Up off the Canvas, PT II: The Classical Comeback?

il Divo: the future of classical music? From Slate comes an article about the surprising sales of Classical Music recordings in the last year. The lede is attention-getting: “Is classical music—a genre that has spent a seeming eternity on the commercial skids—staging a comeback? That’s the buzz on Nielsen SoundScan’s 2006 report card, which listed classical as the year’s fastest-growing musical genre. In an otherwise dreary year, sales of classical albums—a figure that includes CDs, LPs, and downloaded albums—increased by 22.5 percent, or 3.57 million units. That put the genre way ahead of such laggards as jazz (down 8.3 percent), alternative (down 9.2 percent), and rap (down 20.7 percent).” Holy Cow – up 22-plus-percent? What’s going on here? Are those Christopher O’Riley-plays-Radiohead CDs and New York Philharmonic iTunes downloads making that much of a difference? Well, yes, they are…a little bit. Classical musicians and organizations have gotten a lot savvier about the Net. But the vast amount of that growth is coming from a change in what the industry counts as “classical.” For years Billboard has maintained two charts: “Classical” and “Classical Crossover” (often as related as “jazz” is to “smooth jazz”) – and in 2006 Nielsen SoundScan (the back-end data collector of Billboard and a whole bunch of other folks) simply rolled ’em together. So: Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Pierre Boulez are in the same category as Andrea Bocelli, Il Divo, and Josh Groban. And the latter three, who all released albums in 2006, combined for more than 4.6 million units of sales last year – just about the same margin of overall growth in the genre. Hmmm… But there a couple of nuggets worth paying attention to: Bocelli, Groban et al appeal most especially to women 36-50 years old – and most classical programmers aren’t realing paying attention to them as a demographic group. Two that are are Classic FM in the UK (who just happen to be the most popular classical radio station in the world), and WBKK in Albany, NY – a fascinating attempt at programming a classical public radio station a little differently. Worth a listen. (Full disclosure: WBKK PD Christopher Wienk is a colleague and RoeDeo‘s webmaster – doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fascinating experiment.)

Nugget No. 2 is the Songs from the Labryinth album by Sting …his hyper-produced interpretations of 17th-century lute master John Dowland. Turns out that was the biggest-selling “true” classical recording of 2006 – and tonight you can watch him do his Dowland thing on PBS. Bully for him – and if he does any Dowland during the upcoming Police reunion tour, double bully. But will that actually help fortysomethings (like that aforementioned Il Divo Demo) really discover Dowland? If only the album were better – and Sting sang “Flow My Tears” with the same conviction as he sings “King of Pain.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, the Guardian, the L.A. Times, etc. all loved it. I’m more in tune with Timothy Jarrett at Blogcritics.com:Seriously, there are vocal lines that sound as though they’re sung through dentures. Worse, there’s no variation to the vocal lines: the performances are note-note-note, with little or no vocal inflection and no phrasing. Then there’s the overdubbing. Awkward as the solo lines are, they sound like sheer genius compared to the same voice in two part harmony.