Classical Music Lovers Keen Downloaders

Surprise! If you love Beethoven, Schnittke, Reich, and Richard Strauss, and frequently play classical music on your iPod or hard drive, you're far from alone. Results of an Internet poll of classical music listeners commissioned by the British magazine Gramophone reveal that 75% of those surveyed use 21st-century media—everything from PCs to MP3 players—and 57% have ripped some of their classical CD collection to another digital format. In fact, 20% of respondents not only download classical music legally, but prefer to listen to it on their MP3 or other digital music player.

James Jolly, Gramophone's anything-but-aged editor-in-chief, told Stereophile that the detailed online survey was initially sent to 500 classical music lovers in the UK. Then, shortly before the response deadline, it was also forwarded to Gramophone's e-list subscribers.

Given that most aficionados of classical music are keen to share their opinions—Gramophone usually receives 10% of replies to online surveys within 10 minutes of posting—Jolly conjectures that the response rate was pretty high. Of those who completed the survey in time, 80% were from the UK. Respondents were pretty equally spread among three age groups: 18–33, 34–49, and 50 and over.

Catch these figures: In the UK, the average number of classical downloads in the last year was 12, almost equal to the average 12.7 CDs purchased. The over-50 set kept up with younger classical-music fans, buying an average of 11.5 downloads last year. Of classical buffs who don't already own an MP3 player, 30% say they will buy one in the next year, and another third say they will do so at some point.

As for downloads ringing the death knell for classical music, nothing could be further from the truth—at least in the UK, where 30% of CD buyers say they'll buy more classical CDs next year, 52% of classical downloaders intend to keep downloading, and 22% of those who haven't yet downloaded promise to give it a try in the next 12 months.

Legal downloading also seems to stimulate rather than threaten CD sales: Only 6% of downloaders believe they'll buy fewer CDs in the coming year: 83% listen on traditional audio equipment (CD players and the like); and 74% listen to classical music on the radio.

While Beethoven and Mozart were the most popular composers among first-time downloaders, those over 50 were also as likely to download contemporary music. In fact, 50% of over-50 first-time downloaders chose the works of website-savvy Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as frequently as Beethoven.

The UK is blessed with both BBC Radio 3 (now in its 60th year) and Classical FM, and the survey revealed that radio is the most trusted source of information about classical music.

"I'm very pleasantly surprised at how technologically aware our readers are," Jolly said in a phone interview. "I'm impressed at how the downloading figures are flat and extend throughout the age range, and how older iPod users tend to download more contemporary music than the younger generation."

Jolly expects an increasing proportion of new classical releases to be available only for download in the coming year. While he personally will not download anything at speeds less than 192kbps he surmises that most of those who complain about the sound quality of downloaded music have never heard it. "The sound that comes out of an iPod is a million times better than what we listened to as teenagers," he says.

Gramophone is about to conduct a detailed survey to find out whether classical downloaders prefer lossy or lossless audio files. While the results are expected to be available in six weeks, they may not be released to the public for a few months. Were a large majority of downloaders to express a preference for higher-resolution files, one would hope that online purveyors of classical music would sit up and take notice.