Internet: Only Hope for Classical Music?

Record stores are devoting a diminishing amount of space to classical music, to the dismay of music lovers. Online distribution may offer hope for the genre, according to an in-depth report by Anthony Tommasini in the October 21 edition of the New York Times.

This past spring, financially troubled Tower Records issued a memo to its stores to stop buying from several independent record distributors, including Allegro, Qualiton, and Harmonia Mundi USA. The news was particularly disquieting for fans of classical music: The three distributors account for dozens of small specialty labels, and Tower has long prided itself on being a "deep catalog" operation, whose stores stocked almost any recording in print, even those that sold only a few copies per year.

Tower's move to cut its classical offerings wasn't motivated only by monetary necessity. It was also a response to changes in the music market, where demand for classical music has diminished from about 7% of the total market in the early 1990s to only about 3% today. The decrease is commonly attributed to a decline in music education in the public schools, and saturation among classical fans, many of whom are purchasing less as their CD music libraries have grown. As is true for other genres, once the process of converting LP collections to CD nears completion, demand for titles in that genre declines.

Record stores admit that they can no longer afford to devote space to products that don't move. Decreased availability means decreased exposure—a self-reinforcing cycle that music fans and record executives fear could lead to the ultimate demise of many small labels.

Online distribution may offer the solution for both music lovers and record labels, according to Tommasini. The obstacle is that many classical music fans are older and may not be very adept with computers—or even aware of how much is available on the Internet. Susan Bush, who runs Albany Music Distributors, representing 90 small labels, told Tommasini that "the pullback at Tower Records really hurt," and wonders how classical fans, who are accustomed to browsing the bins and chatting with knowledgeable clerks, will adapt to the new environment.

"Our perception is that many classical consumers are browsers, and older, and sometimes not even computer-literate," Bush stated. "We sometimes put out only 200 copies of a recording. But I'm convinced there are 200 people out there who will want it. We as an industry haven't come up with another way of reaching them." Tommasini points out that the Internet is the logical alternative, "although some traditional collectors may not like it." Convincing them otherwise could help to save an art form in danger of extinction; both classical musicians and major record labels have already moved in that direction.