Monday, March 01, 2010

Fun with [Classical] Numbers

Classical recording sales vs. views of a new music blog.

This might seem like comparing apples and oranges. But you can do that if what you're really interested in is the makeup of the fruit salad.

The Apple

As Anne Midgette revealed in a Washington Post article,
The dirty secret of the Billboard classical charts is that album sales figures are so low, the charts are almost meaningless. Sales of 200 or 300 units are enough to land an album in the top 10. [Hilary] Hahn's No. 1 recording, after the sales spike resulting from her appearance on Conan, bolstered by blogs and press, sold 1,000 copies.
The article goes on to talk about how even the most heavily-promoted new classical recordings only sell a few hundred copies a week (including downloads).

Is this the end of classical music?

Well, I used to work for a classical record label, and even before the Internet became factor sales were around this same level for most of our titles. It was how the disc sold over the course of several years that mattered (and that's the point the article makes, too). So no, probably not.

The Orange

Composer Robert Ian Winstin recently set himself a daunting task: compose, rehearse, record and post a new piece of classical music every day in the month of February. The project, "28 in Twenty-eight" proved successful in many ways. Winstin did indeed write twenty-eight works, and it attracted an audience as well.

Most of the music was for solo piano (Winstin's a concert pianist as well as a conductor), some were chamber works, and there were even some vocal compositions.

Over 20,000 people visited the blog (and presumably listened to the music), and over 12,000 downloaded the sheet music of the compositions Winstin also made available.

Here's one of the works Winstin composed as part of the project.

Fruit Salad

So let's mix our apples and oranges. Just looking at the raw numbers, it seems more people downloaded Winstin's music then purchased Hilary Hahn's latest major label recording.

So what does that mean?

Well, Winstin's blog was open to all, and the sheet music are free downloads. Hahn's Bach performances are available for sale at fine record stores and download sites. So one could say free trumps paid. But that's not really true. If Winstin charged $.99 for each download, it would be a fairer comparison. What would the numbers be then?

I'm not sure, but in one sense it doesn't matter. If modern music -- and you can't get much more modern than last month -- is such an anathema to listeners as some believe, there shouldn't have been any downloads at all.

Are these really two different audiences? I think so.

Which lead me to this thought. The classical music industry traditionally markets to one of those audiences and virtually ignores the other. But -- just looking at those apples-to-orange numbers -- which one represents a healthier future for classical music?

- Ralph


  1. Anonymous7:33 AM

    Isn't the model in the music business these days that the recording (and CD sales) could potentially sell so poorly that they work as a loss-leader for the real commercial business of selling tickets to live events?

    And I don't know that the dichotomy implied by the term 'classical' applies in this discussion: it's old media v new (rather than classical music v popular) that drives this particular conversation (and economic modelling).

    The challenge for composers like Robert Ian Winstin is how to derive any economic value from 20,000 views and 12,000 free downloads. In theory at least some of these views/downloads will translate into a new audience prepared to pay for Winstin's work, but there is no guarantee that this will be the case. And if there is no increased audience willing to pay for the music, Winstin's only long-term option is to continue creating and recording his music at his own expense without any hope of patronage (unless he has his blog carrying advertising, in which case his music is the 21st century equivalent of the 1950s soap operas - which is no criticism, but maybe isn't the healthy future of classical music we might at first have thought it was.....?).

  2. Elissa:

    Good questions, one and all. Let me clarify a little:

    Agreed, the new model for the music business is that recordings drive concert ticket sales. For classical, though, that's never really been the case. A country artist can have a song in heavy rotation on the radio (once every 2 hours) resulting in massive exposure and definitely an ad for the live show. Most classical stations will play the same track *no sooner than* three months apart, so the recording never really serves that function.

    What I'm looking at is old vs. new media in the framework of the classical genre, which has always worked a little differently than more popular forms of music.

    Robert Ian Winstin actually does quite well, professionally. He's been a professional composer for at least 25 years now, and has always been able to make a comfortable living from his music career.

    He has an active touring schedule, his record label ERM Media has yet to have a release that's not made back its investement and then some. ( And his recordings have always been focused on living composers writing accessible music.

    The 28intwentyeight blog was just a side project. I suspect he'll be releasing the music on ERM. ERM is distributed by Naxos, the largest and most successful classical label in the world (and one of the most forward-looking when it comes to new media). You should shortly see these compositions on iTunes, featured in the Naxos podcast, and spread about online in other ways. I don't think Winstin needs to fool with banner ads, or continue to release his music for free to get his foot in the door -- he's been in the room for some time now!

    Here's what I was looking at though: the traditional venues for classical music - concert halls, radio stations, major record labels - continue to stay safely with the repertoire of the past. That audience is declining, and for the first time isn't being replenished by the next generation aging into the demographic.

    Experiments like Winstin's tell me that missing generation is interested in current musical trends, whatever the genre. If the classical audience were made up of the traditionalists, then Winstin's blog would have had perhaps a thousand or less views, and less than 500 downloads. But it didn't. So if this albeit highly specialized new music blog generated significant numbers, doesn't that suggest an even larger potential audience for a little more mainstream contemporary music?