Banging Our Heads Against The Wall

Anne Midgette brings news of the truly appalling state of classical music record sales in America. Searching for additional adjectives has proved to be rather futile. All that is coming to mind is shock. Miss Mussel knew it was bad, but this is miles beyond any scenario she could possibly have imagined.

If, as Anne reports, the top 25 classical music discs sell a combined total of 5,000 copies/week, record companies have a serious problem. It isn’t that classical music is less cool than it was 30 years ago. Sony, Universal, DG et al have loads of money for publicity, so if they can’t reach their audience, it isn’t unreasonable to assume it can’t be done. The market has spoken. No one wants to buy classical music discs as they are currently presented.

Worrisome to be sure, but what is even more troubling is that the big record companies don’t appear to have realized. If they have, and are planning on ignoring the problem in the hopes that it will sort itself out, perhaps they should take a wee peek at the how that worked out for their banking colleagues. When you start running a Ponzi scheme on yourself, the end is inevitable.

Someone once told Miss Mussel that if what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else. Blaming other people for not responding in the manner you wish them to doesn’t cure the disease, it just prolongs death.

Once that philosophy is adopted, the not-inconsiderable problem of working out what something else is presents itself. In this respect, Miss Mussel does empathize with the labels. The audience for classical music is small to begin with and is heavily Balkanized. Opera superfans would rarely buy a chamber music disc just as choir enthusiasts aren’t lining up around the block for the new Thomas Ades disc. The lines in the sand are softening somewhat as the Shuffle generation grows up but it won’t take much of the ruts inevitably worn by passing years to rein in this current fad for omnivorous consumption.

The gravy train of guaranteed sales has left the station for the last time, leaving the labels standing rather forlornly on the platform. So far, most have just managed to shuffle around a bit, read a timetable or two and hope that another train turns up before their sandwiches run out. Some, like OnyxClassics, worked out that the train was gone for good and found there were other ways to be make a go of it.

Another version of Beethoven 7 clearly isn’t going to do it. Genuinely imaginative programming just might. Things that don’t usually go together; valuing the continuity of the program over what fits on a disc; thinking of discs as a concert rather than an archive — all of these would boost the value of records immensely.

Youtube came out of nowhere and, without much fanfare, usurped the archival responsibility that was borne by the record. If you want to hear Marion Anderson sing, why go to the trouble to order something on Amazon when you can hearand see her immediately for free? For audiophiles there is no comparison and often the visual portion of the film is a bit of a letdown but if you just want to get an idea, Youtube is without peer.

We are rapidly reaching the point where everything that can be said has been. Of course, there is always room for new voices and the very best will rise to the top no matter what happens, but the focus has switched from what you say to how you say it.

Remixes, collaborations and mashups are enormously popular in most other genres. Some of them are silly and derivative but others produce something that is even more wonderful than the source material. It’s time for the labels to be bold and allow artists greater latitude with their projects. Rejecting less-than-traditional album concepts because of commercial considerations is no longer valid. If a top-ten disc by a top-tier artist can only manage 189 copies in a week, the current system is clearly broken.

Stapling some mad beatz onto everything certainly isn’t the future but Miss Mussel is excited about what might be. Our postmodern ears less prone to bridling when disparate things are presented in the same space. Labels need to take advantage of this freedom rather than continually trying make the old model fit. In short, it’s time to make some adjustments to the machinery and start making round pegs. Otherwise, all we’ll be left with is a pile of splinters and loads of bruised thumbs.


  1. Wow, this is a particularly poetic paean to the death of an industry that hasn’t yet happened. Great to see Anne’s article got so much attention but she clearly left out quite a lot of positive things in classical music sales, and got others to jump in as well. First and most importantly, plenty of outlets don’t report to Soundscan. Never have. Never will. We at Naxos ship tens of thousands of units annually to concert halls and presenters around North America to cover programmed repertoire and facilitate post-concert signings with hundreds of artists on dozens of labels. Easily 99% of these venues do not report to SS and are often staffed by volunteers. Furthermore, SS doesn’t even track sales at at least three of our biggest customers. When tracking sales on Amazon, b&m chain retail and select indies, SS does fine. But don’t paint a picture that classical sales are dead based on the Soundscan classical chart. Most of us in this industry stopped paying attention to that quite a while ago. Why not cover the fact that much of what makes up that chart would not be considered “classical” by anyone in this business, including bloggers and critics? See the Proper Discord blog as he can say it a lot more eloquently than I.

    Lastly, SS doesn’t account for library and institution sales throughout the US. Every day we ship to public, research and music libraries plenty of compact discs, in addition to our Naxos Music Library product, which now has thousands of subscribers.

    As for everything being said that needs to be said, I reject that outright as a musician and as a music lover. In fact, I think there’s never been a better time to be a fan of classical music or to discover this rich and evolving legacy for the first time. Epitaphs for its death are nearly as old as the tradition itself, and boring and overused. Perhaps the major labels are suffering in old models, but not everyone is.

  2. Peter

    I like your style of writing Miss Mussell. Very well put. I’m starting to enjoy classical music as i get older. It’s extremely relaxing and soothing. Although I would have to say that i am still a novice within the genre.

  3. I think that the problem with the classical music as us older folks know it is that is gets no credit from today’s generation. Rap, “Pop” and other forms of music tend to give a bad name to classical music.

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