsen Soundscan's 2006 point-of-purchase data, which showed classical record sales up 22.5%, making it the "fastest growing" category for the year. Hip-hop was down (-20.7%), R&B was down (-18.4%), alternative was down (-9.2%), jazz was down (-8.3%)—soundtracks were up (+19%), but everybody dismissed that, attributing it to the dominance of a single title, High School Musical.

Classical racked up 19.4 million records sold, which had many media outlets crowing that classical is hot again. Really? Let's put that in perspective: Total record sales for 2006 were 588.2 million—and 2006 was considered a dead year.

Whoo hoo! That's nearly 3.5%!

I don't mean to denigrate classical's first good year, especially after four years of declining sales, but I'm not popping open any vintage champers yet. First, there are a few problems with SoundScan's methodology, not least among them that the designation of what constitutes a classical release is fairly subjective. Are crossover albums, such as those by Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and pop-quartet Il Divo classical? According to SoundScan, they are—which made Il Divo's eponymous debut 2005's best selling classical recording—and the band's two albums in 2006 accounted for 1.5 million of the classical albums reported sold.

Personally, I feel that music (and hi-fi) aren't intended to be blood sports, so I'll refrain from sniffing at someone else's musical choices. Today's Il Divo devotee could well be buying Gorecki or Lauridsen on his next visit to the store.

Oh wait, store? What's that?

I suspect that what the 2006 sales figures really indicate is that classical music lovers have finally figured out that there's life after the record store. Hard times for the record industry led to harder times for record stores, especially the ones that devoted floor space to classical. Tower closed last year, and other "superstores" have cut back on the amount of shelf space they devote to marginal categories. Yet the Internet and the "long tail" theory may offer a sales model that is more efficient than the old brick-and-mortar paradigm.

In his book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Chris Anderson argued that conventional stores restricted choice, simply because shelf space was limited and expensive, but that Internet retailing allows near infinite choice and the leisure of long-return retailing—slow, steady sales accrue the same success as short-lived blockbusters.

ArkivMusic.com's Eric Feidner said practically the same thing to me when I spoke to him last December. "The classical music distribution system is a broken system because you can't really stuff all of this deep catalog product into the pipeline of distributors, wholesalers, retail stores—this whole chain of locations—to sell possibly 200 copies per year of a single title.

"In that model, the odds of a specific customer and a specific recording actually managing to get together are realistically quite low. Most of those recordings are just going to go back through that system to the label in an endless cycle of returns and shipping and deletions."

That's why Feidner took the store, the distributor, and the wholesaler out of the equation with an Internet site that gathered all that deep catalog into one place. Not only that, but ArkivMusic even tackled the "out of print" issue with production on demand.

In my humble opinion, that's a greater sign of classical's health than garnering a few per cent of the market. We'd better hope so, because it's not just what we have—it's the future.